Category Archives: recession

Connecting Toyota and Asian Americans

As I’m sure almost everybody has heard about, these past few months have not been good for Toyota. Due to a variety of quality control issues, accident reports, and several fatalities involving many of their models, Toyota has recalled over 8.5 million vehicles worldwide, one of the largest mass automotive recall in history. With each passing day, new media scrutiny, and every piece of bad publicity, Toyota’s reputation continues to plummet.

In looking at the larger sociological context of Toyota’s struggles, there are a couple of questions that come up. First, as many observers have wondered, to what extent are Toyota’s problems due to them basically becoming too arrogant and viewing themselves and their products as invincible? That is, Toyota (along with several other Asian automakers) have weathered the current recession and in fact, the past several years, much better than U.S. automakers such as General Motors, Chrysler, and Ford, mainly by producing many high-quality, fuel-efficient cars. But did Toyota’s success make them complacent? As one example of this criticism, AutoBlog reports:

U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood has absolutely blasted the Japanese giant, calling it “a little safety deaf” and noting he was upset that NHTSA officials had to fly to Japan “to remind Toyota management about its legal obligations.” That’s just the tip of the spear stuff, too. Check out the shaft:

Since questions were first raised about possible safety defects, we have been pushing Toyota to take measures to protect consumers. While Toyota is taking responsible action now, it unfortunately took an enormous effort to get to this point. We’re not finished with Toyota and are continuing to review possible defects and monitor the implementation of the recalls.

In fact, as MSNBC reports, Toyota’s apparent initial lack of urgency to respond to the growing criticisms may be characteristic of many large Japanese who have also risen to the top of their industries, only to find that when you’re on top, there’s only one way to go — down:

Toyota is the latest Japanese corporate icon making headlines for all the wrong reasons. News of the automaker’s massive vehicle recalls over faulty gas pedals in the U.S. came just days after Japan Airlines, a once proud flag carrier, filed for bankruptcy, saddled with billions in debt.

Sony has lost its lead in consumer gadgets to the likes of Apple Inc. and has suffered its own quality mishaps. Honda, Japan’s No. 2 automaker, is recalling 646,000 cars worldwide because of a faulty window switch. . . . Taken together, Japan Inc.’s stellar reputation for quality has taken a hit — just as China is about to overtake it as the world’s No. 2 economy and rising South Korean companies compete ever more aggressively.

What went wrong with the economic giant that arose from the ashes of World War II? The problems that confront Toyota, Sony and JAL differ, but experts say their struggles have some common themes: the perils of global expansion, a tendency to embrace the status quo, and smugness bred from success or a too-big-to-fail mentality.

“Arrogance and some complacency came into play, driven by the idea that their ranking as No. 1 producer of quality goods wasn’t at risk,” said Kirby Daley [chief strategist at Newedge Group]. . . . The global economic crisis helped to expose weaknesses, he said. “There was nowhere to hide.”

Clearly, Toyota has a lot of work to do in order to regain customers’ trust and to rebuild their image for making safe and reliable cars. But beyond that, does Toyota’s recent problems affect Asian Americans?

In my classes, I often use Toyota as an analogy and metaphor for the Asian American community as a whole — both have been in the U.S. for a while but early on, were looked upon with curiosity, derision, and even hostility. Toyota and Asian Americans as a whole were seen as strange foreigners who probably had no future in the U.S. and pesky nuisances to “traditional” Americans.

Nonetheless, both were persistent and determined and after years of mostly quiet hard work, were able to eventually establish themselves as mainstream Americans and in many ways, outperform their “traditional” American counterparts. Nowadays, both Toyota and Asian Americans are poised to make unique contributions to American society and its economy as globalization continues to evolve in the 21st century.

But now that Toyota is in a major consumer and public relations crisis, do its struggles reflect negatively on Asian Americans? With racial/ethnic tensions heightened during the recession, will some Americans use these recent events to launch or intensify some kind of anti-Toyota, anti-Japan, anti-Asian, or anti-foreigner backlash movement?

Inevitably, I suppose there will be some Americans with that kind of mentality and motivation. It’s also likely that Toyota’s sales will take a while to rebound, both as a result of this particular crisis and because of the recession in general. But ultimately, and perhaps in contrast to some of my past pessimistic posts about racial/ethnic relations in the near future, I predict that Toyota will recover and become even stronger, just like the recent history and successes of Asian Americans as a community.

