Let’s Have a Racist Hallowe’en

costume_chinaman

Hallowe’en is my favourite annual holiday. Something about having a holiday that centers around creativity makes my heart go pitter-patter. Every year, I enjoy coming up with a novel Hallowe’en costume idea and making a one-of-a-kind costume, put together with thrift store finds or made with a hot glue gun and some fabric.

Yet, Hallowe’en is also the time when the racial stereotypes and political incorrectness come out and play. In the rush to find something “unusual” to be for Hallowe’en, too often folks fall back on a racist or offensive costume idea. The “it’s all in good fun” nature of Hallowe’en is somehow expected to excuse discriminatory and dehumanizing racism. And I think it taints a wonderful holiday.  

This past weekend, I went to a local store to help electroman put together his Hallowe’en costume. The particular store we were in was a large, well-known vintage store in Tucson, that sells clothes dating as far back as the 1900’s. Electroman was trying on items while I wandered the store searching for other choice finds.

On the other side of a rack of clothes I was examining, three tween girls were thumbing through some pre-made costumes. They were conversing about what they wanted to be for Hallowe’en; not an unusual conversation since everyone in the store was trying to put together a costume. Then, one girl turned to the others and said: “I should be an Asian for Hallowe’en”.

Excuse me?!?

How, exactly, can you be “Asian” for Hallowe’en? Do you smear yellow paint on your face, pull your eyes back in a Miley Cyrus “chinky eye”, dye your hair black, and greet everyone with a hearty “ni hao”? Do you wear one of the five thousand chi pao that vintage stores readily carry? And how is being “Asian” an appropriate thing to be for Hallowe’en? Are we some mythical creature like a ghost, a goblin, or a witch?

Could you imagine opening your door on Hallowe’en eve to see a group of kids trick-or-treating? “Oh, you must be a werewolf! And you’re Buzz Lightyear! And how about that? You’re a vampire. And you? Why how quaint, you’re a Japanese!”

I had heard the comment before I saw the girls. I wheeled around immediately, furious. But, by the time I turned, the girls were gone — they had disappeared into the crowds of people in the store and by the time I caught sight of them again, they were vanishing back into the streets of Tucson.

Frustrated, I returned to Electroman, and practically tossed clothes in his face. For the rest of the afternoon, I was seething that I hadn’t had the opportunity to confront the girls. I rehearsed in my mind the thousand and one scenarios in which I would have confronted the girls in a thousand and one different ways. In a few, I deliver a witty and sardonic one-liner before turning away in disgust. Or, I am calm, professorial, and I make the incident a “teaching moment”. In others, the girls get defensive and it all comes to blows. In still others, each girl runs away sobbing. Or, in my favourites, I handily launch each of the girls one-at-a-time through the display windows of the store; there’s blood and glass everywhere and I go to jail. Yet, I had no outlet with which to express my anger; the girls were gone and I was left the victim of hit-and-run racism.

They say that we live in a post-racial America. Yesterday, you sure could’ve fooled me.

Chris Lu Talks About Being Cabinet Secretary

chrislu

The Washington Post is running a series called “Voices of Power” wherein top White House staffers are interviewed about their positions in the Obama administration. Today, the Post published video and a transcript of their conversation with Chris Lu, who, as Assistant to the President and Cabinet Secretary, is one of the most prominent Asian Americans in the White House.

The full transcript is five pages long, but I found Lu’s comments about his identity as an Asian American in the White House intriguing:

You are among the most senior Asian-Americans in the administration and in the White House. What does that mean to you?

Mr. Lu: It means a lot to me. My parents were both born in China. They moved to Taiwan for grade school and high school. They both emigrated here in the late ’50s for college.

There is not a day that goes by that, as I park my car by the West Wing and walk into my office in the West Wing, that I don’t think about my parents and how fortunate I am and how this incredible opportunity that I have is not only the result of what I’ve accomplished, but all that they’ve accomplished, as well as all that other Asian-Americans before me.

