As all major news organizations are reporting, Massachusetts Senator Edward Kennedy passed away last night at the age of 77. Other news sites and blogs will offer a comprehensive review and description of his personal and professional life, so I would just like to share my own thoughts on his legacy as it relates to racial/ethnic relations and civil rights, but also what it means to be a “liberal.”

Even though he grew up in wealth and privilege, he always stood up for the less privileged and powerful among us. Among his many causes while in Congress were his championing of the Patients’ Bill of Rights and perhaps most famously, his tireless efforts toward passing universal healthcare coverage. Indeed, in his four-plus decades of service in the Senate, he amassed quite an impressive record of legislation and public service.

I will also remember his work on behalf of racial equality and justice. He was an early, consistent, and strong advocate for civil rights, exemplified by his record on supporting and sponsoring legislation on voting rights, education, labor rights, and poverty that helped all Americans but disproportionately benefited people of color and the poor the most. As the New York Times notes:

He led the Congressional effort to impose sanctions on South Africa over apartheid . . . . His most notable focus was civil rights, “still the unfinished business of America,” he often said. In 1982, he led a successful fight to defeat the Reagan administration’s effort to weaken the Voting Rights Act. In one of those bipartisan alliances that were hallmarks of his legislative successes, Mr. Kennedy worked with Senator Bob Dole, Republican of Kansas, to secure passage of the voting rights measure, and Mr. Dole got most of the credit. . . .

At a pivotal moment in the 2008 Democratic presidential primaries, Mr. Kennedy endorsed Senator Obama for president, saying Mr. Obama offered America a chance for racial reconciliation and an opportunity to turn the page on the polarizing politics of the past several decades.

“He will be a president who refuses to be trapped in the patterns of the past,” Mr. Kennedy told an Obama rally in Washington on Jan. 28, 2008. “He is a leader who sees the world clearly, without being cynical. He is a fighter who cares passionately about the causes he believes in without demonizing those who hold a different view.”

But ultimately, I will remember Senator Kennedy for his uncanny and natural ability to balance two seemingly contradictory identities — on the one hand, being a true liberal Democrat and on the other hand, being able to cross ideological boundaries and to genuinely collaborate with Republicans on bipartisan causes.

Until recently and especially during the presidencies of Reagan, Bush I, and Bush II, due to the ideological clashes and culture wars within American society, it was a derogatory term to be called a “liberal.” Nonetheless, there are many of us, including me, who are proud to be liberal and I saw Senator Kennedy as a model for being a true liberal. As I mentioned, his congressional and public service record on behalf of traditionally “liberal” causes is unquestioned. Even when it was considered an insult to be called a liberal, Senator Kennedy never backed down from his beliefs and passion to achieve meaningful equality and justice for all Americans.

But in order to get things done and achieve results, the practical reality is that it requires collaboration. Understanding that, Senator Kennedy was extremely skilled at working with fellow Republicans and reaching compromises that still retained his core ideals. The New York Times again summarizes:

Although he was a leading spokesman for liberal issues and a favorite target of conservative fund-raising appeals, the hallmark of his legislative success was his ability to find Republican allies to get bills passed. Perhaps the last notable example was his work with President George W. Bush to pass No Child Left Behind, the education law pushed by Mr. Bush in 2001. He also co-sponsored immigration legislation with Senator John McCain, the 2008 Republican presidential nominee. One of his greatest friends and collaborators in the Senate was Orrin Hatch, the Utah Republican.

Senator Edward Kennedy at the 1980 Democratic National Convention © Associated Press

In the end and for me personally, Senator Kennedy will always embody the Buddhist-like, yin-and-yang ideal of achieving balance in how we conduct our lives. He came from wealth and privilege but he never wavered in standing up for the downtrodden and underprivileged. His personal life was not without controversy but he worked tirelessly in excelling in his professional life. And he always stood proud and true to his liberal convictions but also knew when and how to collaborate with others to get results and move forward as a nation.

Senator Edward Kennedy’s legacy is one that we can all learn from as Americans, today and always. In his own famous words from the 1980 Democratic convention,

The work goes on, the cause endures, the hope still lives, and the dream shall never die.

 

If you’ve read more than a few articles on Asian-Nation, you already know that I rely a lot on Census data and statistics for this website and blog. In addition, as an academic, I also use Census data heavily for my own research studies, as do thousands of other sociologists, demographers, statisticians, analysts, and others in all kinds of disciplines and fields.

