No, Asian Americans Were Not Silent on Jerry Hough’s Comments Regarding AAPI Assimilation

Duke University's Professor Jerry Hough.
Duke University professor, Jerry Hough.

This story is perhaps the perfect one to pull me out of my self-mandated, unannounced, unofficial mini-hiatus from blogging, which took place last week because my dayjob temporarily required my full and undivided attention.

A few months ago, Duke University professor Jerry Hough made headlines with an ill-advised New York Times comment wherein the elder political science professor bizarrely claimed:

Every Asian student has a very simple old American first name that symbolizes their desire for integration. Virtually every black has a strange new name that symbolizes their lack of desire for integration. The amount of Asian-white dating is enormous and so surely will be the intermarriage. Black-white dating is almost non-existent because of the ostracism by blacks of anyone who dates a white.

Over the long weekend, Victoria Razzi — a sophomore at Syracuse University and writer for The College Fix — resurrected this story with a poorly-researched article (“Asian American studies professors stay silent on Asian vs. Black integration“) apparently designed from start-to-finish to inflame the AAPI community.

This article is the height of shoddy journalism. It is Internet-age pseudoscience at its finest.

Inspired by Hough’s statement that “Asians who were oppressed did so well and are integrating so well, and the blacks are not doing as well”, Razzi claims that she set out to survey Asian American Studies professors for their opinions on Hough’s comments throughout the month of June. Razzi says she “repeatedly” emailed more than 30 AAS professors with a litany of questions.

When she received only one response to her email spam, Razzi smugly declares this to be evidence that Asian Americans are indeed highly assimilated model minorities, so cowed by our own skin privilege that we are silent on issues of racism. “The overall silence of some 30 professors speaks louder than words,” writes Razzi, before going on to quote Pew Research Center at-length about the aggregate economic achievements of the AAPI community that are then poorly juxtaposed against inner city Baltimore.

Razzi declares:

Typically, if someone is an expert in a certain field and another person makes an uneducated or false statement, it would be very simple for them to rebut the argument. However, in this case, dozens of professors chose not to publicly reject the claims made by the Duke professor.

A very plausible cause for the silence could be that while the way in which the professor from Duke stated his claims was brash, the basis of his accusations hold some truth.

Forgetting for a minute how the patronizing comparison of the Asian American community against the Black community is wedge politics at its finest, Razzi commits a second fatal rhetorical sin: she makes the self-centered presumption that her emailed interview questions were of such immediate priority to her potential interview subjects that she interprets the lack of response as deliberate. She fails to consider several alternate possibilities to the fact that she emailed a bunch of people and they didn’t respond: that perhaps, there was something wrong with Razzi’s methodology, or that perhaps Asian American Studies professors might have other things to do with their time than reply back to every solicitation for an interview.

Unfortunately, Asian American Studies is a struggling academic field that survives despite limited administrative and academic support, entirely through the tireless efforts of member professors who are forced to cobble together a major or minor degree through cross-listed courses. Some are lecturers or adjunct faculty, who receive minimal payment for work that often far exceeds a standard 40 hour work week in class time, office hours, lecture preparation, and grading.

Razzi says she contacted a list of 30 AAS faculty throughout the month of June. This is a time when most colleges and universities are on break for the summer, and when access to faculty — particularly faculty who are primarily responsible for teaching classes — can be reduced. Full-time faculty may use this period to travel for their research, which they cannot do during the school year. Adjunct faculty may also become focused on teaching summer classes at a different institution in order to earn additional income, which may cause them to shift their attention elsewhere.

Or, since faculty are also people with families, many might take the month of June to rest, disconnect, and recuperate from the draining exercise of teaching classes for nine consecutive months.

With this blog, I’m frequently contacted by journalists and readers who are interested in my reaction(s) to various top news items of the day. I will typically respond, but rarely will I respond immediately. I will often require prodding (note: many thanks to the many, many, many journalists who have been patient with me in this regard).

With this blog, I’m also frequently criticized by some readers who want to conclude meaning in the selective frequency and breadth of my posts. These folks imagine a deliberate pattern in the fact that I have chosen to write about one thing and not another, as if my writing choices are indicative of something about my politics.

Both of these types of reactions are guilty of a Donald Rumsfeld-esque truism: mistaking the absence of evidence with the evidence of absence.

Silence on a topic is not always, or even often, affirmative evidence of a deliberate choice; to conclude as such is to fall victim to confirmation bias, which prejudicially explains observed phenomena with a preconceived hypothesis without testing alternative explanations.