I believe this because Toyota has decades of experience and history behind them — they are not new to this industry, and they have weathered recessions before. Let us remember that Toyota is not the only automaker that has experienced mass recalls or bad publicity before. For example, just in the last decade, Ford has recalled over 14.5 million vehicles for various defects and for those who remember, back in the 1980s, Audi’s U.S. sales and overall corporate image virtually collapsed over high-profile allegations of unintended acceleration involving their 5000 model.

To put Toyota’s situation into further perspective, Toyota is firmly established in the U.S. as an American company — it currently employs around 150,000 American workers in their factories, offices, and dealerships. If Toyota were to fail, so would many American workers, families, and communities. Finally, part of Toyota’s culture is built around a collective mindset that focuses on long-term progress and shared participation that has resulted in sustained growth and prosperity through the years.

In other words, Toyota — like Asian Americans as a whole — has accomplished too much to give up now. As a metaphor for Asian Americans, I expect Toyota to learn from their mistakes, overcome the difficulties they face, be patient and aggressive in pushing forward, and continue their long record of success. They still have much to contribute to American society and we as Americans still have much to gain from them in many ways.

Racial/Ethnic Relations in 2009: The Best & Worst

As we near the end of 2009, it’s fitting to review the major events, developments, and trends in U.S. racial/ethnic relations in 2009. Therefore, below is my look back at some of the positive highlights as well as the setbacks in terms of achieving racial/ethnic equality, with a particular focus on Asian Americans (my area of expertise). This list is not meant to be an exhaustive review of all racial/ethnic news in 2009, but rather the ones that I covered in this blog and ones that I believe have the most sociological significance.

The Best

The Worst

As we turn the page on 2009 and the entire decade (one that many Americans would like to forget), let’s hope that 2010 and the new decade will lead to more prosperity, equality, and harmony for Americans from all racial, ethnic, and cultural backgrounds.

Recession Can Lead to Better Race Relations

Many of my recent posts have described various examples in which the current recession has led many Americans — particularly Whites — to feel financially insecure and threatened. From there, they become more likely to scapegoat or lash out at others around them, particularly those who are racially or culturally different. It’s basic Sociology 101 — economic competition leads to racial hostility.

However and contrary to this established pattern, economic difficulties may also actually lead to better racial relations and harmony. How? Focusing on the situation of White and Black residents in a suburb of Atlanta, GA, a recent article from the New York Times describes:

Blacks and whites have encountered one another in increasing numbers recently in the crowded waiting rooms of the welfare office and at the food pantry, where many of both races have ventured for the first time. Struggling black-owned businesses are attracting the attention of white patrons. Neighbors are commiserating across racial lines. . . .

“Right now, a lot of white people are in this situation,” [Keasha Taylor, who is Black] said, recalling the conversation later. “We’re already used to poverty; they’re really not.” . . .

The recession hit Henry County . . . at a time when it was already struggling to come to terms with startling demographic change. In 1990, the county was almost 90 percent white. Now, as its population has more than tripled to 192,000, according to 2008 census estimates, the white percentage of the population has shrunk to 60 percent.

The county’s elected government is still all white and Republican, and some leaders and newcomers alike have tried in various ways to make local board and governments more diverse. But nothing else has worked to remove barriers as quickly as economic hardship. . . .

One reason blacks have not gained more political power is that they are not heavily concentrated in any single area in the county — the cul-de-sacs carved out of farmland and pastures in the last decade became racially mixed enclaves for the upwardly mobile. Now, the foreclosure notices and uncut lawns in those same subdivisions reinforce the notion that everyone is in the same sinking boat.

I suppose it’s like the old adage, “misery loves company.” On the one hand, it is a little sad that individuals and families apparently have to experience such turmoil for them to eventually turn to their racially diverse neighbors for support and sympathy.

But on the other hand, I personally would much rather have Americans from all racial backgrounds support each other during times of hardship than to compete against, fight with, and scapegoat each other, something that we unfortunately see too much of. It’s important to highlight how Americans from different backgrounds can put aside their “me first” attitudes and instead, draw on our common humanity to help our neighbors in times of need, as this recent NBC News clip shows:

As we approach the Thanksgiving holiday, I hope all of us as Americans are able to be thankful that people who can give sympathy, support, and assistance in times of need are out there — sometimes they just have a different skin color or come from a different country than yours.

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.

Child Taken From Mother Because of English Fluency

In a recent post, I described how economic tensions seem to be making many Americans not just more stressed out, but also more likely to lash out against those around them, particularly if they are immigrants. While that post focused on individual-level tensions and hostility, a recent Time magazine article discusses the case of Cirila Baltazar Cruz, a Mexican from an indigenous background, who recently had her daughter taken away from her because she does not speak English, a case that unfortunately highlights this same kind of anti-immigrant sentiment on the institutional level:

Cirila Baltazar Cruz comes from the mountainous southern state of Oaxaca, a region of Mexico that makes Appalachia look affluent. To escape the destitution in her village of 1,500 mostly Chatino Indians, Baltazar Cruz, 34, migrated earlier this decade to the U.S., hoping to send money back to two children she’d left in her mother’s care. She found work at a Chinese restaurant on Mississippi’s Gulf Coast.

