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.

Back in September, I wrote about a pattern of racial violence between predominantly African American and Asian American groups of students in schools in the South Philadelphia area. Unfortunately in recent weeks, the violence seems to have escalated, as described in the news video segment below:

My fellow Asian American blogger Angry Asian Man has done a nice job of covering these events and chronicling the developments that include large numbers of Asian American students boycotting classes last week and an emotional emergency meeting of students, parents, community leaders, and school officials in which students described in detail the brutal nature of such attacks.

In my previous post, I covered the sociological background of these kinds of racial violence incidents includes demographic changes taking places in many Philadelphia neighborhoods and the cultural instability that arises from having to adjust to new neighbors and a changing racial/ethnic landscape. This situation is further complicated by economic insecurity leading to scapegoating and displaced aggression on the part of the attackers.

However, there is one important point that I did not discuss in great detail in regard to these particular incidents (but did in a previous post on similar incidents of racial violence in New York City), and which the Asian American students themselves emphasized in their public testimony and descriptions. Specifically, that point is that the violence itself is bad enough. What makes it even worse is that many school officials, staff, teachers, and security personnel have repeatedly ignored the students complaints and concerns and in some cases, have even cheered on the attackers:

” ‘As soon as we open our mouths and speak, they treat us like we’re animals,’ ” Ellen Somekawa, executive director of Asian Americans United quoted a Vietnamese student. ” ‘Where are you from?’ ‘Hey, Chinese.’ ‘Yo Dragon Ball.’ ‘Are you Bruce Lee?’ ‘Speak English!’ ” Somekawa said the students are told.

Those aren’t the words of the students who harass Asians, she said. “They are the words of the adult staff at South Philadelphia High. So stop blaming the children and start owning the responsibility.” . . . The protesters carried signs, some reading: “Stop School Violence,” “It’s Not a Question of Who Beat Whom, but WHO LET IT HAPPEN” and “Grown-ups Let Us Down.” . . .

Over and over again, Asian community leaders said the real problem is “not just a bunch of bad kids,” but the school’s leadership.

Xu Lin, community organizer for the Philadelphia Chinatown Development Corp., said community members were upset during a meeting with school officials last Friday “to see the principal playing with her cell phone when the students and their parents were giving statements about the violence that had occurred the day before. We were even more offended to see the safety manager . . . sleeping during the meeting in front of the whole community.”

A number of Asian students pointed out that they have African-American friends who have helped them with their English and have been nice to them. . . At one point, a multiracial contingent of South Philadelphia High students asked the Asian students to come back to school.

It is truly sad to see that those whose job it is to promote a positive learning environment and racial tolerance are actually a big part of the problem and make such racial tensions worse. In order to effectively address this situation, we need to find those responsible for such attacks, regardless of what racial/ethnic background they are, and deal with them in a way that punishes their actions without criminalizing them and turning them into “repeat racists.”

But just as important, the school officials, teachers, staff, and security personnel who failed in their jobs to protect these students need to be disciplined as well, including being fired if necessary. I personally have no tolerance for officials who shirk their paid responsibilities and in some cases, apparently misuse their authority and actually contribute to the bullying taking place.

In the same way that we chastise and clamor for the termination of government officials who fail to do their jobs and in fact engage in various forms of misuse of power or malfeasance, these school officials and other adults involved have failed miserably in their professional duties and moral obligations and can no longer be trusted and therefore deserve to be fired.

Sometimes, it is only when you “clear house” and start from scratch that true change and healing can begin. I wish everyone involved, especially the Asian American students, the best success in resolving these differences and healing their physical and emotional wounds.

We all know that immigration — legal and unauthorized — has been a hot-button topic for a while now. This is the case even before President Obama has even seriously tackled the question of immigration reform. One of the key points of contention has been whether immigrants contribute more to American society than they receive in social services.

In recent weeks, a few new studies try to shed some more light on this question and in the process, inject a little objectivity and data into an otherwise emotionally-charged debate. The first report comes from the non-partisan Fiscal Policy Institute and as described at the Immigration Impacts blog at the Immigration Policy Center, the economic contributions of immigrants constitute a net benefit for their communities:

The report studies the 25 largest metro areas (by population) which produce nearly one half of the total gross domestic product of the country. It shows that in the country’s main metropolises, the share of the immigrant population stacks up neatly against their share of economic output. For example, immigrants are responsible for 20% of economic output and make up 20% of the population in these 25 metropolitan areas. In other words, immigrants pull their own weight.

