As we continue to commemorate February as Black/African American History Month, we should recognize that throughout American history, religion has played a very powerful and important role in the Black community. More recently, the issue of religion among African Americans became prominent news in this past election, evidenced by the controversy regarding Barack Obama’s association with Reverend Jeremiah Wright and how many gay/lesbians expressed resentment and anger toward the Black community for their overwhelming support of Proposition 8 that led to the reversal of same sex marriage in California.

Since these two events seem to be located at different ends of the political spectrum, this should prompt us to understand in more detail the characteristics and complexities of religion among African Americans. Toward that end, the Pew Research Center, Forum on Religion and Public Life, has released a new study entitled, “A Religious Portrait of African Americans.” Some excerpts:

African-Americans are markedly more religious on a variety of measures than the U.S. population as a whole, including level of affiliation with a religion, attendance at religious services, frequency of prayer and religion’s importance in life. . . . [N]early eight-in-ten African-Americans (79%) say religion is very important in their lives, compared with 56% among all U.S. adults. . . .

Compared with other groups, African-Americans express a high degree of comfort with religion’s role in politics. In fact, . . . African-Americans tend to closely resemble white evangelical Protestants on that score, with roughly six-in-ten among both groups saying that churches should express their views on social and political topics, and roughly half saying that there has been too little expression of faith and prayer by political leaders. . . .

According to Pew Research Center surveys conducted in the summer of 2008, nearly two-thirds of African-Americans (64%) say they oppose allowing gays and lesbians to marry legally, a significantly higher level of opposition than among whites (51%). . . .

Regardless of their religious background, African-Americans overwhelmingly support the Democratic Party. . . . Three-quarters of all African-Americans (76%) describe themselves as Democrats or say they lean toward the Democratic Party, while just 10% favor the Republicans. . . . This unity of partisanship among African-Americans carries over into the voting booth, where they have voted overwhelmingly for Democratic presidential candidates in recent elections (95% for Barack Obama in 2008 and 88% for John Kerry in 2004).

So on the surface, these findings about religion among African Americans may seem rather contradictory, at least from a political point of view. Specifically, it is understandable that African Americans tend to be more religious than the general population and as a direct result of that, they overwhelmingly oppose same sex marriage.

But with that in mind, how can it be that African Americans are also consistently and overwhelmingly Democratic in terms of political identification? In other words, how can a group be so strongly opposed to same sex marriage but at the same time, so strongly support the political party that tends to favor same sex marriage?

There is likely a variety of reasons for this apparent paradox, but my purpose here is not to delve into them in great detail, nor to explore the morality of the opinion among many African Americans in opposition to same sex marriage — other academics and commentators have much more expertise than me in that regard.

Instead, I would just point out that this phenomenon shows us that the African American community is not simplistic and unidimensional. Rather, it is quite complex and even at times, contradictory. In this sense, it is much like the White population, the Asian American population, the Latino population, and pretty much all kinds of human social groups.

That is, much of American society can be accurately categorized and predictable but on the other hand, much can also be quite contradictory and confusing at times as well. In either case, studies like this should prompt us to look beyond simple generalizations and instead, to recognize and examine the multiple dimensions of characteristics, experiences, and attitudes among African Americans or any other racial, ethnic, or cultural group in contemporary American society.

As Congress and American society in general continue to argue over what’s the best way to stimulate the economy and to start bringing us out of this recessions, in a recent op-ed piece for the New York Times, Thomas Friedman proposes a simple suggestion:

Leave it to a brainy Indian to come up with the cheapest and surest way to stimulate our economy: immigration.

“All you need to do is grant visas to two million Indians, Chinese and Koreans,” said Shekhar Gupta, editor of The Indian Express newspaper. “We will buy up all the subprime homes. We will work 18 hours a day to pay for them. We will immediately improve your savings rate . . . and we will start new companies to create our own jobs and jobs for more Americans.”

While his tongue was slightly in cheek, Gupta and many other Indian business people I spoke to this week were trying to make a point that sometimes non-Americans can make best:

“Dear America, please remember how you got to be the wealthiest country in history. It wasn’t through protectionism, or state-owned banks or fearing free trade. No, the formula was very simple: build this really flexible, really open economy, tolerate creative destruction so dead capital is quickly redeployed to better ideas and companies, pour into it the most diverse, smart and energetic immigrants from every corner of the world and then stir and repeat, stir and repeat, stir and repeat, stir and repeat.”

