In the realm of racial/ethnic relations, sociologists consistently observe that certain beliefs — let’s even call them stereotypes — can take on a life of their own and attain a level of “legitimacy” that defies logic and rational thinking.

In the context of the presidential campaign between Barack Obama and John McCain, one persistent belief/stereotype is that Obama is a Muslim, when in fact he is a Christian. There is absolutely nothing wrong with being a Muslim of course, but certain extremists are using this stereotype against Obama and suggesting that if elected, he will somehow turn the country into a fundamentalist Islamic state.

To shine some light into the nuts and bolts of how such outlandish perceptions can become so widespread, two authors have written an op-ed piece in the New York Times that illustrates the social and biological workings of this process:

The Obama campaign has created a Web site to dispel misinformation. But this effort may be more difficult than it seems, thanks to the quirky way in which our brains store memories — and mislead us along the way. . . For example, you know that the capital of California is Sacramento, but you probably don’t remember how you learned it.

This phenomenon, known as source amnesia, can also lead people to forget whether a statement is true. Even when a lie is presented with a disclaimer, people often later remember it as true.

With time, this misremembering only gets worse. A false statement from a noncredible source that is at first not believed can gain credibility during the months it takes to reprocess memories from short-term hippocampal storage to longer-term cortical storage. As the source is forgotten, the message and its implications gain strength. . . .

Even if they do not understand the neuroscience behind source amnesia, campaign strategists can exploit it to spread misinformation. They know that if their message is initially memorable, its impression will persist long after it is debunked.

In other words, when it comes to controlling information and what is perceived to be “true” or not, the link between biology and society becomes a very powerful tool for both sides to exploit and manipulate. This is in line with Joseph Goebbels’ (Nazi Germany’s Minister of Propaganda) famous quote, “If you tell people a lie often enough, eventually they will start to believe it.”

With that in mind, we should also recognize that these days and through such media as the internet and various blogs, social networking sites, and other forms of mass communication, such misinformation can be spread quite easily and effectively.

In the past, liberals have not been quite as skilled in these respects. With this in mind, I hope this time we’ve learned our lesson and can better respond in asserting facts over stereotypes.

Regular readers to this blog may have noticed that I have not posted often as of late. As you might have guessed, it’s because I’m on vacation — visiting my parents and friends in southern California. As part of my trip, we also did the Disneyland thing the other day by going there with some friends and their families.

Overall, it was a fun experience, especially for my daughter, who never objects to a trip to the Tragic, err Magic Kingdom. However, there were a couple of “incidents” that — unexpectedly — stood out as interesting metaphors for the sociology of being “American,” a theme about which I’ve often blogged on this site.

Specifically, my wife, daughter, and I were part of a large group that included two of my best friends (Jim and Tony) from high school and their families, Jim’s ex-girlfriend from high school (Kim), and Jim’s sister (Michelle) and her family. For the record, they are all White while of course, my wife, daughter, and I are Asian American.

The “incidents” in question were when we were about to board a particular ride or attraction and the Disneyland attendant would determine who was in which party and therefore, how many people to let into each car for the ride in question.

A couple of times my family and I were at the tail end of the group and as such, when we reached the ride attendant, s/he would close the gate before we could enter, thinking that were were not part of the group that s/he just let in, when in fact, we were. We would immediately let him/her know that we were part of the group s/he just let in and the attendant would say, “Oh ok, sorry about that” and let us in.

For us, we did not think that much about it because quite frankly, we’re used to being thought of as “outsiders” or not part of the “normal” or “mainstream.” But each time these incidents happened, my friend Tony noticed and by the second time, he remarked that he found those incidents to be a little jarring for him to see how we were automatically thought of as “outsiders” in everyday situations like being at Disneyland.

One of the reasons why Tony and I have been friends for so long is because long ago, he understood my identity as an Asian American, a person of color, and some of the challenges that I face on the individual and institutional levels of American society as a result of these identities. So it’s not as though he is completely clueless about such issues.

But when he admitted that he found those incidents to be rather disconcerting, I realized that for many White Americans, they may have an intellectual understanding of racism, or at the least, implicit racial assumptions that function to exclude people of color, but until they actually see it happen right in front of them, they really cannot appreciate just how such incidents can accumulate in the psyche of people of color and for the perpetrators of such racial exclusion.

Ultimately, these incidents — the actual “closing of the gates” as we were about to enter and my friend Tony’s reaction to them — serve as an interesting and useful metaphor for the status of people of color, particularly Asian Americans, in American society in the eyes of many Whites.

That is, we are frequently and automatically seen as outsiders and not “real” or “authentic” members of the mainstream and second, that our White allies sometimes don’t fully understand or appreciate our position in American society until they see it happen right in front of their eyes.