From the report: . . . “From the Pittsburgh metro area, where immigrants make up 3 percent of the population and 4 percent of economic output, to the Miami metro area, where immigrants represent 37 percent of all residents and 38 percent of economic out¬put, immigrants are playing a consistently proportionate role in local economies.”

A second newly-released report comes from the Migration Policy Institute and examines the economic impacts of unauthorized immigrants in the U.S. Again as described by the Immigration Impacts blog, the report finds that considering the costs and benefits associated with unauthorized immigrants, both cancel each other out in the end:

The overall impact of illegal immigration on the U.S. economy is small. According to [Economics Professor Gordon Hanson, the report’s author], “Illegal immigration produces a tiny net gain to the U.S. economy after subtracting U.S.-born workers’ losses from U.S. employers’ gains. And if we account for the small fiscal burden that unauthorized immigrants impose, the overall economic benefit is close enough to zero to be essentially a wash.”

Enforcement against illegal immigration is expensive. The U.S. spends approximately $15 billion annually enforcing immigration laws. A simple cost-benefit analysis indicates that the high level of spending on enforcement is not justified. . . .

MPI policy analyst Marc Rosenblum and Jeanne Butterfield of the National Immigration Forum largely agreed with Hanson, but took the argument a step further, making a strong case for legalization . . . Rosenblum pointed out that the net fiscal impact of illegal immigrants improves over time—immigrants are not only workers, but consumers, entrepreneurs, and investors, and their contributions improve over time.

This particular report basically confirms earlier research that show that legal immigrants constitute a notable net gain for American society and its economy and that taken together, unauthorized immigrants also contribute more both in the short term (through paying sales taxes, income taxes, overall purchasing power, and entrepreneurial activities) and long term (by becoming productive citizens and not having to rely on public assistance).

Finally, at New America Media, a third article on the contributions of immigrants points out that as the laws currently exist, legal immigrants are prohibited from using Medicaid (the federal healthcare program for low-income Americans), even though they pay federal taxes that help to fund such programs and that in essence, recent legal immigrants are subsidizing healthcare for everyone else:

Currently, legal immigrants, who work and pay taxes that contribute to our health care system will continue to be ineligible to receive federally-funded Medicaid services for five years. In this case, we are not talking about those who make at least 133 percent of federal poverty level and could access affordability credits like everyone else for purchasing insurance in the exchange. We are talking about immigrants with the lowest incomes. It is unreasonable and saddening that under the current health reform proposals, the people who really need it will not get it.

I am under no delusions that these reports and data will change the mind of hard-core or extremist opponents of immigration (legal and unauthorized) anytime soon. Rather, for those who are willing to consider valid, reliable, and nonpartisan research, these studies are useful in wading through some of the political ideology and seeing what the actual numbers say.

With that in mind, the time for comprehensive immigration reform has come. By comprehensive, it means that we need to focus on more than just reinforcing our border with Mexico. Instead, it also means overhauling our immigration detention system, which, a new bipartisan report finds, has a long and documented history of bureaucratic lapses, with the detainees routinely denied basic rights such as being told why they are being held.

It also means providing unauthorized citizens already in country with a path toward eventual citizenship and access to opportunities to achieve social and economic mobility, such as the DREAM (Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors) Act (currently being debated in Congress) that would allow young immigrants without legal status who demonstrate “good moral character” to apply for citizenship.

Comprehensive immigration reform is particularly relevant and important these days as American society and the world in general continues to wrestle with the benefits and drawbacks of globalization and living in an increasingly interconnected world. As a new book titled Immigrant, Inc.: Why Immigrant Entrepreneurs Are Driving the New Economy (and how they will save the American worker) describes:

Both a revelation and a call-to-action, Immigrant, Inc. explores the uncommon skill and drive of America’s new immigrants and their knack for innovation and entrepreneurship. From the techies who created icons of the new economy — Intel, Google, eBay and Sun Microsystems — to the young engineers tinkering with solar power and next-generation car batteries, immigrants have proven themselves to be America’s competitive advantage . . . [and] will create the American jobs of the future — if we let them.