It seems to me that admitting more immigrants to stimulate the economy is one of those rare “bipartisan” suggestions that free-market capitalist conservatives and pro-immigrant liberals can both agree on.

Yes, I understand that the issue is more complicated than simply letting in more immigrants and that there would be a issues surrounding exactly who to let in and with what kind of background and qualifications, and to ensure that these new immigrants will not take existing jobs away from Americans, etc.

But the point is, sometimes the best solutions are the ones few people pay attention to because they’ve been trained to think in conventional terms. As many would argue, it’s this kind of conventional thinking and conventional greed that has put us in this position to begin with. So as the cliche goes, maybe it’s time to think outside the box.

After all, this new administration was elected on the promise of change, wasn’t it?

A popular topic on this blog is university admissions and the representation of students from all racial/ethnic groups, especially at the University of California (’UC’), the nation’s largest, most diverse, and in many ways, the most controversial higher education venue in the country. With the debate on affirmative action still on high boil and as American society continues to become more diverse, the issue of university admissions is likely to be on the front burner of American educational policy for the foreseeable future.

The latest flare-up involves recently-approved changes to the University of California’s admissions requirements that tries to expand the pool of students who are eligible for admissions (as opposed to the actual criteria for deciding who actually is admitted). As Inside Higher Education reports, according to data from the UC itself, they project that under these new eligibility rules, the racial/ethnic group that would be affected most negatively in terms of admissions are Asian Americans:

36 percent of those admitted to the university system in 2007-8 were Asian Americans. Applying the new admissions standards, that percentage would drop to 29-32 percent. In contrast, white applicants made up 34 percent of those admitted in 2007-8. Under the proposed reforms, they would have made up 41 to 44 percent of the entering class. . . .

But university leaders are playing down the demographic projections and defending the admissions plan, which emerged from the Academic Senate, a system-wide faculty group. . . . The proposal before the Board of Regents today would do the following:

  • End the requirement that applicants submit two SAT Subject Test scores.
  • Narrow from the top 12.5 to the top 9 percent of high school graduates the percentage who will be guaranteed admission to the university system (although not necessarily to the campus of their choice).
  • Expand the definition of applicants eligible for a full admission review to include all who complete 11 of 15 required high school courses by the end of their junior year, and achieve a grade-point average of at least 3.0

The last shift is expected to greatly expand the pool of those entitled to a full admissions review, where personal qualities and other factors may help some win admission. Indeed those deemed eligible for a full review would go up in all racial and ethnic groups. But the gains in eligibility are not necessarily going to translate into gains in admissions for all groups. . . .

Mary Croughan, an epidemiologist at the university’s San Francisco campus and chair of the systemwide Academic Senate, said that the apparent disadvantage for Asian Americans is actually a result of their success. Such a large share of Asian American high school students already are eligible to be considered and win admission that their numbers couldn’t go up as much as those of other groups, she said.

It appears that there are two separate issues here. The first is, changing admissions eligibility rules so that more students from underrepresented racial/ethnic groups (specifically, African Americans, Latinos, and American Indians) will be eligible for admissions. On that count, I have always and continue to wholly support such efforts.

If these changes do in fact allow students from a more diverse set of backgrounds to have a chance at admission, they would be very similar to the kind of “holistic admissions” changes that I and other scholars support that do not focus specifically on an applicant’s race/ethnicity but would still give underrepresented minority students a better chance at admissions. So in this context, I think everybody involved is basically on the same page and share the common goal of wanting to improve the admissions chances of underrepresented students.

But it’s the second issue here that is much more controversial — will these proposed changes affect Asian Americans in a disproportionately negative way and will their proportions of all admissions decline as a result? The first question to ask is, how accurate are the UC’s own estimates and predictions? How likely is it that Asian American applicants will be hurt by these new changes? If it turns out that these changes do not affect the proportion of Asian Americans, the question is basically moot.