But Baltazar Cruz speaks only Chatino, barely any Spanish and no English. Last November, she went to Singing River Hospital in Pascagoula, Miss., where she lives, to give birth to a baby girl, Rubí. According to documents obtained by the Mississippi Clarion-Ledger, the hospital called the state Department of Human Services (DHS), which ruled that Baltazar Cruz was an unfit mother in part because her lack of English “placed her unborn child in danger and will place the baby in danger in the future.”

Rubí was taken from Baltazar Cruz, who now faces deportation. . . . [A]dvocates for Baltazar Cruz had charged that the problems sprang from faulty translation at Singing River. Baltazar Cruz was later joined [at the hospital] by a Chatino-speaking relative but the hospital declined his services and instead used a translator from state social services, an American of Puerto Rican descent who spoke no Chatino and whose Spanish was significantly different from that spoken in Mexico.

According to the Clarion-Ledger, the state report portrayed Baltazar Cruz as virtually a prostitute, claiming she was “exchanging living arrangements for sex” in Pascagoula and planned to put the child up for adoption. Through her advocates, Baltazar Cruz adamantly denied those claims. . . .

The social-services translator also reported that Baltazar Cruz had put Rubí in danger because she “had not brought a cradle, clothes or baby formula.” But indigenous Oaxacan mothers traditionally breast feed their babies for a year and rarely use bassinets, carrying their infants instead in a rebozo, a type of sling. . . .

In such cases, says the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Bauer, a lack of interpreters is a key factor. When a mother can’t follow the proceedings, “she looks unresponsive, and that conveys to a judge a lack of interest in the child, which is clearly not the case,” she says.

The article goes on to note that Cruz’s advocates also argue that for several centuries now, new immigrants to the U.S. who were not fluent in English have safely and successfully raised their children. So the question becomes, why is this case different and why is Cruz in danger of losing her own child now?

Unfortunately the answer is, because American society’s level of acceptance and even tolerance of new immigrants — particularly if they are unauthorized and lack English fluency — is basically at an all-time low. On top of this general sentiment and as I noted earlier, the economic recession makes Americans much more economically (and therefore emotionally) defensive, insecure, and threatened.

In this particular case, we also have another sociological dynamic — the retrenchment of a “traditional” American identity. In other words, the reality has been that in the past, in order to be considered an American, you basically had to be White, plain and simple. Non-Whites weren’t even given the opportunity to become accepted as American and this country’s history is littered with examples of systematic exclusion — the Cherokee Nation, Chinese exclusion, Jim Crow segregation, etc.

But in the last few decades and as American society has become more demographically diverse and multicultural, the definition of what it means to be an American was gradually expanding to become more inclusive such non-White and immigrant groups. However, it was also inevitable that such a change would be subtly and explicitly opposed by “traditional” Americans.

Even in the past year or so, we have seen numerous examples of this backlash, including racist reactions to Barack Obama’s election and the upsurge in threats against him, the resurgent popularity of the confederate flag, and the return of anti-minority segregation in public facilities.

As such, we can see that in this particular case, the mother’s lack of English fluency implicitly violated the authorities’ code of “Americanness” and was enough to disqualify her from not just remaining in the country, but from raising her own child as well. An equally tragic part of this episode is our society’s misguided and naive attempt to be colorblind and to ignore and in fact, deny that these racial dynamics even exist.

Unfortunately it looks like things will get worse before they get better for many immigrants in this country.

Economic Competition and Intra-Minority Tensions

It is an unfortunate reality in contemporary American society that from time to time, an economic recession occurs, such as the one we’re in right now. As sociologists have documented over and over again, when people experience financial difficulties, many also begin to feel insecure, threatened, and defensive. In such times, it is also common for people to lash out at those around them who they see as a threat to their security or at least someone who contributes to the larger economic difficulties that they are experiencing.