As you can see, sociology can happen in many places — even Disneyland.

I received the following announcement from a reader who is looking to publicize his video project on Asian American interracial couples and about Asian Americans in the media. As always, links are provided for information only and do not necessarily imply an endorsement of its contents.

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Here are two 30 minute shows I have on YouTube (see link below). I discuss the obstacles & oppositions that interracial couples face (my wife is African American & we have a beautiful daughter) and I also interview people on the street & ask their opinions of interracial marriages.

The second video is of NC’s only Asian Anchor/Reporter, Julie Luck of Fox News. As an Asian male I find that we are still a scare sight in the media and when we are rarely seen it is often as a kung fu fool or in a negative stereotype. I discuss those issues along with issues that are unique to Asian Americans in the media.

The channel I am on reaches 200,000 homes all around our city and surrounding counties. We find that fifty percent of the callers and people who stop us on the street are supportive & the other half are negative. I hope with Asian activist like yourself we can change perceptions and create more opportunities for Asian males…maybe we’ll see an Asian James Bond, Indiana Jones, Batman or President of The United States!

I received the following announcement from the well-respected Asia Society about a series of short videos they’ve produced on preferences for the upcoming presidential election among Asian policy leaders:

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At the Asia Society’s 36th Annual Williamsburg policy conference in Bali, Indonesia, key Asia-Pacific leaders were asked to discuss the US elections and to comment on their preferred candidate.

Over 80% of all Asia-Pacific leaders interviewed expressed a preference for Barack Obama, arguing that he would be best for US foreign relations and would send a positive, hopeful message to the world.

Check out all the responses to “If Asia Could Vote in the US Elections” and a companion feature, “One Piece of Advice to the Next US President.”

Both videos are quite interesting and offer good information and advice for how our next President can maintain and develop closer ties with our Asian neighbors, many of whom are poised to take on a more prominent role as we move forward into the 21st century.

For most academics who study racial/ethnic relations, we almost exclusively focus on civilian society. But what are such relations like in the military? You might recall that the military was one of the first American institutions to desegregate, occurring in 1948 through Executive Order 9981.

To help us compare racial/ethnic relations in the military versus civilian life, as Newsweek magazine reports, University of Massachusetts at Amherst sociologist Jennifer Lundquist recently published a comprehensive study that contains some interesting findings:

The study of over 30,000 active duty personnel suggests that the armed forces’ social hierarchy—explicitly based on rank—overrides many of the racial or gender biases in civil society, which tend to act as barriers for women and minorities in career advancement. . . .

In civilian society African-Americans generally express higher dissatisfaction with their jobs than their white counterparts and are less committed. But Lundquist’s study of 30,000 active-duty personnel found that those norms are largely flipped in the military.

She looked at five measurements of career satisfaction, including overall quality of life and opportunities for advancement, and found African-American women to be the most positive and satisfied with their jobs, followed by African-American men, Latinas, Latinos and white women. White men are the least satisfied with their military careers, rating their satisfaction and overall happiness with their jobs much lower.

“It’s not that the military environment treats white males less fairly; it’s simply that, compared to their peers in civilian society, white males lose many of the advantages that they had,” Lundquist says. “There’s a relative deprivation when you compare to satisfaction of peers outside of the military.”

I should provide the disclaimer that Prof. Lundquist is a colleague and also a good friend of mine. Nonetheless, her research findings are quite compelling in their own right.

To summarize, those findings are that within the military, there is a much more stringent set of regulations regarding how personnel are judged and promoted. Based on this structure, outcomes do not differ nearly as much by race/ethnicity as they do in civilian society, where such criteria is much less standardized.

Therefore, Whites in the military generally do not enjoy the same privileges of being White that their counterparts enjoy in civilian life and conversely, people of color fare better and have higher levels of life satisfaction than their counterparts in civilian life.

Prof. Lundquist’s results also show that women report higher levels of satisfaction inside the military than do men, although the specific details are a little more complicated. In the end, as the Newsweek article sums up, “There’s a very clear contrast in job satisfaction between civilian and military society, and it seems to come down to the military’s meritocractic structure.”

Of course, Americans continue to debate the institutional morality of the military’s existence and the role it plays in international affairs, but that’s a separate question. The take-home message here seems to be, in regard to fostering racial/ethnic equality, apparently American civilian society can learn a few lessons from its military.

In the past two days, two news items concerning Asian Americans and higher education have made national news. Regarding the first, as I’ve explained before when it comes to Asian Americans being portrayed as the “model minority,” this image may be intended as a compliment in some ways, but ultimately, such perceptions about universal Asian American success only serve to hurt those who do not fit into that idealistic portrayal.