This is a story that sounds so similar to my own, and to the stories of so many second-generation Chinese Americans. My parents, also from Taiwan, faced such hardship as first-generation immigrants, and only now am I starting to hear about the kind of discrimination they dealt with. At the risk of sounding all “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” —  it’s amazing to see how second-generation kids like Lu are elevated to such positions of influence. It’s a testament to how hard our parents worked to give us opportunities.

I also enjoyed reading about Lu’s first trip to China, which happened to be as part of an official White House delegation that included Department of Commerce Secretary Gary Locke and Department of Energy Secretary Steven Chu. Like too many second-generation Asian Americans, Lu speaks minimal Chinese but he still found his ability to understand the language useful while in China.

Ms. Romano: The first time you actually set foot on Chinese soil was last summer; is that correct?

Mr. Lu: That’s right. This past summer

Ms. Romano: As a representative of this administration. What was that like?

Mr. Lu: It was incredible. [My parents] had both gone back to China numerous times. For a variety of reasons, I had just never had the time to go back.

And to get to go to China on your first trip as part of an official delegation was just really–I mean it–I was speechless.

And the funny thing, with each meeting, Secretary [Gary] Locke or Secretary [Steven] Chu would always ask me to say something. And I remember being completely tongue-tied in a meeting with the Chinese Premier, where Secretary Locke turned to me and said, “Mr. Premier, I want to introduce to you Chris Lu. This is his first trip to China. Chris, would you like to say something to the Premier?”

And all that came out of my mouth was, “Thank you. Thank you for having us here.”

Ms. Romano: And how did the Chinese react to you all?

Mr. Lu: I think they felt a–they felt a kinship to us. All three of us are Chinese-Americans. We all obviously represent the American government. That’s obviously our first priority. But they felt a kinship. The fact that to varying degrees we all understand some Chinese, we can all say some words of Chinese I think made the conversation and made the meetings a little bit more personal.

Ms. Romano: Do you think it mattered to them that the Administration sent over their top three Asian-Americans?

Mr. Lu: I do. Yeah, I do think it mattered. In Chinese culture, relationships are very important. And having Chinese-Americans come over as the representatives of the government I think was important.

I took Chinese classes on Saturday mornings for 13 years, and for most of that time, I hated it. It was something my mom made me do, and I couldn’t understand why I had to spend my days at a Chinese cultural center while all my friends got to sleep in and watch Saturday morning cartoons.

Only as I got older did I realize the value of learning about my language and my heritage. When I was fourteen or so, my mother gave my sister and I the choice to quit Chinese classes or to continue taking them until we graduated from high school. I volunteered to continue while my sister quit.

I can’t say I was ever the best student of Chinese school; many Saturday mornings I skipped or just refused to do my homework, and I barely passed the last class. But, because of my attendance in those classes, I can speak Mandarin passably, and I have nominal reading and writing skills.

But I didn’t truly appreciate the value of being able to speak Mandarin until I started interacting with more second- or third- generation Asian Americans who never were enrolled in Chinese classes. Many of them can only understand Chinese, but can’t speak it beyond a few words (mostly related to food). Most of them can’t write their names.

My mother always used to say that even though we were in North America, our faces looked Chinese; we will always be different and we can’t lose touch with what that means. Now that I am an adult, and living as an Asian person in America, I find myself truly respecting the unique language and culture that is, regardless of time and distance, a part of me.

Which is all a roundabout way of saying this: thanks, Mom, for making me go to Chinese school. I wish more second-generation Chinese American kids could speak Mandarin; at least so that folks like Chris Lu can go to China and actually hold a prolonged conversation with the Chinese premier when he gets a chance to meet him.

Yul Kwon Joins FCC

yul-kwon

Yul Kwon, the first Asian American to win Survivor (who used his notoriety from his victory to champion Asian American causes in the media), announced by email today that he recently joined the FCC as Deputy Chief of the Consumer and Governmental Affairs Bureau.