Many have argued that it is this climate of social insecurity that is responsible for the overheated and often viscous arguments taking place all around the U.S. these days around issues such as health care reform. As another example and as described in a recent article from the Philadelphia Weekly, this is exactly what seems to be happening in and around neighborhoods of South Philadelphia, where there have been numerous physical attacks and assaults committed against Asian American students:

Dozens of the alleged incidents are relatively minor—name-calling, verbal threats, petty robberies, random punches in the head while walking down stairwells, and general intimidation. But according to [student Wei] Chen, at least six times last school year those minor incidents escalated into massive rumbles where outnumbered Asian students were pummeled by packs of teens, sending several of the victims to hospitals. . . .

Many Asian students continued living in fear for the remainder of the school year . . . In a cry for help, scared students signed petitions, wrote letters, held meetings, staged a walkout and pleaded with school administrators to do something about the attacks.
 But the violence at South Philly High, listed among the state’s “persistently dangerous schools” for the third consecutive year, continued.


Male and female Asian students—especially those new to the country, who speak little or fractured English—have been targeted over the past few years, in schools from the Northeast to South Philly, in elementary and high schools. Students and activists say that Chinese, Vietnamese, Cambodian, Pakistani and other Asian youth have been singled out, assaulted in cafeterias, hallways, on city streets, school buses and everywhere in between. 


Kids say the violence has often been dismissed by school safety officers as well as administrators. “This is a cultural problem,” Wei Chen claims the former principal at South Philly told Asian students on the day after the subway rumble.
 District officials acknowledge that some situations weren’t handled well.


The article goes on to note that there have been some efforts at addressing the problem through school and community forums and informal mentoring programs to assist newly-arrived immigrant students adjust to their new schools, and that such efforts seem to have had some initial success in reducing the number of physical attacks. However, as the new school year starts, many students are still very tense and apprehensive about whether the situation has actually changed.

The article also acknowledges that the overwhelming majority of attacks have been perpetrated by African American students, who collectively make up 62% of all students in the school district. Does this mean that African Americans are inherently racist and prone to violence? Or are there some community and institutional-level factors that operate in the background and contribute to tense relations between African Americans and Asians? The article offers one potential insight:

As of 2008, Asians accounted for 5.7 percent of the city’s population, up from 4.4 percent in 2000—an increase of 15,000 Asians. Many of the new arrivals move to areas populated by fellow countrymen, often in neighborhoods adjacent to longtime African-American enclaves.
 “The school may be thought of as black turf by some black students,” says Yale University sociologist Elijah Anderson, a renowned expert on black urban living.

“The outsiders—the Asians who are making inroads—can then be called into account for any moves they make within that situation. You have race prejudice developing as a sense of group position, a proprietary claim on certain areas of the home turf.” Anderson, who taught at Penn for 32 years and frequently uses Philadelphians in his research, believes that the school tensions are likely about dominance.


It goes without saying that such acts of violence can be devastating for the victims, not just physically and academically but emotionally, and can lead to depression, mental health problems, and even suicide. Being targeted also leads many Asian Americans to join a gang, initially to help protect each other from physical attacks but all too often leading to a downward spiral into criminal activity.

Professor Anderson’s explanation about demographic changes leading to neighborhood instability helps us to begin understanding the larger social forces that contribute to the problem. On top of that, once we add the effects of the recession and feelings of economic insecurity, we begin to see more clearly what sociologists have argued all along — the highest levels of prejudice occur not between groups at the very top and those at the very bottom, but between groups that are directly adjacent to each other on the socioeconomic hierarchy.

This is because groups that are right next to each other on the socioeconomic ladder are competing for the same resources — political, economic, and educational (or at least they perceive themselves to be in competition). And sadly, when groups compete with each other, racial/ethnic tensions, hostility, and violence become almost inevitable. Whether this occurs between Whites and Blacks, Whites and Latinos, Blacks and Asians, this scenario has played itself out over and over and over again throughout American history.

The situation in Philadelphia is the perfect and latest example of this pattern — African Americans have traditionally been marginalized institutionally, then begin to feel further besieged and threatened when newcomers (Asian immigrants) move into “their” neighborhoods and schools, and accuse them to to be “taking over.” Having very little collective political or economic power, African Americans scapegoat and lash out at the Asian immigrant newcomers, likely seeing them easy targets due to their lack of English fluency and familiarity with American society.

This is not to excuse or condone the perpetrators of such attacks — I feel that they need to be stopped and appropriately disciplined, regardless of their race or ethnicity. What I am saying however, is that such attacks are not entirely due to individual motives or prejudices. Instead, we need to recognize that there is an wide range of sociological factors that have directly and indirectly lead to and fueled such inter-racial tensions.

To move forward positively and decisively toward addressing this situation before someone is tragically killed, we need to treat both the symptoms and by curing the fundamental disease — the feelings of political powerlessness, economic insecurity, and culture of glorified violence that leads too many students to internalize anti-Asian stereotypes, ultimately resulting in physical brutality.