A regular reader of my blog (Oiyan Poon, graduate student in Education) is writing an analysis paper on this issue and makes several good points. First is that because the new eligibility rules basically expands the number of California students eligible for admissions (from 46,795 to 76,141), in terms of raw numbers, all racial/ethnic groups, including Asian Americans, will see an increase in the actual number of students eligible (about 4,000 for APAs).

But since the number of the increase for Asian Americans is small in proportion to their existing number of eligible students, the percent change represents an increase relative to the new overall total of students eligible for admissions. However, Oiyan points out that these projections are very tentative (projected to affect the first eligible class four years from now) and are based on several debatable assumptions — for instance, not all eligible students actually apply for admissions to the UCs. Finally, most of the increase in eligibility for APAs will benefit low-income and first generation students.

So as Oiyan points out, there are valid questions over whether the dire projections about fewer APA students being admitted under these new rules. But for the sake of argument, let’s say that the new rules do end up lowering the proportion of each entering class that is Asian American. If so, the question then becomes, how fair are these changes? Unfortunately, there are no easy answers to that particular question.

On the one hand, as the article points out, the number of Asian American applicants to the UC’s is already disproportionately high so that as a matter of simple mathematics, there’s not much room to go any higher and almost by default, their numbers would decline somewhat as a result of these changes.

On the other hand, we can validly argue that even if Asian Americans as a whole have disproportionately high application and admissions numbers, the fact is that every one of those Asian American students has worked hard and earned that position. Therefore, these changes would unfairly hurt them when in fact, they did everything right.

Inevitably, if these changes result in lower Asian American admission rates, there would certainly be a loud outcry from many critics of affirmative action — many of whom are already Asian American — that once again, “good” students are being denied admissions in favor of “mediocre” ones.

My position on affirmative action has always been two-fold: first, whether it relates to university admissions, government contracts, job preferences, etc., these areas of contention do not have to be zero sum propositions. That is, one person’s gain does not automatically have to mean another person’s loss. Instead, we can have a system that includes plenty of opportunities for everyone.

I understand that the number of university admission spots is not infinite and you have to draw the line somewhere, but if we as a society make higher education a higher priority, we can provide more opportunities for more students. In the process of doing so, we can also depressurize this atmosphere of intensity and hostility over a resource that in many ways, has been artificially limited.

My second point is that rather than focusing disproportionate attention on the symptoms of the problem, we need to address the fundamental cause of it — the unequal quality of education that underrepresented groups such as African Americans and Latinos face. In other words, through no fault of their own and even if they are extremely bright and hardworking, many such students receive a substandard education that puts them at a disadvantage when it comes to university admissions.

For this reason, affirmative action was created to help them overcome these structural (as opposed to individual) disadvantages. So to really cure the root problem, we need to focus more attention on ensuring that all students, regardless of their race or where they live, receive access to a high quality education that will ultimately put everyone on the same level of competitiveness.

These are issues that we as a society have been dealing with and trying to address for generations and obviously, such solutions are easier said than done. However, for the first time in a long time, I think we have a realistic chance at making such changes. Hopefully this new administration can begin to take constructive steps toward more equality in elementary and secondary schools that can put underrepresented students in a better position to compete for university admissions.

With any hope, such disagreements around these admissions eligibility changes and the entire debate around affirmative action will fade into the background, if we tackle the root of the problem, rather than just trying to alleviate the symptoms.

Many of us know that politics in Asia can be a rough-and-tumble affair. Criticisms against China have been documented and continue to make the news. The nuclear threat from North Korea still hovers over much of the world also. Unfortunately, we now have to add Thailand to this list.

In recent months, more stories and examples of democratic and human rights abuses taking place in Thailand have made the news. This includes writers jailed and prominent international magazines banned for criticizing the Thai monarchy, and perhaps most disturbing of all as my colleague Andrew Lam reports, the Thai military directly responsible for the drowning of refugees:

For a country steeped in Buddhism, Thailand is accruing terrible karmic debts. News reports, including those by the Thai press itself, indicate systematic abuse of refugees fleeing from its neighbor, Myanmar.

Tourists have seen and photographed Thai troops abusing members of a Muslim minority group who were fleeing Myanmar by boat to Thailand’s southern shores. . . . CNN recently confirmed with a Thai military source that Thailand is practicing a dump-at-sea policy: towing boats back to the sea, often without giving refugees food or water.

