The Redskins have been in the news lately — on the front page of the Times, for example — and not for their prowess on the gridiron. It’s their name. Many native Americans find it offensive, understandably so. “Redskins” was not a name they chose. It was a label invented by the European-Americans who took their land and slaughtered them in numbers that today would be considered genocide.
President Obama offered the most tepid hint of criticism of the name. He did not say they should change their name. He said that if he owned the team, he would “think about” changing the name. But that was enough for non-Indians to dismiss the idea as yet one more instance of “political correctness.”
Defenders of the name also argue that the name is not intended to be offensive, and besides, a survey shows that most Americans are not bothered by it. I would guess that most Americans also have no problem with the Cleveland Indians logo, another sports emblem that real Indians find offensive.
In response the National Congress of American Indians offers these possibilities. The Cleveland cap is the real thing. The other two are imagined variations on the same theme.
The pro-Redskins arguments could also apply here. The New York Jews and San Francisco Chinamen and their logos are not intended to offend, and a survey would probably find a majority of Americans untroubled by these names and logos. And those who do object are just victims of “the tyranny of political correctness.” This last phrase comes from a tweet by Washington quarterback Robert Griffin III, an African American. His response seems to make all the more relevant the suggestion of years ago by the American Indian Movement’s Russell Means: “Why don’t they call them The Washington Niggers?”
Two recent events had a strikingly similar theme. Kenichi Ebina won America’s Got Talent and Nina Davuluri won Miss America. In both instances, other Americans objected to their victories, claiming that they were not really American because Ebina and Davuluri are of Japanese and Indian origin respectively. Still other Americans objected to this reaction. And yet, as I’ll argue below, most of us share their bias.
These are stark examples of people who believe that only white people count as American. It’s a bizarre position, of course, because people of European descent are immigrants to America, and an overtly racist one as well. I don’t lose any sleep over publishing their identities on this blog.
But, the truth is, the majority of us — even those of us who oppose racism and embrace the idea that the U.S. is a nation of immigrants — hold the belief that America = white. We just believe this subconsciously.
Project Implicit is an online psychological test that measures implicit beliefs, ones we hold that we’re not necessarily conscious of holding. One test is of the association of Asian-ness with American-ness. It works by measuring how long it takes us to sort Asian and European faces and American and Foreign famous sites into the proper categories.
First they ask you to sort faces and places with Asian and Foreign together on the left and European and American together on the right. Like this:
Then they switch the bottom designations so that Asian and American are on one side and European and Foreign are on the other. For most people, the harms their ability to sort faces and places: it slows down and includes more errors, revealing that their brain implicitly sees Asian and foreign as one category and American and European as another.
Here’s the aggregate data. Almost a quarter of people make no association either way, 60% implicitly believe that Asians are less American than Europeans, and 17% think the opposite.
The take home message is: even though it’s easy to condemn the twits making overtly racist comments, this is a problem that is much more pervasive and pernicious. Even those of us who are horrified by those tweets likely carry the bias behind them.
Here is something quite simple, sent along by Judy B. It’s a screenshot of Gimp, an open source image editing application. An optional plug-in, created by a user, offers a series of filters for images, including ones that “beautify.” One of the options is “skin whitening.”
This is one more reminder that we live in a racist society that conflates whiteness with beauty. Remember, too, though, that someone — very possibly a set of people — had to make a conscious decision to include skin whitening as an option and position it as a sub-category of beautification. Then they had to, literally, type the words into the program and make it so.
This shit doesn’t just happen. It’s not random. Racism isn’t just an ephemeral cultural thing. It involves actual decisions made by real people who, if not motivated by racism, are complicit with it.
Trayvon Martin was a black teenage boy. He was walking home from the convenience store when he caught the attention and ire of George Zimmerman. Perceived as a “punk” and a threat, Martin was accosted by the older man, and a physical altercation ensued. Trayvon Martin died when he was shot through the heart at close range. Though Florida’s expansive “Stand Your Ground” laws were invoked in media conversations, that defense never even entered into the trial. Zimmerman was acquitted when a jury decided he’d killed Martin in self-defense. Zimmerman has since said Martin’s death was “God’s plan.”
Some Americans believe that race was not central to this killing or to the case that followed—they have believed it from February 2012 right up until today. But ask yourself: How many times you have been stopped and harassed because you looked threatening or suspicious wearing a hooded sweatshirt? For me, an Asian American female, that number is zero.