To reinforce this idea, the College Board has just released a comprehensive study entitled “Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, Fact, Not Fiction: Setting the Record Straight” that, as Inside Higher Education notes, lauds Asian Americans for their notable achievements but also details several major problems associated with treating all Asian Americans as “model” students:

The report suggests that while Asian-American students have achieved notable successes on admissions tests such as the SAT and admission rates at highly selective institutions, only a subset enjoys such accomplishments. Many other students lag, but they are excluded from support programs and the public discussion about diversifying higher education because of the success of others. . . .

The report comes at a time that many talented Asian-American high school students — and the guidance counselors who advise them — fear that the most competitive institutions are discriminating against them. The report also comes at a time that the success of some Asian Americans is viewed as license to mock them in ways that strike many as insensitive at best and racist at worst.

Just as important, the report also describes social class and immigration-nativity differences among various Asian Americans that pose a challenge to many who try to access higher education, with many elementary and high school teachers and counselors minimizing the struggles that many students experience in their studies.

This report serves as a useful resource and reminder that while Asian Americans share many characteristics in common, we cannot automatically assume that there is a “universal” Asian American experience or situation that all members of this category fit into. In other words, contrary to one of the most enduring stereotypes applies to Asian Americans, we are not all alike.

In the second development, you may recall that in 2006, an Asian American applicant filed a federal complaint against Princeton University after he was rejected, claiming racial discrimination. As Inside Higher Education reports, this complaint has now prompted the U.S. Justice Department to expand its investigation into how Princeton treats Asian American applicants as a whole:

A department spokesman stressed that converting the investigation did not mean that officials had come to any conclusions about the original complaint. But at the very least, the shift suggests that the government does not view the complaint as frivolous. . . .

Cass Cliatt, a spokeswoman for Princeton, said that the university was pleased by the broadening of the investigation. “We actually welcome the opportunity to talk about this,” Cliatt said. “There are a lot of misconceptions about how colleges and universities use the process. We’re happy to explain to OCR how we do this.”

As the Insider Higher Ed article points out, it appears that the Justice Department is interested in using this Asian American applicant’s complaint against Princeton to critically examine affirmative action in general. From a political standpoint, it is not really a surprising move since the overriding presumption has always been that the present administration is not a big fan of affirmative action.

I am on record as supporting many forms of affirmative action and that is is probably inevitable that some applicants of any race/ethnicity with “higher” objective qualifications will get rejected in favor of other applicants with “lower” objective qualifications.

At the same time, I also feel that as long as minimum standards are met and that the goals of such affirmative action programs are to create a racially and ethnically diverse class and to give students from less privileged backgrounds equal access to a college education than more privileged applicants, that such affirmative action programs still have a place in college admissions and other areas of American society.

Nonetheless and similar to Princeton’s reaction, I welcome this inquiry into Princeton’s admissions practice because it allows Princeton to delineate in detail how it goes about making its admissions decisions and presumably, will show that objective qualifications are just one set of criteria for admissions.

Hopefully the inquiry will show that Princeton does not systematically discriminate against Asian American applicants but if it does, then I certainly support Princeton (and any other college that is equally guilty) being held accountable.

We all know that affirmative action is still one of the most contentious and divisive issues in American society and particularly among Asian Americans. However, I still feel that there can be a middle ground where Asian Americans get fair and just consideration when it comes to their admissions (with objective qualifications being an important but not the only criteria) and also where qualified applicants from less privileged backgrounds get access to a college degree as well.

In other words, I do not believe that college admissions — or American society as a whole — is necessarily a zero-sum proposition. Instead, I feel that the resources are there to create opportunities for everyone who is deserving.

As I’m sure all of you already know, last week Barack Obama officially secured the Democratic Party’s nomination to be the next President of the United States. As many commentators, journalists, and bloggers have been saying, his status as the first non-White Presidential nominee of a major political party is truly historic in many ways.

I would like to place his historic accomplishment in a sociological context and specifically, how it fits into the larger landscape of American race relations.

Undoubtedly, you’ve heard or read about the elation that many African Americans feel about his clinching of the Democratic nomination. Rightfully so, African Americans — and indeed all Americans — should rightfully feel proud that history has been made and that Obama’s nomination represents a milestone in American race relations.

At the same time, does his nomination mean that Blacks and other people of color have now “made it?” Have Blacks achieved racial equality now that “one of their own” is the Democratic nominee for President? And just as important, does this mean that Blacks and other people of color no longer need “special programs” like affirmative action?

Unfortunately, I am pretty confident that most sociologists will answer no to all these questions. That is, while Obama’s accomplishment is indeed historic and a significant step toward racial equality, the success of one or a relatively few high-profile Blacks does not mean that all Blacks have achieved equality.

