For frequent readers of this blog, you’ve probably read several posts in which I discuss the anti-minority, anti-immigrant White backlash phenomenon. For those who aren’t familiar with such arguments, the White backlash is basically the idea that many (as in a large number, perhaps even most, but not all) White Americans increasingly feel destabilized and even threatened by many of the following developments in American society:

  • The changing demographics of the U.S. in which non-Whites increasingly make up a larger proportion of the population and the projection that in about 35 years, Whites will no longer be a majority in the U.S.
  • The political emergence of non-Whites, best represented by the election of President Obama, and also illustrated by the growing Latino population.
  • The continuing evolution and consequences of globalization, the growing interconnections between the economies of the U.S. with other countries, and the economic rise of China and India.
  • The “normalization” of economic instability and how, even after this current recession ends, Americans will likely still be vulnerable to economic fluctuations that affect the housing market, stock market, and overall unemployment.
  • The unease about the U.S.’s eroding influence and military vitality around the world.
Tea Party protester © Jeff Malet/maletphoto.com

Taken together, these institutional developments and their negative consequences have been increasingly been felt on the individual level by many Americans. But in the case of White Americans, they have had a particularly significant impact because, as a group, their position at the top of the American racial hierarchy is increasingly being threatened — politically, economically, and socially.

That is, even though many Whites will deny their position at the top and the privileges that they directly and indirectly enjoy, ultimately very few would be willing to trade places with a person of color if given the choice. So as many Whites see these shifts and changes taking place around them, they increasingly feel confused, defensive, and angry about what is happening to “their country.”

For those who say I’m overreacting, take a look at Gregory Rodriguez’s recent article in Time magazine where he basically points out the same thing:

As much as Americans pride themselves on the notion that their national identity is premised on a set of ideals rather than a single race, ethnicity or religion, we all know that for most of our history, white supremacy was the law of the land.

In every naturalization act from 1790 to 1952, Congress included language stating that the aspiring citizen should be a “white person.” And not surprisingly, despite the extraordinary progress of the past 50 years, the sense of white proprietorship — “this is our country and our culture” — still has not been completely eradicated. . .

This [White backlash] won’t take the form of a chest-thumping brand of white supremacy. Instead, we are likely to see the rise of a more defensive, aggrieved sense of white victimhood. . . . one can hear evidence of white grievance in many corners of the country. And it’s not coming just from fringe bloggers.

In the spring of 2008, candidate Hillary Clinton appealed to “hardworking white Americans” to help her campaign against an ascendant Barack Obama. Last March, conservative commentator Glenn Beck suggested that the white man responsible for the worst workplace massacre in Alabama history was “pushed to the wall” because he felt “silenced” and “disenfranchised” by “political correctness.” . . .

[E]ven though they are still the majority and collectively maintain more access to wealth and political influence than other groups, whites are acting more and more like an aggrieved minority.

Columnist Frank Rich at the New York Times makes similar points:

The conjunction of a black president and a female speaker of the House — topped off by a wise Latina on the Supreme Court and a powerful gay Congressional committee chairman — would sow fears of disenfranchisement among a dwindling and threatened minority in the country no matter what policies were in play. It’s not happenstance that Frank, Lewis and Cleaver [African American members of Congress] — none of them major Democratic players in the health care push — received a major share of last weekend’s abuse.

When you hear demonstrators chant the slogan “Take our country back!,” these are the people they want to take the country back from. They can’t. Demographics are avatars of a change bigger than any bill contemplated by Obama or Congress.

The week before the health care vote, The Times reported that births to Asian, black and Hispanic women accounted for 48 percent of all births in America in the 12 months ending in July 2008. By 2012, the next presidential election year, non-Hispanic white births will be in the minority. The Tea Party movement is virtually all white. The Republicans haven’t had a single African-American in the Senate or the House since 2003 and have had only three in total since 1935. Their anxieties about a rapidly changing America are well-grounded.