Anti-Immigrant Legislation and Proposals Floundering

In a recent post titled “The Degrees of Immigrant Bashing,” I described various ways in which the recession has led to increased anti-immigrant hostility, leading to blatantly offensive comments from public officials, acts of violence and hate crimes, and misguided federal regulations. As a follow up, blogger Michelle Waslin at Immigration Impact writes that, perhaps ironically, the recession seems to have resulted in fewer anti-immigrant proposals and legislation being passed this year at the local and state levels:

According to the Progressive States Network (PSN), budget deficits have meant that states are unwilling to pass legislation with a cost attached. Immigration is less of a wedge issue in 2009—that is, politicians seem less willing to push anti-immigrant platforms because candidates who did so in the 2008 elections lost.

PSN also reports that anti-immigrant legislators have been marginalized in 2009. Bills introduced by Texas State Rep. Leo Berman, a notorious anti-immigrant voice, got no traction, even from within his own party. No votes were taken on any of his 9 anti-immigrant bills. In Arizona, State Senator Russell Pearce has had little success with his anti-immigrant agenda this year. An Arizona Republic editorial criticized Pearce for devoting time and energy to immigrant-bashing instead of doing the real work that needs to be done on the state budget. Even Prince William County, Virginia Executive Corey Stewart—well known for his anti-immigrant rhetoric—has backed down, acknowledging that problems other than immigration deserve more attention. . . .

It is clear that vehement anti-immigrant legislation is not as fashionable as in past years. These measures have proven to be too expensive and ineffective, Americans care more about real solutions than scapegoating and rhetoric, and anti-immigrant politicians have not been successful on election day.

It’s encouraging to see that most politicians (apparently on both sides of the ideological divide) recognize that indeed, there are many more important issues these days than demonizing and dehumanizing immigrants, legal and undocumented. I also believe that many of them also understand that in this current recession, immigrants — again legal or undocumented — can make significant contributions to the American economy if given the chance.

That is, while many immigrants are disproportionately affected by these tough economic times, if they’re allowed to stay in the U.S., many are more than willing spend their income to help support local businesses, pay federal income and social security taxes, and state sales and gas taxes, to name just a few examples. This is especially true in immigrant-heavy states and cities such as California and Texas, that are being hit especially hard during the recession.

In other words, at a time when our country is struggling, we need everybody to pitch in and help out, regardless of their race, ethnicity, skin color, or immigrant status.

The Degrees of Immigrant Bashing

Issues related to immigration, particularly undocumented immigration, have always been and continue to be some of the most controversial in American history and society. As I’m sure you’ve seen yourself, such issues easily provoke strong emotions from all sides and can be very divisive between and even within racial/ethnic groups. On top of that, the current recession and fears on the part of many Americans about their financial security only add fuel to the fire.

It’s within this context that many Americans and American institutions look to blame all or part of their problems and difficulties on immigrants. But this immigrant bashing can take many forms — it can be very overt and direct in the form of racial slurs and violence, or it can be subtle and indirect, implicitly supported or set in motion by politicians who are otherwise seen as “liberal” or “progressive.” I would like to explore these different degrees of immigrant bashing as they’ve recently been manifested.

On the more blatant and overt side, we see time and time again that racial prejudice and economic instability often lead to violence. However, the second step in this kind of blatant immigrant bashing is when the criminal justice system fails to deliver justice for the immigrant victim. This was evident is the recent acquittal of two White teens on hate crime charges in the beating death of a Mexican immigrant in Pottsville, PA:

The [all White] jury found the teens innocent of all serious charges, a decision that elicited cheers and claps from the defendants’ families and friends – and cries of outrage from the victim’s. . . . Prosecutors cast Ramirez as the victim of a gang of drunken white teens motivated by a dislike of their small coal town’s burgeoning Hispanic population. But the jury evidently sided with defense attorneys, who called Ramirez the aggressor and characterized the brawl as a street fight that ended tragically. . . .

The case exposed ethnic tensions in Shenandoah, a blue-collar town of 5,000 that has lured Hispanic residents drawn by cheap housing and jobs in nearby factories and farm fields. Ramirez moved to the town about seven years ago from Iramuco, Mexico, working in a factory and picking strawberries and cherries.