Here’s the press release:

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE                                                                                 
October 21, 2009                                                                                

FCC CHAIRMAN JULIUS GENACHOWSKI ANNOUNCES SENIOR STAFF IN INTERNATIONAL AND CONSUMER AND GOVERNMENTAL AFFAIRS BUREAUS 

Washington, DC — Today, Federal Communications Commission Chairman Julius Genachowski announced the appointment of Mindel De La Torre as Chief of the International Bureau and Yul Kwon as Deputy Chief of the Consumer and Governmental Affairs Bureau. 

“The FCC has an important role to play in empowering and protecting consumers and ensuring that they have access to world-leading communications networks and technologies,” said Chairman Genachowski. “These talented individuals have vast public and private sector experience in communications policy and I am delighted to have their expertise at the agency.”

 Chief, International Bureau, Mindel De La Torre. Since 1998, Ms. De La Torre has been the president of the consulting firm Telecommunications Management Group, Inc. (TMG).  Prior to joining TMG, Ms. De La Torre was the deputy chief of the Telecommunications Division at the International Bureau, which she joined in December 1994.  Ms. De La Torre also worked at the Department of Commerce — for over four years at the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) and for three years in the General Counsel’s office.  She has been a member of various U.S. delegations to International Telecommunication Union conferences, such as World Radiocommunication Conferences, World Telecommunication Development Conferences, and Plenipotentiary Conferences. Ms. De La Torre has a B.A. from Vanderbilt University and a J.D. from the University of Texas.  Having lived overseas most of her life, she speaks fluent Portuguese, French, and Spanish, and is proficient in Italian.

 Deputy Chief, Consumer and Governmental Affairs Bureau, Yul Kwon. Mr. Kwon’s diverse career spans across law, technology, business, and media. His government experience includes lecturing at the FBI Academy, drafting science and technology legislation as an aide to Senator Joseph Lieberman, and clerking for Judge Barrington D. Parker on the 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals. In the business and technology sector, Mr. Kwon has held positions at McKinsey & Company, Google, and the Trium Group. He also practiced law as an attorney at Harris, Wiltshire & Grannis and at Venture Law Group. In 2006, Mr. Kwon became the first Asian American to win the CBS reality show, Survivor. His subsequent media activities include working as a special correspondent for CNN and as a co-host for the Discovery Channel. Mr. Kwon obtained his B.S. degree in Symbolic Systems from Stanford University and his J.D. from Yale Law School, where he served on the editorial board of the Yale Law Journal. 

 –FCC–

 News and other information about the FCC is available at www.fcc.gov

It’s good to see Yul getting back into public service! He has been an amazing advocate for the Asian American community, and I always appreciate his intelligent and insightful perspectives on Asian Americans and the media. Yul was also a big proponent of improving Asian American voter outreach and political participation during the ’08 election, a commitment which was of tremendous importance during that (and any) election.

If my archives hadn’t been deleted, I’d include a link to my interview with Yul here. Stupid blog restart.

In his email announcing his new position, Yul muses on the irony of joining the FCC, which has, at times “imposed fines for the kind of wardrobe malfunctions that seem to be an ever-present risk on the TV show that propelled [him] to public recognition in the first place.” Could this be a not-so-veiled reference to Yul’s own apparent love/hate relationship with clothing on his season of Survivor? The image included in this post is one of the few I could find on Google Image of Yul where he’s got a shirt on: most of the other ones on the Internet would be enough to make any FCC Deputy Chief blush.

Shirtlessness aside: congratulations, Yul! I’m sure your thoughtful perspectives and history of great advocacy work will ensure incredible success at the FCC!

President Obama Signs E.O. on AAPIs

Yesterday was a very big day for America’s Asian American and Pacific Islander community. In conjunction with a Diwali celebration, President Obama signed an executive order that reestablished an advisory committee and a White House iniative on Asian American and Pacific Islanders. The advisory committee was first established by President Clinton ten years ago, but was eliminated by President Bush in favour of a committee housed under the Department of Commerce that focused primarily on economic issues within the APIA community, ignoring other issues like healthcare, language and education.

