Monthly Archives: October 2009

Struggles and Opportunities for Immigrant Minority Businesses

I previously wrote about data showing that in many ways, racial minorities are hurt more than Whites by the current economic recession, largely because in many occupations and industries, people of color are overrepresented among those who are recently hired, have less overall years of job experience and therefore, are more likely to be laid off.

However, a large part of daily life for many communities of color, particularly immigrants, centers on local small businesses. How are they doing in the recession? As New America Media points out, while they struggle just like almost all area of American society these days, they still remain focal points for cultural and social life within many communities of color. In addition, many entrepreneurs say the recession actually offers some interesting opportunities:

Recession or not, Mexican businesses that serve up traditional foods like conches, paletas, tacos and sopes to locals in San Francisco’s Mission District remain popular social gathering places in the neighborhood. But sales are another story.

“There used to be lines of people out the door. It’s not like it was,” said Estela Valle, 56, describing the drop in customers at her panadería, La Mexicana Bakery . . . Since the economy collapsed, Valle says she has seen a 40 percent drop in business. But the bakery continues to be popular among the usual crowd of housewives and construction workers, says Valle; they are just buying less. . . .

Nail salon owners, many of them Vietnamese immigrant women, say their businesses are slumping along with the economy.
Susan (Xuan) Le, owner of Susan’s Nail and Spa in Oakland, has been a manicurist for 20 years, and she says this is the hardest time. . . .

“People can’t afford it. They can’t afford to pay rent and eat, how can they have money to pay for manicures and pedicures?” she said. “They are coming back, but it’s taking longer than before. If they used to come every two weeks, now they’re coming in once a month. My income is cut in half.” . . .

While [others] cut back, Quyen Ton is venturing out on her own. After 14 years as a manicurist in other peoples’ shops, she decided to start her own business: White Daisy Nail Spa in San Francisco. “I have the skills and am good with customers. I had the ability and confidence to run my own business. I wanted to see if I could make a go of it, and make a better living,” Ton said.

Ton said a bad economy didn’t deter her. Instead it gave her an opportunity. “The good thing is that it’s easy to get a lease, they don’t require a lot, and it’s easier to negotiate a lower rent,” said Ton.

Certainly immigrant minority small businesses and their owners are just like other American businesses and workers — the recession has led to tough times and many businesses struggle to stay afloat. As the article describes, many immigrant minority owners have had to change and adapt to the economic downturn just like anybody else.

Nonetheless, the article illustrates some interesting points about immigrant business owners — even though sales are down, they are still prominent fixtures in their communities as places where people can congregate, socialize, maintain relations with friends and neighbors, and in doing so, perhaps share information about jobs, social services, or other ways to better survive the recession.

In other words, many immigrant minority businesses are more than just a place to buy goods or services — they can also serve as spaces for ethnic groups to maintain ethnic solidarity. This collective process also serves as an informal kind of networking and social support that can have many direct and indirect benefits for community members in times of economic difficulty.

In providing a space and social structure within which members collaboratively provide and access informal resources to/with each other, churches frequently perform similar functions as well. Taken together, such immigrant minority institutions can provide a form of social “safety net” for ethnic groups and may help to lessen some of the more negative consequences of the recession.

Harry Connick Jr., Blackface, and Recognizing White Privilege

Earlier this week, musician, actor, and community activist Harry Connick Jr. was a guest judge on the Australian talent show Hey Hey It’s Saturday. One of the acts was a skit featuring a group of White men wearing blackface (using dark-colored makeup to appear racially Black), doing an impression of the Jackson Five. As ABC News reports and this video segment shows, Connick’s reaction to their performance was swift and sharp:

[Connick] was visibly shocked by the skit, in which [five] men with afro wigs and blackface sang and danced behind a Michael Jackson impersonator wearing white makeup. Connick, 42, gave the performance a zero score and told them that if it had been done in the United States it would have been pulled off the air.

Blackface was a traditional trope of minstrel shows in the U.S. that dates to the 19th century. Whites playing stock black characters — usually offensive stereotypes meant to demean — rubbed coal, grease or shoe polish on their faces. . . .