Sadly, violence like this only seems to be more common recently, evidenced by a similar case in New York in which another group of men bludgeoned an Ecuadoran man to death with a baseball bat:

The two men accused of fatally beating an Ecuadorean immigrant with a bat and a bottle after shouting epithets about Hispanics and gays face 78 years to life in prison if convicted on charges handed up by a Brooklyn grand jury and unsealed on Tuesday. The two suspects, Keith Phoenix, 28, and Hakim Scott, 25, are charged with second-degree murder, manslaughter and assault, all as hate crimes, for the Dec. 7 attack on the immigrant, Jose O. Sucuzhañay, and his brother Romel, who survived. . . .

The beating, coming soon after the killing of another Ecuadorean immigrant on Long Island, jangled nerves in immigrant and gay and lesbian communities. . . . Witnesses have described part of what happened next, beginning with slurs shouted from the car about Hispanics and gays. “Suddenly, Hakim Scott jumped out armed with a beer bottle,” Mr. Hynes said. “The two brothers tried to flee, but Scott caught up with Jose and slammed him across the head.”

Mr. Phoenix “rushed from the S.U.V. armed with a baseball bat, ran over to Jose, and repeatedly beat him,” Mr. Hynes said, adding that as Mr. Phoenix walked back to the car he noticed that the victim was still moving. “Phoenix immediately went back to where Jose was laying and slammed him several more times on the head with the baseball bat until his victim was motionless,” Mr. Hynes said.

This kind of sentiment is also reflected in the recent swine flu outbreak. Since the swine flu originated in Mexico, inevitably this has led many to engage in blatant stereotyping and racial profiling against anything and anyone linked to Mexico:

“No contact anywhere with an illegal alien!” conservative talk show host Michael Savage advised his U.S. listeners this week on how to avoid the swine flu. “And that starts in the restaurants” where he said, you “don’t know if they wipe their behinds with their hands!” And Thursday, Boston talk radio host Jay Severin was suspended after calling Mexican immigrants “criminalians” during a discussion of swine flu and saying that emergency rooms had become “essentially condos for Mexicans.”

That’s tepid compared to some of the xenophobic reactions spreading like an emerging virus across the Internet. “This disgusting blight is because MEXICANS ARE PIGS!” an anonymous poster ranted on the “prison planet” forum, part of radio host and columnist Alex Jones’ Web site. . . . Savage speculated that terrorists are using Mexican immigrants as walking germ warfare weapons. “It would be easy,” he said, “to bring an altered virus into Mexico, put it in the general population, and have them march across the border.”

[T]he growing public health concern has also exposed fear and hate. . . . Fearmongering and blame are almost a natural part of infectious disease epidemics, experts say. “This is a pattern we see again and again,” said Amy Fairchild, chair of sociomedical sciences at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health in New York City. “It’s ‘the other,’ the group not seen as part of the nation, the one who threatens it in some way that gets blamed for the disease.”

These acts of racial hatred, violence, and blatant stereotyping are undoubtedly tragic. Unfortunately, they are only one example within the range of immigrant bashing. Other examples do not involve physical violence committed onto the immigrant, but nonetheless show the same kind of callous indifference to their histories and experiences. This is exemplified by the case of a Korean Canadian student who stood up to racial taunts and slurs from a bully but was punished for defending himself (tip to AngryAsianMan for covering this story first):

The 15-year-old was suspended for four weeks from Keswick High School over a fight that he says began when another student racially abused him and punched him in the mouth. The boy, who has a black belt in tae kwon do, fought back with a single punch that broke his antagonist’s nose.

He was initially the only person investigated, and police charged him with assault causing bodily harm. But 400 of his fellow students walked out of class this week to denounce the racist bullying that preceded the punch, and the outcry reached newspaper front pages. In response, York police reopened the case, and assigned a special investigator to probe whether a hate crime was committed. . . .

The 15-year-old said he regrets throwing the punch, but felt he had no choice after the other boy called him a “fucking Chinese” and punched him in the face, cutting his mouth. His father said the school doesn’t seem to understand the impact of the racial comment. Afterward, a vice-principal asked his son why a Korean was upset about being called Chinese.

“Probably they don’t realize how much it hurts when someone makes a racist comment,” his father said. “My son said, ‘I felt all the way down, like I am nothing, on the floor. Like they’re the master and I’m the slave.’ “

As an update on this case, the school board has reversed the initial actions of the school’s administrators and have reinstated the student, removed the suspension from his record, and canceled the expulsion proceedings. The Korean Canadian student and the bullying student have met face-to-face and have apologized to each other.

This is a small but significant victory for victims of racial taunting and bullying but in the initial actions of the school’s principals and administrators, we once again see the evil twins of immigrant bashing — the first is the physical act itself, in this case the racial slurs, bullying, and first punch directed at the Korean Canadian student. But the second and equally appalling part are the lack of understanding, indifference, and outright hostility of our social institutions to respond to such immigrant bashing. In this case, the school officials initially blame the Korean Canadian student for the entire incident and wanted to expel him not just from the school but also from the entire school district.