Here is video of President Obama’s speech and the signing of the Executive Order:

What I really loved about the speech that President Obama gave was that it discussed the issues facing the Asian American community in language that really suggested familiarity with ongoing concerns. President Obama referenced the “model minority myth” and talked about high prevalence of specific diseases. These are problems that the APIA community has been dealing with for years, and I feel as if for the first time in a long time, they are finally receiving the national attention that our people merit.

Our AAPI communities have roots that span the globe, but they embody a rich diversity, and a story of striving and success that are uniquely American.

But focusing on all of these achievements doesn’t tell the whole story, and that’s part of why we’re here. It’s tempting, given the strengths of the Asian American and Pacific Islander communities, for us to buy into the myth of the “model minority,” and to overlook the very real challenges that certain Asian American and Pacific Islander communities are facing: from health disparities like higher rates of diabetes and Hepatitis B; to educational disparities that still exist in some communities — high dropout rates, low college enrollment rates; to economic disparities — higher rates of poverty in some communities, and barriers to employment and workplace advancement in others.

Some Asian American and Pacific Islanders, particularly new Americans and refugees, still face language barriers. Others have been victims of unthinkable hate crimes, particularly in the months after September 11th — crimes driven by ignorance and prejudice that are an affront to everything that this nation stands for.

And then there are the disparities that we don’t even know about because our data collection methods still aren’t up to par. Too often, Asian American and Pacific Islanders are all lumped into one category, so we don’t have accurate numbers reflecting the challenges of each individual community. Smaller communities in particular can get lost, their needs and concerns buried in a spreadsheet.

In particular, I was delighted to hear President Obama talk about the lack of adequate studies that specifically delve into the problems of the APIA community. Above all issues, I think our community suffers from a general lack of good, high-quality data; we simply don’t know the scope and the depth of the problems we face as a racial/ethnic population. Too often, we still rely on anecdotes and stories; it’s hard to lobby for change when we can’t adequately convince others that there is a problem with concrete facts, figures and numbers.

The missions of the new advisory committee and White House initiative are outlined in the text of the Executive Order President Obama signed yesterday. Listed here are the goals of the White House Initiative:

  1. identify Federal programs in which AAPIs may be underserved and improve the quality of life for AAPIs through increased participation in these programs;
  2. identify ways to foster the recruitment, career development, and advancement of AAPIs in the Federal Government; 
  3. identify high-priority action items for which measurable progress may be achieved within 2 years to improve the health, environment, opportunity, and well-being of AAPIs, and implement those action items;
  4. increase public-sector, private-sector, and community involvement in improving the health, environment, opportunity, and well-being of AAPIs;
  5. foster evidence-based research, data-collection, and analysis on AAPI populations and subpopulations, including research and data on public health, environment, education, housing, employment, and other economic indicators of AAPI community well-being; and
  6. solicit public input from AAPI communities on ways to increase and improve opportunities for public participation in Federal programs considering a number of factors, including language barriers.

If even just some of these goals are met by the time the effects of this Executive Order expire, two years from now, than our community will be incredibly well-served. I look forward to seeing what comes from the events set in motion by yesterday. Hopefully by this time next year, we might even have a federally-funded study looking at specific disparities faced by members of the Asian American community!

I applaud President Obama’s intiative in helping the APIA community. As he promised on the campaign trail, as president Barack Obama would return attention to the nation’s must under-served, and most-deserving, people. As Barack Obama said in his speech yesterday, no community should be invisible to their government; yesterday, the president took steps to bring the issues of our community out of the shadows.

***

APIAVote distributed the following press release regarding yesterday’s signing of the Executive Order on Asian American Pacific Islanders:

APIAVote Lauds the Reestablishment of the White House Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders

WASHINGTON– Today, President Barack Obama signed an Executive Order reestablishing the White House Initiative on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, an executive order established a decade ago by President Bill Clinton to improve the quality of life in underserved AAPI communities through increased participation in federal programs.