It’s with this in mind that many of us are eagerly anticipating the 2010 Census. After the questionnaires and data collection start this spring, the actual data won’t be completely tabulated and released to the public until 2013 or so. Nonetheless, as a recent Time magazine article describes, diverse racial and ethnic groups around the country understand how important it is that the federal government has an accurate count of their population numbers and the overall importance of these Census data to American society in general:

The U.S. Census is gearing up for its once-a-decade tally of America’s population. And so are thousands of groups with a vested interest in being fully counted — since the Census determines not just seats in the House of Representatives but also how some $400 billion in annual federal funding gets divvied up, the way companies think about where to build factories and stores, and the shape of political and social discourse about issues like race, ethnicity and urban vs. rural America. . . .

Brazilians in Boston are creating public-service announcements to run on Portuguese-language radio stations. The state of California is handing out maps of neighborhoods with low participation rates in the last Census so community groups can target where to knock on doors. . . . “The Census,” says Melanie Campbell of the National Coalition on Black Civic Participation, “is all about financial resources and power.” . . .

To think about what’s at stake — beyond $3 billion in unemployment funds, $4 billion worth of rural-electrification loans, $6 billion in Head Start money and hundreds of billions of other federal dollars — consider the Burmese. Some 17,000 people living in the U.S. identified themselves as Burmese in the 2000 Census, but “we know that’s not the right number,” says Aung Naing, chairman of the Burmese Complete Count Committee. . .

In Southern California alone, there are seven or eight Burmese Buddhist temples, he says. So since the fall, Naing has been traveling the country, explaining to Burmese groups that the Census counts everybody — citizen or not — and that the data collected aren’t shared with other parts of the government, like immigration or taxing authorities (common fears that drive down response rates among many minority groups, including blacks and Hispanics).

The Time article acknowledges that there have been instances in the past where Census data has been used against particular racial/ethnic groups, such as during World War II when they were used to identify neighborhoods that had large Japanese American populations, so that they could more easily be rounded up and placed in prison camps.

There are also many Americans who don’t trust the federal government in general and will refuse to complete a Census form based solely on those grounds. As I’ve also written about, the Census Bureau has also experienced more than a few bureaucratic glitches that it will hopefully resolve under the guidance of its new boss, Secretary of Commerce Gary Locke.

For people and community organizations interested in learning more about the Census’s importance to Americans of all backgrounds, or in helping to promote participation in their own community, there are some excellent resources at CivilRights.org and NonProfitsCount.org. The Census Bureau also has numerous informational material translated in dozens of languages for downloading. As with the Time magazine article, these resources emphasize that an accurate count of the U.S.’s population forms the basis for many important but often overlooked political, economic, and social decisions that are made that end up affecting our daily lives.

As it relates to Asian Americans, the Asian American Justice Center has a nice summary of the Census’s importance to APAs. Also, the Census Bureau has produced some short videos introducing and promoting the 2010 Census, with the embedded clip below aimed specifically at Asian Americans (the clips are a little elementary but are a good way to start the discussion):

Also, my good friend and colleague Larry Shinagawa is Director of the Asian Pacific American Census Information Center (APACIC), based out of the Asian American Studies Program at the University of Maryland. As noted on their website:

[The APACIC] was established to serve the census data needs of the national, regional, and local Washington metropolitan area Asian Pacific American communities. In September 2006, APACIC was designated as a Census Information Center (CIC) by the U.S. Census Bureau. As a member of the U.S. CIC Program, APACIC serves underserved and disadvantaged Asian Pacific American communities especially in the mid-Atlantic region by providing access to U.S. Census Bureau products.

The APACIC page linked to above also contains numerous resources and reports on various Asian American ethnic groups and other aspects of the Asian American population for those who are interested. I hope all Americans, and particularly Asian Americans, will complete and return the Census questionnaire that they’ll receive soon so that we have as accurate as possible a picture of our society and population.

A reader sent me a link to a recent article from the Seattle Weekly that follows and describes in detail the late-night activities of young Asian American hip-hop club goers in the Seattle area. The article itself is relatively long and to understand the debate that I’m going to discuss below, you should read it in its entirety. Here are just a few excerpts:

Pham is Vietnamese. He’s invited several friends to his Tukwila townhome that Friday to pre-funk before going out to one of their favorite Seattle clubs: Venom. All the 20-somethings pre-funking at his house are also Asian—most of them Vietnamese or Cambodian. Almost every weekend, they hit up Venom, a Belltown dance club that draws a predominately Asian crowd. . . .