Public reaction to the “Hey Hey” performance in online forums was mixed. Some Australians said they were embarrassed such a racist sketch had been broadcast, while others said detractors were too politically correct and that the skit was funny. . . . Anand Deva, the frontman of the “Jackson Jive” act, said it was not meant to cause offense but added he would not have performed it in the United States.

White teenagers in blackface

There are two interesting sociological points to note here. The first is the apparent differences in racial attitudes between the U.S. and Australia. That is, even though many Americans still are rather ignorant of the racial significance and racist legacy of blackface and still wear it from time to time (especially around this time of year, Halloween, as seen in the photo on the right), for the most part, I will presume that most Americans understand that blackface is offensive (or at least the reactions and criticisms to it are much more intense).

With that in mind, it is notable to see that in Australia, this sensitivity and recognition of blackface do not exist to the same level. In fact, despite the Australian government’s recent official apology to the aborigine population for centuries of racism, in general the racial attitudes of the Australian public seem to be a few decades behind that of the U.S. in terms of racial understanding.

This diminished level of cultural knowledge comes through in the responses by Anand Deva in defending his group’s skit with the usual refrain, “It wasn’t meant to be offensive, it was just a joke.” What he and other Australians do defend the skit don’t understand is that whatever the intent, the result was that it definitely came across as racist and offensive.

Secondly, the reason why they don’t understand why it was offensive is because as Whites in a White majority society, they have the position of being able to make fun of non-Whites while claiming that they did not intend it to be offensive. That, my friends, is the quintessential definition of White privilege.

As it relates back to Harry Connick Jr., as the video segment notes, he has been accused of being hypocritical because he participated in a previous comedy skit (apparently from MadTV) in which he played some kind of witch or voodoo doctor that some argue also makes fun of Blacks, although Connick counters that his character in the skit was actually White.

Despite this criticism of Connick, I give him credit for speaking up in the moment and denouncing the skit as racist and offensive. It takes courage to recognize such racial ignorance first of all, and second, to speak up and stand in opposition to it, rather than just keeping quiet, as many Americans from any racial background but particularly Whites, are more likely to do.

I know that as a native of New Orleans, Connick was affected by how his city and particularly the Black community were both devastated after Hurricane Katrina. In the aftermath of the disaster, he organized several benefits and other activities to begin rebuilding the city and its inhabitants.

At this point, I can only speculate, but I suspect that as a result of Hurricane Katrina and perhaps after understanding the cultural consequences of such media portrayals as his MadTV skit, he “got it” — that as an affluent entertainer and as a White person, he is very privileged person and has a lot of power and influence that can be used to make fun of people, or to help uplift them.

In other words, Connick’s actions — in the wake of Hurricane Katrina and in regard to this blackface skit — are a great illustration of what I tell me students all the time: for racism to continue, individual Whites like you (referring to my students) do not have to commit racist acts yourself. Instead, for it to continue year after year, generation after generation, all you have to do is to sit by and accept the consequences of discrimination committed against others.

In other words, silence equals acceptance.

Hummer Sold to Chinese: What Will Americans Do Now?

Most people know the Hummer line of sport utility vehicles as embodying a very “in-your-face” image of conspicuous materialism and conservative, anti-environmentalist values. Hummers have been the bane of environmentalists for a while, with many being vandalized through the years by radical environmentalists. Nonetheless Hummer owners are very defiant and a recent survey of Hummer owners confirms that in buying their Hummers, most of them made a very conscious choice that their vehicles directly reflected their morals about American individualism, “patriotism,” and consumption.

Hummer H2 customized by Geiger Cars

This social image of Hummer and their owners is what makes this most recent development so ironic — as news organizations have begun reporting, Hummer’s current owner (General Motors) has just sold the brand to the Chinese heavy industry company Sichuan Tengzhong:

It marks the first time that Chinese investors have stepped in as buyers into the distressed U.S. auto industry. The sale also comes at a time when China has emerged as the world’s largest auto market and GM remains majority-owned by the U.S. government after being driven into bankruptcy. . . . A person familiar with the deal said earlier on Friday that the Hummer business would be sold for about $150 million, far less than GM’s early estimate that Hummer could fetch more than $500 million. . . .