“We are heartened by President Obama’s signing of the executive order for the White House Initiative on AAPIs, which shows tremendous commitment to addressing the needs of the AAPI community, including better data collection and disaggregation, as well as increased and substantive access to federal agencies and programs,” said APIAVote Deputy Director, Naomi Tacuyan Underwood, who was present for the signing along with APIAVote Chair and co-founder Daphne Kwok. “We specifically hope to improve working relationships with federal agencies like the Department of Justice and the Election Assistance Commission as well as other federal agencies to improve access to the voting booth for AAPIs.”

As the Executive Order states, the Initiative “will work to improve the quality of life and opportunities for AAPIs through increased access to, and participation in, Federal programs in which they may be underserved. In addition, each will work to advance relevant evidence-based research, data collection, and analysis for AAPI populations and subpopulations.”

The White House Initiative will be housed under the Department of Education to be co-chaired by Secretary of Education Arnie Duncan and Secretary of Commerce Gary Locke, and by a yet-to-be-named Executive Director. The Initiative will consist of a federal inter-agency working group comprised of staff from various agencies, which will be overseen by a Commission comprised of AAPI leaders and experts in various sectors. The Commission’s role is to advise the President, through the Secretaries of Education and Commerce, on executive branch efforts to improve the quality of life of AAPIs through the compilation of research and data related to AAPI populations and sub-populations; development, monitoring, and coordination of Federal efforts to improve the economic and community development of AAPI businesses; implement strategies to increase public and private-sector collaboration; and foster community involvement in improving the health, education, environment, and well-being of AAPIs.

Anti-Asian Bias in College Admissions?: Part 1 – An improper comparison

 

asian-student

This post is broken into two parts for the sake of length:

Since the implementation of affirmative action in the college admissions process, opponents of the policy have alleged anti-White and anti-Asian bias that reduces the chances of White and Asian high school students applying to elite colleges. Recently, a study conducted by Princeton sociologist Thomas Espenshade (published in the book No Longer Separate, Not Yet Equal: Race and Class in Elite College Admission and Campus Life) presented data that appear to support this notion.

First of all, I should point out that the primary data Espenshade analyzed were collected in 1997. But, it’s likely that the trends that Espenshade report remain in effect, since there have been no major changes to the college admissions process nationwide since then, nor have we seen significant changes in student demographics.

The “Scary Graph”: what does it mean?

Espenshade shows that middle class Asian students have a reduced probability of being accepted into private universities compared to students of other races (I re-created the graph below from page 7 of this presentation of Espenshade’s data, eliminating upper- and lower- class students, but the trends are roughly the same).

asian-collegeadmissions

This graph looks pretty alarming until you consider the following applicant demographics, compared to national demographic information:

asian-applicantsvsdemographics

What this graph is showing you is that while Asian Americans are roughly 4% of the U.S. population, we represent nearly a quarter of all applicants to the institutions studied by Espenshade. For some universities, this can reach as high as 1/3 — and many of these applicants boast high SAT scores and high school GPAs. Many of these students also come from higher-income families compared to Black and Latino applicants, and therefore have access to better educational opportunities to help improve their scores. In addition, Espenshade’s data show that, compared to other races, Asian American applicants appear to preferentially apply to private institutions, which causes an even more dramatic increase in our applicant number.

Basically, the admissions percentage is low for Asians is at least in part because so many college applicants are Asian/Asian American. You can think of it this way: if 50 White students, 25 Asian students and 5 Black students are accepted to a college, but there are 100 White applicants, 75 Asian applicants and 10 Black applicants, your probability of being accepted based on race is as follows: 50% for Whites and Blacks, and only 33% for Asians — even if the absolute number of acceptances are still higher.

And certainly, we must remember that Espenshade’s study does not consider non-numerical aspects of applicant portfolios; admissions boards often favour applicants who have acceptable scores but who have also demonstrated a diversity of talents or interests, including music, athleticism, or art.

But what can’t be denied from Espenshade’s data is this: if you’re an Asian American high school student, you are competing against a lot of other, highly-talented White, Black and Asian American applicants and you have a lower probability of being accepted based on race compared to applicants of other races.

But does this mean there’s “anti-Asian bias”?