Clearly, these officials just don’t get how racism works, most likely because as a White person, they’ve never experienced being called a racial slur, or had their group’s history or experiences denigrated, or had their distinct physical appearance mocked in public.

Unfortunately, examples of immigrant bashing do not end here. The entire range of such sentiments also includes official acts of government supported by politicians who we normally consider to be friends and allies of the immigrant population. One example is the federal “Troubled Asset Relief Program” (TARP) legislation that was passed in February to help bailout struggling financial institutions. One provision of the TARP act requires banks that receive federal bailout money to hire American workers over immigrants. As many community and business leaders argue, such a broad generalization against immigrant workers leads to some very troubling consequences:

In Sacramento, business leaders are worried about completing projects without the specialized expertise of consultants from foreign countries. . . . In California, foreign nationals helped create more than half of the startup companies in Silicon Valley, according to a Duke University study. In 2007, foreign nationals accounted for nearly two-thirds of all engineering doctorates awarded from the University of California and California State University systems, the study found. . . .

Wadhwa, an engineering professor at the Pratt School of Engineering at Duke and a researcher at the Harvard Law School, said some of his students are getting employment offers withdrawn, while others are frustrated and ready to move back home. He says it’s part of a troubling pattern in the United States: “Whenever there’s a downturn, you start blaming foreigners.”

In this example, I understand the need to make sure that federal money is used to help out Americans first. The problem with this is the assumption that immigrants are not Americans. Instead of seeing immigrants as productive Americans who pay American taxes, who buy American goods and services, and who contribute (many times disproportionately) in so many other ways to the economic health of the country — whether they are citizens, permanent residents, or even undocumented — immigrants are the first scapegoats when our country experienced difficulties.

Rather than looking deeper and more reflectively at the institutional issues that caused the current economic crises, such as high-risk loans and excessive greed on the part of financial institutions, we sadly and instinctively look to those living around us who seem to be different from us and based on this “Us versus Them” mentality, who we perceive to be not real, legitimate, or genuine Americans, and therefore, are somehow benefiting at our expense and therefore need to be vilified, dehumanized, and attacked — through our fists or our laws — as the cause of our problems.

Trying to Understand the Binghampton Tragedy

I’m sure you have heard by now about the tragedy in Binghampton, New York this past week, when Jiverly Wong (a Vietnamese American of Chinese ancestry) shot and killed 14 people at the American Civic Association immigrant assistance center, then shot himself. I join others in offering my sincere condolences to the family of those killed and to all affected by these shocking events.

In trying to understand this tragedy from a sociological point of view, I am reminded of just how similar this latest incident of violence is to the Virginia Tech shootings in 2007, when troubled Korean American student Seung-Hui Cho killed 33 students and professors before killing himself. Both cases involved a lone gunman who was personally very troubled and perhaps even mentally ill, who felt ridiculed and demeaned by others around him, and who had trouble fitting into mainstream American society.

And of course, both the killers were Asian American.

Inevitably, there will be those who will generalize these and other incidents that involved violence and murder committed by other Americans of Asian descent that have made the news in recent years, and conclude that Asian Americans are inherently socially awkward, emotionally and mentally unstable or inferior, and/or prone to violence. In fact, I felt the same kind of dread that I felt back in 2007 when I heard that the shooter in the Binghampton murders was identified as being of Asian descent.

Let’s put that unfortunate and misguided generalization to rest right now — as the official FBI statistics show, in 2007, in cases where the race/ethnicity of murder offenders is known, those classified as “Other” (the category that includes Asian Americans) represent only 2% of all murder offenders (keeping in mind that Asian Americans comprise 5% of the total U.S. population). More generally, research consistently shows that immigrants actually have lower crime rates than their U.S.-born counterparts (see Reid et al., (2005), “The Immigration-Crime Relationship.” Social Science Research 34:757-780).

Back to more realistic issues, from a sociological point of view, the most interesting difference between the Virginia Tech and Binghampton shootings is the race/ethnicity of the victims. At Virginia Tech, almost all of the victims were White and U.S.-born, whereas here in the Binghampton case, almost all of the victims were non-White and immigrants. Does this mean anything — is this difference significant?

Immigration (both undocumented and legal) is still a very hotly-debated and controversial issue in our society these days, and I’m sure there are some Americans who — consciously or unconsciously — downplay the significance of these Binghampton murder victims by rationalizing that as immigrants, they weren’t “real” or “legitimate” Americans anyway and that therefore, their lives are somehow devalued.