Yes, my gender alone distinguishes me from Trayvon Martin, but my partner Mike is a white male, and he, too, can only say “Zero.” We have never been stopped nor questioned, no matter how many times we’ve pulled on our hooded sweatshirts for warmth (and, in my case, to hide sea-tangled hair) after early morning surfing.
Stopping for breakfast or to run errands, Mike and I may not look polished in our hoodies, but we’ve also never had to worry that our appearance would cause suspicion. That’s privilege. It’s such a privilege, this presumed innocence of ours, that the morning after Zimmerman was acquitted, we went ignored even while acting suspiciously. Hoodies up, we casually stopped to look at a condo for rent in an affluent beach community in southern California. We knew from the online ad that the condo was vacant, so we parked outside, walked up the stairs to the unit, and peered into its windows. We sauntered around the grounds and walked into the unlocked community laundry room and garage. Several neighbors saw us, and they smiled.
I couldn’t help but think that the scenario would have been very different if Mike and I were black. Mike and I don’t have to wear our class in order to obviate being treated like threats or criminals; we can wear hoodies and board shorts without worrying that others will be suspicious, fearful, or make assumptions about our class status. Just being “not black” affords us this benefit of the doubt. It is a privilege because it is not something we have earned, but it is gifted to us every day regardless. I have always known about my privilege intellectually, but I felt it keenly last Saturday.
That some are afforded this privilege while others are systematically denied should make us all more empathetic. People perceive and experience the same event differently, depending on visible status markers such as race, gender, age, and class. Such status markers are more than just categories, they form a “system of social practices” that organize social relations. Status markers presume difference, and so people will react to and engage with Mike or with me differently than they would with someone like Trayvon Martin, even when we’re dressed the same.
We would like to believe that we don’t make assumptions based on race or gender, but evidence proves otherwise, as this social experiment of three individuals (a white male, a black male, and white female) trying to steal a bike clearly reveals:
As the sociologist Robert K. Merton insightfully observed nearly three-quarters of a century ago, “The very same behavior undergoes a complete change in evaluation in its transition from the in-group to the out-group.” As the video above indicates, the behavior of a black male (an out-group member) is regarded entirely differently than the same behavior of a white male and white female (in-group members).
The in-group/out-group divide goes further, with grave consequences in our criminal justice system. For example, Jennifer Eberhardt’s research has shown that race affects the severity of sentences that juvenile offenders receive, even for the same crime. Just the idea of a black juvenile offender leads people to imagine juveniles more like adults. Even liberal white Americans who claim low levels of prejudice project more blame onto black boys and sentence them more harshly. As Eberhardt has shown, “race has the power to dampen our desire to be merciful.”
I don’t have children, but if I did, I don’t know how I would explain Trayvon Martin’s death or the acquittal of his killer. But even just imagining being a parent to a black son makes me feel immense empathy for the parents of young black men. Can just that simple exercise make others more aware of race and class privilege, more aware of the power they have to recognize and even challenge that privilege and its consequences? As Henry David Thoreau asked, “Could a greater miracle take place than for us to look through each other’s eyes for an instant?”
Jennifer Eberhardt and Aneeta Rattan, “The Race Factor,” New York Times, June 12, 2012.
Robert K. Merton. 1968 . “Self-fulfilling Prophecy,” in Robert K. Merton, Social Theory and Social Structure, 2nd edition. New York: Free Press.
Cecilia L. Ridgeway. 2011. Framed by Gender. New York: Oxford University Press.
Jennifer Lee is a sociologist at the University of California, Irvine. Her book, The Diversity Paradox, examines patterns of intermarriage and multiracial identification among Asians, Latinos, and African Americans.
In analysis of Presidential pardons during the George W. Bush administration, ProPublica has found that whites were four times as likely as non-whites to be granted a pardon. Pardons were granted to 12% of whites, 10% of Hispanics and Asians, and zero percent of Blacks and Native Americans. The disparity remained even when investigators controlled for type of crime.
…President George W. Bush decided at the beginning of his first term to rely almost entirely on the recommendations made by career lawyers in the Office of the Pardon Attorney.
The office was given wide latitude to apply subjective standards, including judgments about the “attitude” and the marital and financial stability of applicants…
Bush followed the recommendations of the pardons office in nearly every case… President Obama — who has pardoned 22 people, two of them minorities — has continued the practice of relying on the pardons office.