Hummer’s sales peaked in 2006 but have been hit hard since by a slumping U.S. economy, higher gasoline prices and a shift in U.S. consumer tastes away from Hummer’s heavy-duty SUVs and its military-derived styling. Through September, Hummer’s U.S. sales were down 64 percent this year. Analysts said the new Hummer faces a difficult task of revamping a macho brand associated with the excess of the past economic boom in the United States.

From a sociological point of view, the question now becomes, what will these individualist, flag-waving, American-valuing fans of Hummer do, now that their beloved company is owned by [gasp] a Chinese company?!?

Will they still embrace the brand and its macho, John Wayne-worshiping image? Will they continue to buy Hummers in the future, even though it means that their money will go to a Chinese, rather than an American, company?

I don’t know the answers to these questions yet, but I will definitely enjoy sitting back and watching how these Hummer owners and fans grapple with this perplexing and ironic dilemma.

Asian American Students Acting Like Idiots

Those who are regular readers of this site and blog know that I spend a lot of time defending Asian Americans and criticizing acts of discrimination and violence committed against them. However, in the interest of fairness, I am also happy to point out and bash instances when Asian Americans themselves act like thugs and idiots.

With that in mind, here’s the perfect opportunity — as the Los Angeles Times reports, three UCLA Asian American students were recently arrested for their role in a fight at an Asian American-interest fraternity party:

Three UCLA students and four other people have been arrested in connection with a melee at an off-campus fraternity party that left three students injured last month, university officials said Friday. The fight broke the morning of Sept. 22 at a party hosted by Lambda Phi Epsilon, a fraternity that was on probation at the time after an incident last fall that involved an altercation with members of another fraternity. . . . None of the students is listed as being a member of the fraternity. . . .

One student was stabbed in the abdomen and required surgery. A second student was stabbed in the arm but did not require hospitalization. A third was hit over the head with a bottle. . . . [A] preliminary investigation indicates that all the suspects were “uninvited guests.” He said the party eventually became overcrowded and, after some disruptions, the suspects were asked to leave. . . .

The Asian fraternity has faced problems in the past. In 2005, 19-year-old Kenny Luong died from fatal head injuries during a tackle football game held at a city park in Irvine to initiate pledges into Lambda Phi Epsilon. During the game, pledges were gang-tackled repeatedly, police said. The fraternity was officially disbanded by UC Irvine in 2007.

In 2003, San Jose State Lambdas were involved in a melee that left one member fatally stabbed and others hospitalized. Police said about 60 fraternity brothers faced off against rivals from another Asian fraternity.

Since I did not witness the fight personally, I can only speculate about its circumstances based on articles such as this one from the LA Times. I also do not know to what extent members of the Lambda Phi Epsilon fraternity were involved in this incident. I also hope that the criminal charges brought against those who were arrested are fair and just, not overreactions on the part of the police and criminal justice system.

Nonetheless and as the article notes, this fraternity has a history of violence and legal problems, a few of which have involved the deaths of other Asian Americans.

Incidents like this that involve Asian Americans acting violently remind me of the movie Better Luck Tomorrow that portrays a group of high-achieving Asian American students turning to a life of crime and violence to relieve the stress and monotony of their “model minority” life.

On a more sociological level, incidents like this also bring up the question that I posed several years ago when I wrote about the brawl between Lambda Phi Epsilon and Pi Alpha Phi in San Jose that led to the stabbing death of a young Asian American male student — why are many Asian American males, particularly those associated with ethnic-interest fraternities, emulating the same kind of destructive machismo and violence that has plagued their community for so long?

To be sure, most members of these fraternities nationwide do not resort to violence and in fact, are good students and good community members. But even the casual reader can see that there is a pattern of problems involved with these two Asian American fraternities. As I speculated before:

Is there someone or something to blame here? The Greek system for making these Asian Americans feel like they have to defend the “honor” of their frat and of their “brothers” at all costs, including gang violence and murder, even if their antagonists are other Asian Americans?

A misplaced feeling that rather than the prejudice and discrimination out there in the larger society are their biggest threats, they scapegoat their most immediate rivals as the ones to blame for their problems?

An unconscious inferiority complex in which young Asian American men think they need to be hyper-violent to show that they’re just as masculine as Whites, Blacks, or Latinos?

Youthful bravado, reinforced by a mob mentality? Simple insanity on the part of each person who took part in this fiasco?

My guess is, all of the above.