In other words, we need to keep in mind that racial inequality operates at different levels — the individual level, group level, and institutional level. It would be a great moment in American society if we can completely eliminate racial prejudice on the individual level.

But even if that ever happens, racial inequality and discrimination will still exist on the institutional level because various policies, practices, and other mechanisms would still directly or indirectly benefit the White majority over Blacks and other groups of color.

That is, even if Obama were to win and become our next President, we should still understand that there are millions of Blacks and other people of color who still earn less money than a comparable White worker, even for the same job and with the same qualifications.

Or that suburbanization policies put into place some fifty years ago are still responsible for why Blacks of all social classes continue to be residentially segregated and relegated to lower-quality housing compared to Whites, which has contributed to why the wealth gap between Whites and Blacks has increasing, even though the wage gap has narrowed.

Therefore, for those of us who support Obama, we should certainly celebrate this moment in American history and do whatever we can to see him elected as our next President. At the same time, I hope we keep in mind that our work is only another step down the road of achieving racial equality.

One of the knocks against academics and professors, especially those who study social inequality issues, is that we don’t do anything with our knowledge. That is, we conduct research and learn about the different ways people are treated unfairly and unjustly in American society, but passing on this knowledge to students in the courses we teach, we don’t use our knowledge to try to change the situation.

Thankfully, there are exceptions to these criticisms. As the Los Angeles Times reports, many professors at Santa Ana College in California are literally putting their money where their mouths are by donating some of their salary to a scholarship fund that assists low-income students attend their classes:

Chemistry professor Jeff McMillan is sick of seeing otherwise capable students drop his courses because it costs too much to go to school. So much so that he is opening his wallet.

McMillan and about a dozen other faculty and staff members at Santa Ana College have started a scholarship fund that they hope will make it easier for low-income students to afford their classes.Starting this fall, each will fund a student’s course fees for a year — about $600 for a full-time schedule.

Professors say the donation comes with the satisfaction of knowing the student their money is helping. . . . The Opportunity Scholarship will be awarded to students with extreme financial need. Instructors will recommend students who have great potential but are struggling to pay for school.

Each student will be paired with one of the faculty sponsors, who will serve as an informal mentor. . . . Most likely to benefit will be students who are not citizens and thus are not eligible for federal student aid or a state program that waives fees for low-income community college students.

I hope that they serve as an inspiration for other professors at colleges around the country, but at the same time, assistance programs like this are ultimately the responsibility of colleges and universities themselves, especially elite private colleges that have the endowment and resources to give low-income students the chance at a better life through a college degree.

Although there’s still a long way to go, thankfully there seems to be a trend among such elite colleges out there that they need to use their vast wealth and resources to help all members of society get a college education, not just the wealthy and privileged.

At any rate, kudos to the faculty at Santa Ana College who not only talk the talk, but they aren’t afraid to walk the walk. Or as another cliche goes, “Well done is better than well said.”

The explicit focus of this site and blog has been and continues to be on Asian Americans. Nonetheless, we should not ignore our counterparts up north — Asian Canadians, who share many things in common with us but who also have their own distinct histories and characteristics.

With that in mind, the Victoria Times Colonist newspaper has an article that compares the educational attainment patterns of various Asian Canadian immigrant groups versus that of White Canadians:

[Data from the 2006 census show that] the group with the highest proportion of university-educated people [between 35-44] were Korean Canadians, where 74.7 per cent of respondents in the age group analyzed had a university degree.

Filipino and Chinese Canadians were in second and third place with about 58.6 and 58.4 per cent of their community holding university degrees.

Arab Canadians weren’t far behind with university graduates making up 51.6 per cent of the population. The study found 48.5 per cent of Japanese Canadians had graduated university followed by 47.8 per cent of West Asians and 47.4 per cent of South Asians.

The levels of university education were significantly lower for Latin Americans, 33 per cent of whom had a degree, and for the black community, where 30.1 per cent had completed university.

However, the groups that were the least likely to have a university degree were white Canadians, only 25.9 per cent of whom had graduated university, and those from Southeast Asia where only 22 per cent had a degree. . . .

But while Canadians from visible minorities have higher levels of education on average than those who aren’t from a visible minority, several of Jedwab’s previous studies have shown that their higher education levels don’t always translate into better employment or better income levels.

In many cases, Canadians from visible minorities with university degrees earn a fraction of what their white counterparts earn and have lower employment levels.

In this case, the socioeconomic attainment patterns of Asian Canadians are quite similar to that of Asian Americans — many (though not all) Asian ethnic groups have higher college degree attainment rates than the White population, but that does not automatically translate into comparable income and occupational attainment levels.

In other words, just like Asian Americans, Asian Canadians still experience some degree of inequality — perhaps we can even say discrimination — when it comes to applying their high educational credentials to the actual income that they receive.