Sometimes disparate decisions in pardon cases were eyebrow raising:
An African American woman from Little Rock, fined $3,000 for underreporting her income in 1989, was denied a pardon; a white woman from the same city who faked multiple tax returns to collect more than $25,000 in refunds got one. A black, first-time drug offender — a Vietnam veteran who got probation in South Carolina for possessing 1.1 grams of crack – was turned down. A white, fourth-time drug offender who did prison time for selling 1,050 grams of methamphetamine was pardoned.
ProPublica traces the disparity to age, leniency given to people who are seen as “upstanding” members of society (e.g., they’re married, have little debt), the influence of money and politics (letters from Congresspersons and donations to lawmakers by convicts’ spouses), and simple prejudice. Nevertheless:
When the effects of those factors and others were controlled using statistical methods, however, race emerged as one of the strongest predictors of a pardon.
Originally posted in 2012. Re-posted in solidarity with the African American community; regardless of the truth of the Martin/Zimmerman confrontation, it’s hard not to interpret the finding of not-guilty as anything but a continuance of the criminal justice system’s failure to ensure justice for young Black men.
Today, June 19, marks the anniversary of the day Vincent Chin was beaten into a coma because he was Asian. As summarized in my article “Anti-Asian Racism,” Vincent Chin was a 27-year-old Chinese American living in Detroit, Michigan. On this date in 1982, he and a few friends were at a local bar celebrating his upcoming wedding. Also at the bar were two White autoworkers, Ronald Ebens and Michael Nitz.
Ebens and Nitz blamed the Japanese for the U.S. auto industry’s struggles at the time and began directing their anger toward Vincent. A fight ensued and eventually spilled outside the bar. After a few minutes, Ebens and Nitz cornered Vincent and while Nitz held Vincent down, Ebens repeatedly bludgeoned Vincent with a baseball bat until he was unconscious and hemorrhaging blood. Vincent was in a coma for four days until he finally died on June 23, 1982.
Ebens and Nitz were initially charged with second degree murder (intentionally killing someone but without premeditation). However, the prosecutor allowed both of them to plea down to manslaughter (accidentally killing someone). At the sentencing, the judge only sentenced both of them to three years probation and a fine of $3,780. The sentence provoked outrage among not just Asian Americans, but among many groups of color and led to a pan-racial coalescing of groups demanding justice for Vincent.
Vincent’s supporters got the U.S. Justice Department to bring federal charges against Ebens and Nitz for violating Vincent’s civil rights. In this trial, Ebens was found guilty and sentenced to 20 years in prison while Nitz was found not guilty. However, the verdicts were thrown out because of a technicality and a second trial was ordered. The defense successfully got the trial moved away from Detroit to Cincinnati OH. In this second federal trial, an all-White jury acquitted both Ebens and Nitz of violating Vincent’s civil rights.
Vincent’s death and the injustices he, his family, and all Asian Americans suffered still stand as a stark and sober reminder that, in contrast to the image of us as the “model minority” and the socioeconomic successes that we have achieved, Asian Americans are still susceptible to being targeted for hostility, racism, and violence. We only have to look at recent incidents in which Asian American students continue to be physically attacked at school, and other examples of Asian-and immigrant-bashing and White backlash to see that we as society still have a lot of work to do before Asian Americans (and other groups of color) are fully accepted as “real” or “legitimate” Americans.
The silver lining in Vincent’s case was that it was a watershed moment in Asian American history because it united the entire Asian American community like no event before. For the first time, different Asian groups began to understand that the discrimination committed against other Asians could easily be turned towards them. In other words, for the first time, Asians of different ethnicities, cultures, and nationalities united around an issue that affected them all.
As a result, the Asian American community mobilized their collective resources in unprecedented ways and Vincent’s death was the spark that led to the creation of a network of hundreds of non-profit organizations working at local, state, and national levels to combat not just hate crimes, but also other areas of inequality facing Asian American (i.e., housing, employment, legal rights, immigrant rights, educational reform, etc.). Vincent’s death has had a powerful legacy on the Asian American community — as a result of the collective action demanding justice, it contributed to the development of the “pan-Asian American” identity that exists today.
This is why it is important for all Asian Americans, and all of us as Americans, to remember Vincent Chin — to mourn the events of his death, to reflect on how it changed the Asian American community forever, and to realize that the struggle for true racial equality and justice still continues today.
C.N. Le is a senior lecturer and the director of the Asian and Asian American Studies Center at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. He is the founder and principle writer for Asian-Nation. You can follow him on Twitter.