“I have some white friends who won’t even go [to Venom],” [22 year old Cambodian American Somealear] Mom says, laughing. “It’s too Asian for them. For us, it’s like family. Everybody knows each other there.”

That’s exactly what club promoters targeting the Asian demographic are going for. The nights that draw the most Asians are the ones that have a crowd within “two to three degrees of separation,” according to Tony Truong, managing partner of the Seattle office of Visionshock, the largest Asian-American nightlife company in the country. . . .

“Asians are like neon tetra fish—they travel in schools,” Truong says. “You always see masses of them together. Once you get the group leader to come, you get the entire group. Then you get the friends of people in that group, and so forth.”

The trend has become increasingly visible in Seattle’s Asian nightlife scene over the past several years. Promoter Nam Ho of Steady Productions organizes weekly parties at Venom, War Room, and Sea Sound Lounge—all notorious hot spots for Asian club-goers. He attributes the rise in popularity of these parties to the fact that Asians have long had to create their own nightlife scene.

“A lot of Asian-Americans that you see out there don’t go to a four-year university or have a scene they really fit into,” Ho explains. “They aren’t going to frat parties or dive bars or sports bars. But many of them have been born and raised here, so they’re incredibly in tune to the city. The club is a good comfort zone for them to go out with other Asian-Americans.”

It may be familiar territory now, but the club scene is a far cry from the atmosphere in which many of these 20-something Asians were raised. They grew up accustomed to having their strict first-generation parents forbid them from engaging in the social activities of their teenage peers. . . .

“Traditional Asian culture is very conservative. Our parents teach us to study hard and to work hard. They want us to be doctors or lawyers or to start families. Sometimes, they forget to teach us to live. That’s why Asians get extravagant at the bar. We’re constantly going out and pounding Grey Goose like there’s no tomorrow because we’re playing catch-up,” [Truong says].

As I said, the article includes many more details about the activities of these young Asian Americans, which as the article’s author writes, includes using the stereotype that all Asians look alike to get underage patrons into a club. Overall, the article spends a lot of time implicitly and explicitly focused on this “neon tetra fish” analogy — how young Asian Americans clustering together during the weekends has developed into this emerging trendy club scene in the Seattle area.

Therein lies the controversy. As illustrated by the readers’ comments at the end of it, this article seems to have unleashed a debate about whether it promotes racial/ethnic diversity by publicizing the real-life activities of an institutionally underrepresented ethnic group such as Asian Americans (particularly Vietnamese Americans) who have been traditionally ignored by the mainstream media, or whether the article promotes cultural stereotypes and a one-sided view of Asian Americans as clannish and materialistic alcoholics?

As a Vietnamese American myself who is also a sociologist specializing in Asian American Studies, I will first say that, at the risk of copping out, the answer is quite complicated and that ultimately, it does both.

On the one hand, I have to give the Seattle Weekly credit for doing a story that specifically profiles Asian Americans. It is indeed true that even in areas where Asian Americans are increasingly becoming more prominent demographically, politically, economically, and culturally, they are still frequently ignored by the mainstream media and other social institutions.

In other words, sadly we are still the “invisible minority” in a lot of areas of American society. With that in mind, articles like this at least show the rest of American society that in many ways, Asian Americans are just like everybody else — after a week of working hard at their jobs, we want to cut loose on the weekends, have a good time with our friends, and from time to time, indulge in some drinking and partying.

I also credit the article’s author for quoting the Vietnamese American party promoters and their observations that in many areas of mainstream American social life, Asian Americans have felt left out, unwelcomed, and even excluded. With that in mind, the party-goers in this article have sought to develop their own sense of community. In fact, their actions continue the long history of Asian Americans reacting to systematic discrimination by forging their own communities and institutions.

However, creating their own communities have paradoxically led to and perpetuated the stereotype that Asians are insular and cliquish and only want to hang out with “their own kind.” What this criticism doesn’t acknowledge however, is that Asian Americans had to associate within their own group because they were directly excluded from participating in mainstream American society in many cases. In other words, they had to choice but to cluster together.