UN refugee agency spokeswoman Kitty McKinsey expressed the gravity of the situation: “The reports that we are hearing are very alarming. That the [boat people] were detained in Thailand and then towed out to sea on unseaworthy boats and left to die basically.” . . .

Thailand’s long antipathy toward its neighbors is notorious. UN records are full of documents, describing how Thai pirates used hammers, machetes, and guns to massacre entire boats of refugees, including children and women [in the wake of the Viet Nam War]. . . . Despite international protest, the Thai government made few attempts to prosecute those accused.

During the Cold War, Thailand also supported the Khmer Rouge, the genocidal regime responsible for the death of more than 2 million Cambodians. . . . Last year, when the world condemned Myanmar for its inaction after the cyclone Nargis devastated half of its country, Thailand spoke in favor of the junta.

I must admit that I had not heard of these developments until now. Like most everybody else, I presume, much of my attention regarding news and current events in Asia center around China, Japan, and/or North Korea and the mainstream media doesn’t seem to mention much about Thailand, besides the occasional reports of popular uprisings and political instability.

If anything, the picture that many Americans have of Thailand is of a tourist vacation hotspot with warm, sunny beaches and a teeming nightlife in its large cities such as Bangkok. But news like this is a wake-up call for us to look beneath the surface and to examine Thailand’s history in more detail. In doing so, we see that Thailand is not always the tropical paradise we had imagined.

In fact, the incidents described are rather disturbing and prompts me to drastically alter my idea of Thailand as a true democracy. On top of that, as Andrew Lam points out in his article quoted above, as Buddhism is the official state religion, the Thai government and military seem to be failing miserably in living up to their Buddhist ideals of compassion and non-violence.

I hope its leaders find their way out of this karmic jungle soon, for everybody’s sake.

February is Black/African American History Month and the Census Bureau has again provided us with an historical summary and a few noteworthy statistics for this occasion:

To commemorate and celebrate the contributions to our nation made by people of African descent, American historian Carter G. Woodson established Black History Week. The first celebration occurred on Feb. 12, 1926. For many years, the second week of February was set aside for this celebration to coincide with the birthdays of abolitionist/editor Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln. In 1976, as part of the nation’s bicentennial, the week was expanded into Black History Month. Each year, U. S. presidents proclaim February as National African-American History Month.

40.7 million
As of July 1, 2007, the estimated population of black residents in the United States, including those of more than one race. They made up 13.5 percent of the total U.S. population.

65.7 million
The projected black population of the United States (including those of more than one race) for July 1, 2050. On that date, according to the projection, blacks would constitute 15 percent of the nation’s total population.

38%
Percentage of Mississippi’s population that is black, highest of any state. Blacks also make up more than a quarter of the population in Louisiana (32%), Georgia (31%), Maryland (30%), South Carolina (29%) and Alabama (27%). They comprise 56% of the population in the District of Columbia.

2.4 million
Number of single-race black military veterans in the United States in 2007. More military veterans are black than any other minority group.

19%
Percentage of single-race blacks 25 and older who had a bachelor’s degree or higher in 2007.

1.2 million
Among single-race blacks 25 and older, the number who had an advanced degree in 2007 (e.g., master’s, doctorate, medical or law). In 1997, 717,000 blacks had this level of education.

$88.6 billion
Revenues for black-owned businesses in 2002. The number of black-owned businesses totaled nearly 1.2 million in 2002. Black-owned firms accounted for 5 percent of all non-farm businesses in the United States.

$33,916
The annual median income of single-race black households in 2007, up from $32,876 (in 2007 constant dollars) in 2006.

24.5%
Poverty rate in 2007 for single-race blacks, statistically unchanged from 2006.

64.5%
Percentage of families among households with a single-race black householder. There were 8.5 million black family households.

46%
Nationally, the percentage of households with a householder who is single-race black who lived in owner-occupied homes. The rate was higher in certain states, such as Mississippi, where it reached 59%.

27%
The percentage of single-race blacks 16 and older who work in management, professional and related occupations. There are 49,730 black physicians and surgeons, 70,620 postsecondary teachers, 49,050 lawyers, and 57,720 chief executives.