But I hypothesize that the overwhelming majority of Americans do not distinguish between the racial/ethnic identities of the murder victims and that as victims of a senseless tragedy, there is no distinction based on any status.

Ultimately, I actually think that it is this kind of unity of compassion regarding the victims of such tragedies that can serve to bring all Americans closer together. That is, as Americans and as human beings, we can hopefully all share in sympathizing with the families of these senseless shootings. Further, again as Americans, we probably also share the same worries about how the current economic recession will affect our lives and our future, a factor that, along with his apparent mental issues, may have contributed to pushing Jiverly Wong over the edge when he lost his job a few months ago.

In other words, even though we don’t contemplate shooting people after losing our jobs, many of us share the same worries when it comes to how we will pay our bills and save for our children’s future in these tough financial times. Through these kinds of difficulties, a few may unfortunately snap like Wong did, but many more will remember the humanity in us all and the need to help and support others like us so that we can all come out better in the end, like these examples below show us.

Blacks and Latinos Hurt More by Recession

In these tough economic times, Americans from all kinds of backgrounds are hurting financially. There seems to be depression reports in the news almost every day. Reports in the media have also focused a lot of attention on layoffs at large corporations, many of whom are shedding employees by the thousands. With that in mind, it may lead many of us to presume that middle class Whites are getting hit the hardest in this recession.

Certainly, many middle class Whites and their families are feeling the brunt of the recession and many find themselves struggling to make ends meet for the first time in their lives. However, as MSNBC reports, the data shows that on the aggregate level, it’s actually Blacks and Latinos that are being hit the hardest by the current recession:

Last hired, first fired: This generations-old cliche rings bitterly true for millions of Latinos and blacks who are losing jobs at a faster rate than the general population during this punishing recession. Much of the disparity is due to a concentration of Latinos and blacks in construction, blue-collar or service-industry jobs that have been decimated by the economic meltdown. . . .

Since the recession began in December 2007, Latino unemployment has risen 4.7 percentage points, to 10.9%, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Black unemployment has risen 4.5 points, to 13.4%. White unemployment has risen 2.9 points, to 7.3%. . . .

William Darity, a Duke University professor, said that “blacks and Latinos are relative latecomers to the professional world … so they are necessarily the most vulnerable.” . . .

“Not saying that it’s racism,” [an executive search consultant] said, “but if a manager or a senior executive is looking at a slate of individuals and has to let one of them go, chances are he or she will not let the person go that they spend a lot of time with at the country club or similar places.”

My point is not to play the “Oppression Olympics” and to argue that this group is much better off than another group, or one group is more oppressed than another. Instead, I would like to place these findings in a larger sociological context.

Many Americans feel that our society, while still not a perfect meritocracy, offers Americans from all backgrounds the best opportunities for success and achieving the American dream than at any time in our history — that the playing field is more level and equal now than it’s ever been.

I would agree that the opportunities for socioeconomic success are the most equal that they’ve ever been in American history. But that does not mean that everybody is on an equal playing field. Instead, what this MSNBC article and other sociological studies have shown is that Blacks and Latinos continue to experience particular institutional disadvantages in their efforts to achieve economic equality with Whites.

Specifically, as the article points out, Blacks and Latinos tend to be disproportionately located in service and manual labor industries. Beyond the fact that these industries tend to pay lower wages in general, they are also highly vulnerable in times of economic recession and we’re seeing this play out right now. As such, Blacks and Latinos experience their first disadvantage.

Their second disadvantage is that even for Blacks and Latinos who have professional occupations that normally are well-paying, again as the article points out, they are relative newcomers to such occupations and as such, when layoffs come, they are more likely to lose their jobs due to the “last hired, first fired” principle.

The third point of disadvantage is that due to the legacy of systematic discrimination in the past, Blacks and Latinos have been unable to accumulate the same level of family wealth compared to Whites. This is even despite the fact that while the income gap between Whites and Blacks and Latinos has declined, the wealth gap has actually increased in the past several decades.

This wealth gap is important because it provides a cushion or barrier to soften loss of employment and other financial difficulties. Therefore, because Blacks and Latinos have less accumulated wealth than Whites, they have a much smaller cushion to fall back on and therefore, are more susceptible to financial catastrophes.

Ultimately, these institutional disadvantages play a large part in why Blacks and Latinos seem to struggle more than Whites or Asian Americans when it comes to achieving economic success. They may be well-educated, motivated, and hard-working, but they also have to overcome more structural inequalities and barriers that make them more financially vulnerable in times of recession.