Fast forward to today and we can recognize that almost all examples of direct, systematic segregation against Asian Americans are a thing of the past (although not entirely, at least when it comes to other groups of color). Nonetheless, in many instances where Asian Americans congregate together, we are still accused of being cliquish. The other point to consider is that in almost all cases, these young Asian Americans spend their entire workweek completely integrated and assimilated into mainstream American society. Nonetheless and sadly, old stereotypes are hard to kill.

So, like I said, I think that this article can serve a positive purpose in promoting the wider inclusion of Asian Americans in mainstream American society and to make other Americans think hard about this sociological question of what it means to hang out within your own ethnic/cultural group.

On the other hand, the picture that this particular article promotes may not be a positive one for the Asian American community. Specifically, a casual reader might read this article and come away with reinforced stereotypes that Asian Americans are like cliquish “neon tetra fish” as I just discussed, but also that we’re superficial and materialistic, closet alcoholics who can’t hold their liquor and like to relieve ourselves in parking lots, and/or that we all look alike.

That is exactly the drawback of this particular article — it presents only one picture, one example of Asian American life. In other words, it is only one set of observations about the Asian American community. But in its defense, it was not meant to be anything more than that — it was not intended to be a comprehensive portrayal of all Asian Americans, young Asian Americans, or even young Asian Americans in the Seattle area.

Nonetheless, the danger that some Americans will see this as representative of all Asian Americans is real.

In other words, the potential that this article will perpetuate stereotypes is especially pronounced precisely because Asian Americans have been and continue to be ignored by mainstream American media. Because of this exclusion, many Americans do not have a diverse picture of who Asian Americans are and therefore, are more likely to rely on the few images and portrayals that do exist, many of whom are rather biased or, at least with this particular article, unrepresentative of Asian Americans as a whole.

Like many portrayals of Asian American experiences, this article is a double-edge sword that can both help and harm our community.

For a while now, I’ve written about how the demographic increase in the size of the Latino American and Asian American populations will inevitably also lead to increased political, economic, and cultural power and influence as well. I also hypothesize that one example of this burgeoning political power was how Latinos and Asians voted overwhelmingly for Barack Obama in the presidential election and as a result, helped to put him over the top.

In other words, Latino and Asian American voters are becoming increasingly important as voting blocs — a sizable constituency group that, if mobilized to voter overwhelmingly for a particular candidate, can make the difference between victory and defeat in a close election. For years, groups such as African Americans, Jewish Americans, and “NASCAR dads” have been important voting blocs.

To reinforce this notion of the increasing political power of Latinos and Asian Americans, as first mentioned by Seth Hoy at the Immigration Impact blog, the Census Bureau has just released detailed voter data from the 2008 election and among other things, they show:

  • Latinos represented 7.4% of all Americans who voted in the 2008 election (about 9,745,000 out of 131,144,000 total voters). This represents an increase from being 5.4% (about 5,934,000) of all voters in the 2000 election.
  • Asian Americans represented 2.8% of all Americans who voted in the 2008 election (about 3,627,000 out of 131,144,000 total voters). This represents an increase from being 1.8% (2,045,000) of all voters in 2000.
  • Non-Hispanic Blacks comprised 12.3% of all voters in the 2008 election, an increase from 11.5% in the 2000 election.
  • Conversely, non-Hispanic Whites made up 76.3% of all voters in 2008, a decline from 80.7% in 2000.

The data comparisons between 2000 and 2008 clearly show that Latinos and Asian Americans (and to a slightly lesser extent African Americans) comprise an ever-increasing proportion of the American electorate. Just as important, their power as a voting bloc are increasingly becoming evident as well, as noted by the following quote from the Immigration Impact blog post:

In Indiana, Obama won by roughly 26,000 votes, and received the votes of nearly 24,000 more Latino New Americans than John McCain. Similarly, in North Carolina, Obama won by approximately 14,000 votes, yet received the votes of nearly 26,000 more Latino New Americans than McCain.

We should note that Whites are still the largest racial voting group by far. Nonetheless, the rise of Latinos and Asian American is likely to become even more pronounced as both both groups continue to increase in population size, particularly among those who become naturalized citizens and the second generation (the U.S.-born).

The other interesting trend to note is data that shows Latino and Asian American voters are increasingly voting Democratic as well.

With these demographic and cultural shifts in mind, the fundamental nature of the American political landscape is likely to continue to change for generations to come.