Searching for “anti-Asian bias”: an improper comparison

I caution against coming to the conclusion that Asian Americans are patently discriminated against in the college admissions process. Instead, I think what we’re seeing is the flip side of affirmative action: affirmative action argues that, all other factors being equal, an applicant who is a member of an underrepresented minority (whether race-based or class-based) will be preferred over a similar candidate who is not of an underrepresented minority.

And Asian Americans are anything but underrepresented in higher education. This columnist pulled racial demographics at Ivy League institutions from CollegeBoard.com and found that at all of these colleges, which practice affirmative action in their admissions processes, Asian/Asian Americans are over-represented compared to our national demographics:

percent-asian

Clearly, college admissions board aren’t outright refusing Asian American applicants based solely on race. In fact, even with affirmative action in place, Asian Americans are four times better represented at elite universities compared to our national population.

What this also means, however, is that because Asian Americans are so well represented in higher education, there is no racial “preference” for Asian/Asian American applicants based solely on race (Espenshade’s data shows high probability of acceptance for lower-class Asian Americans, which hints that less well-represented Asian ethnicities who also tend to come from lower-income families are still beneficiaries of affirmative action). Thus, we cannot compare the probability of acceptance rates for Asian Americans against those of underrepresented minorities; with affirmative action in place, those probabilities will — by definition –be higher for Black, Latino and Native American applicants. It’s not that we’re being biased against in affirmative action practices, it’s simply that we’re not benefiting from affirmative action — nor should well-represented Asian ethnicities be beneficiaries of affirmative action.

Nonetheless, this kind of comparison is tempting, because it is fueled by the entitlement complex that those who are not underrepresented minorities tend to feel. An Asian American applicant, who scores highly on his or her SAT test expects to be accepted, but, when they do not get in compared to a Black or Hispanic Non-White applicant who does, they feel as if life’s unfair. How often have applicants to college (or law school, or medical school) complained that “less qualified” minorities are skating through the admissions process on the back of affirmative action policies?

The bottom line is that underrepresented minorities are not skating through the admissions process. Universities will only accept applicants that meet a certain minimum standard for GPA and SAT — so no student, be they Black, White or Asian, accepted into college is actually unqualified. Moreover, the characterization of lower-scoring applicants who are accepted into college based, in part, on affirmative action relies on the assumption that SAT scores directly correlate with success in college life: yet, studies on the effectiveness by which SAT scores predict college success remain conflicted on whether the SATs are truly a good indicator that an applicant is “qualified” for college life. In addition, critics of the standardized tests argue that the SAT and other tests are culturally biased, and that higher-class applicants fare better in part because they can pay for test-taking prep classes that help them achieve a higher score. In other words, someone who scores a perfect score on the SATs may not actually be “better qualified” than another applicant who scores lower. Moreover, scoring highly on the SATs does not guarantee acceptance into top schools; schools nowadays emphasize breadth as well as depth, and seek out applicants who do well academically while pursuing diverse, non-academic interests.

Because of unequal opportunities that unfairly disadvantage Black and Non-White Hispanic students in college admissions, affirmative action seeks to improve representation of these minorities in each incoming student body, by preferentially choosing the underrepresented minority student when compared to a student of similar standing who is not underrepresented. As far as I can tell, this is one of the few ways affirmative action is put into practice, based on the ruling by the Supreme Court  that found explicit racial quotas unconstitutional.

Thus, because neither Whites nor Asians are underrepresented on the campuses of elite universities (and thus don’t benefit from affirmative action), comparing acceptance rates for Asians against beneficiaries of affirmative action is an erroneous comparison specifically designed to whip up anti-affirmative action sentiment. It ignores the fact that Asian Americans remain, even with affirmative action, well-represented on college campuses. It uses “Scary Graphs” (like the first one in this post) to raise hysteria and resentment between Asian/Asian Americans and other racial minorities, ignoring the fact that with affirmative action in place, we know those acceptance rates will not be the same.

Instead, to determine if there is any “anti-Asian bias” in the admissions process, we should really be comparing the acceptance rates of Asian/Asian Americans against the other “non-beneficiary” group: Whites.

Continue to Part 2: In support of affirmative action