That last part seems to be the key — immigrants have much to contribute to American society and our economy, if only we let them do so, rather than trying to get rid of them.

As many of you presumably already know, “Blackface” is the practice of non-Blacks using dark-colored makeup or other materials to darken their face and skin so that they appear to be Black, usually for the purpose of impersonating a Black person in a public setting. The history of this practice is a long and sad one and almost always is associated with reinforcing and perpetuating racist stereotypes about Blacks. In fact, I recently wrote about a high-profile Blackface incident in Australia and commended entertainer Harry Connick Jr. (who is White) for calling it out as racist.

Similarly, “Yellowface” is the practice of non-Asians impersonating Asians in a public setting, usually by dressing them up in traditional “Asian” garments, altering their eyelids, or donning some other prop such as buck teeth, all of which again serve to reinforce and perpetuate racist stereotypes against Asians and Asian Americans.

Recently, there was a skit on Saturday Night Live (SNL) that included actor Will Forte impersonating Chinese President Hu Jintao, along with Iranian American actor Nasim Pedrad playing the role of an interpreter. The video of the skit is below:

Since Will Forte is in fact White and is portraying an Asian character, this is technically Yellowface. But the question then becomes, is this racist and offensive? I know that many Asian Americans do find this particular portrayal offensive and they certainly have a right and reason to do so.

For me however, I will go out on a limb and say that I personally don’t think this particular portrayal was that offensive. It would be one thing if SNL had an Asian male cast member who could have played Hu Jinato but was passed over in favor of Forte, but obviously this was not the case (although it would be nice if SNL eventually had an Asian American male cast member). Further, Forte’s portrayal of Hu did not include the racist characteristics usually found with offensive Yellowface portrayals.

In other words, Forte did not artificially alter his eyes or eyelids or wear traditional garments to look more “Oriental.” Nor did he use racist caricature features such as buck teeth. Further, even though Forte did impersonate Hu speaking Chinese, it was very muted and not a central part of his portrayal, as opposed to the traditional exaggerated and blatantly offensive “ching chong” artificial dialog that we’ve seen in the past.

Further, the SNL skit did not include any elements or activities that have been associated with offensive Asian characters through the years, such as performing kung fu, working as a cook or waiter, or as an evil villain. Also, Forte did not try to portray Hu speaking English with a Chinese accent, which would have been much more offensive. Further, Pedrad’s portrayal of the interpreter did not include an exaggerated Chinese accent either.

In fact, fellow sociologist blogger Lisa at Sociological Images has just compiled an excellent video retrospect of White actors playing Asian characters through the years. If you watch the videos included in her post, you will see that all of them include at least one of these offensive characteristics that I listed above.

The larger point I am trying to make is that there are different degrees of offense when it comes to Asian Americans. Regular readers to this blog know that I’ve spent plenty of time pointing out different individual- and institutional-level incidents and examples of that I have found offensive and racist toward Asians and Asian Americans. But ultimately, American society and the world in general are not simple either-or, black-or-white, yes-or-no dichotomies. Instead, we need to realize that there are varying degrees of oppression, inequality, and in this case, potentially offensive media portrayals.

Asian American actors are likely to tell you the same thing when it comes to which roles they accept or reject. As this clip from the Turner Classic Movie series “Race in Hollywood: Asian Images in Film” shows, even well-respected Asian American actors will take on roles that have them playing a sweatshop worker or one that has them speak with an Asian accent, if other aspects of their character are more nuanced and substantive:

Similarly, even Asian American writers and filmmakers have been criticized when it comes to how they portray members of their community. Relatively recent examples include when author Amy Tan and director Wayne Wang were criticized for promoting gender stereotypes in the otherwise critically-acclaimed and watershed Asian American book and movie The Joy Luck Club, or when director Justin Lin was criticized for his less-than-model-minority portrayals of Asian American high school students in another breakthrough Asian American film Better Luck Tomorrow.

In the end, yes, it would have been nice if SNL had an Asian American male cast member who could have played Hu in this particular case. But given that limitation, I did not find their skit to be nearly as offensive as past portrayals that have made me wince in disgust. Maybe this just means that I’ve been desensitized by so many blatantly racist portrayals through the years. But more likely, I think it just shows that there are different levels of offense when it comes to how Asians and Asian Americans are portrayed.