Rarely do we consider that “silence” might be evidence of nothing more than a packed schedule and a cluttered inbox. Rarely do we also consider that the work of writers, thinkers, and AAS faculty — which heavily support the modern Asian American Movement — are also frequently contributed to the AAPI community in the form of unpaid labour (which is given freely, but which is neither obligatory nor is anyone entitled to demand receipt of it). To sustain this work requires heavy-handed prioritization of one’s efforts, and an unwavering understanding of where the line in the sand is drawn with regard to one’s time and energy, while balancing their high-profile political work with their equally important (if less visible) personal and professional lives.

Each post on Reappropriate, for example, requires hours of my time to generate each day, and frequently I find myself in the position of having to choose one out of several possible post topics to write about. Thus, I will often choose to write the post that I believe will provide the greatest value to our community — in terms of offering a unique conversation point or boosting the signal of a largely overlooked story. Conversely, I will frequently choose not to write about a topic that has already received strong coverage at other AAPI blogs, even if it appears to be highly relevant to the focus of my blog. I am not a full-time blogger; it is impossible for this site to have comprehensive news bureau coverage for a diaspora that spans people hailing from nearly one-half of the globe. Thus, it makes no sense for me — one person with at most 2-3 hours a day to commit to this site — to try and do something that most news outlets only successfully accomplish with the help of a fully staffed newsroom. With all of these demands on my time, interview requests — even those sent with sincere intention — often fall to the bottom of the pile.

It is also unreasonable for Razzi to expect interview subjects to enthusiastically participate in a story that appears it will be written by a biased reporter operating in poor faith. Razzi fails to consider the possibility that her email interviews went unreturned because her questions might have just been bad.

Writes N. Sharma in the comments section:

Ms Razzi: I along with many other professors receive many emails soliciting our ideas about a host of topics. Sometimes we are able to respond, sometimes we don’t, for a host of reasons (is it summer? Are we in the country? is this a news outlet that we want to speak to? Is this a topic or person we are experts about or invested in?). I received your two requests asking me to email you my response about whether what the Duke professor said “was not wrong, just poorly worded?” And I chose not to respond. Your misrepresentation of Asian American Studies professors and interpretation of why “we” did not respond to you reveals your unfamiliarity with the field and the many many ways that we are not silent: have you looked at our writings? are you familiar with our courses? have you come across our political activism?

Your interpretation about our “silence” led you to make the following statement: “A very plausible cause for the silence could be that while the way in which the professor from Duke stated his claims was brash, the basis of his accusations hold some truth.” This is quite an amazing assumption, and signals the possibility of what your gross mischaracterization of my response may have been, had I responded. If you want to know about Asian American Studies professors and our commitments to fighting Asian anti-Black racism, then may I suggest that you pick up any one of the scores of books that we have written on this topic?

All that being said, Razzi was also wrong to assert that that the AAPI community was actually silent on Jerry Hough’s troublesome and divisive comments. For one thing, the AAPI blogosphere was all over this story. I wrote a post. So did Scot Nakagawa of RaceFiles. As did Jeff Yang for CNN.

But the nail in the coffin for Razzi’s piece is the fact that within days of Hough’s statements, 28 Asian American faculty and student organizations at Duke and UNC Chapel Hill penned an open letter lambasting Hough (update: link to letter text is here; H/T J.H.!).

Given this, I have only one question for Ms. Razzi: what silence, exactly?

Razzi writes the inflammatory statement: “a very plausible cause for the silence could be that while the way in which the professor from Duke stated his claims was brash, the basis of his accusations hold some truth.” One can only conclude a “plausible cause” for this invented Asian American “silence” being that  “[Hough’s] accusations [about Asian Americans] hold some truth”, if one set out with this bias and became increasingly determined in the “research” conducted for this article to confirm it.

Victoria Razzi concludes in her piece that the silence of Asian American Studies Professors to her interview questions is evidence of our community’s willful complicity with the Model Minority Myth. I disagree. I think there is only one reasonable conclusion to draw here: Ms. Razzi’s own internal prejudices with regards to the Asian American community.

Given her apparent ignorance of the open letter penned by Asian American scholars in response to Hough’s commentary, it is clear that Razzi has suffered from limited exposure to the politicized  AAPI community. This is perhaps expected given Razzi’s earlier writing defending non-diverse social circles and imploring college administrators to stop “forcing” diversity onto her. I would therefore invite Ms. Razzi to challenge those biases with greater engagement with the AAPI community before writing any more such underthought trollish fluff.

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