As others, including many of my fellow sociologists, have already written about, we can see examples of this White backlash throughout American society, such as the growing militancy of Tea Party members, the Texas school board elections, and the recent racial incidents and tensions at the University of California campuses, to name just a few of the most recent examples.

I anticipate that there will be plenty to say and write about in terms of this growing White backlash movement for the foreseeable future, so for now, I will leave it at that and just say that whether White Americans like it or not, and whether they want to recognize it or not, this backlash among many White Americans is real and it is absolutely centered on racial issues, conscious and unconscious.

I recently had the opportunity to interview Asian American filmmaker Christopher Wong about his first feature-length documentary Whatever It Takes, scheduled to premier on PBS stations nationwide on March 30, 2010. The documentary profiles Chinese American Edward Tom, Principal of the new Bronx Center for Sciences & Mathematics:

Christopher Wong’s Whatever It Takes offers a fascinating inside look at the first year of the Bronx Center for Science and Mathematics (BCSM), a small public high school in the South Bronx headed by the idealistic Principal Edward Tom, an Asian American man who gave up a lucrative position as an executive with Saks Fifth Avenue for the underpaid, supremely challenging career as an educator in the inner city. . . .

This deeply emotional, character-driven documentary focuses on the school’s dynamic rookie principal and a spunky ninth-grade girl with big dreams but even bigger obstacles. The personal stories of the school’s students and staff call to mind larger themes of school reform and the need for educators, parents and policy makers to prioritize the transformation of the public school system so that all children can receive a quality education.

Grittily realistic, yet ultimately triumphant, Whatever It Takes paints a compelling picture of cutting-edge ideas and dedicated individuals, united in their vision to restore hope to a broken community.

What were your experiences in elementary and high school growing up?

I grew up in a relatively well-to-do neighborhood, so the area schools were excellent. I had good teachers, clean school facilities, and small class sizes. Since my parents were both college-educated, they always checked my homework every night, and made sure I studied for my tests. There was never any question in my mind that I would go to college; it was a foregone conclusion. However, for the kids profiled in my film, college is only a dream — something that only “privileged” people get to experience.

How did you decide to become a filmmaker, rather than a ‘safer’ occupation more typical of Asian Americans, such as an doctor, engineer, etc.?

Believe me, I always thought that I would end up working a high-paying, white-collar job in a Fortune 500 corporation. While being a lawyer or businessperson wasn’t exactly my dream, I thought those careers would be good enough to provide me with a comfortable and happy life. But after graduating with a degree in economics, two years at a law firm, and five years in banking, I finally realized that I was meant to do something more creative, something that was a better fit for my talents.

Right before I quit my last corporate job, I started watching a lot of documentaries (e.g., “Hoop Dreams,” “Salesman,” “Roger & Me”). Those films taught me that the two most important qualities of a documentary filmmaker were 1) the ability to listen well, and 2) the willingness to invest oneself completely in someone else’s life. While I didn’t have the brains to become a doctor or the genes to be a professional athlete, I knew I could produce good documentaries. And so, I quit my job, started taking video production courses at a community college, and 10 years later, here I am.

Why did you decide to focus on Principal Edward Tom and his school?

When you see Principal Ed Tom on screen, you instantly understand why people find him so compelling. He’s a born leader, and people absolutely listen to what he has to say. Leaders like Principal Tom are rare, but those are just the sort of individuals that we all want to see running our nation’s public schools. When I went to school, I never had a principal like him; in fact, I don’t even remember seeing my high school principal more than once or twice a year. But Ed is always with his students, and they know that he cares, and that he will fight for them with everything he’s got.

But I didn’t want to just portray Ed only as a hero. I was also equally curious to see if good intentions and constant effort were enough to bring about change in one of the nation’s worst school districts. After all, Ed was a rookie principal, and failure was always looming around the next corner. Then add to the mix the potentially explosive racial dynamic of Ed as an Asian American amidst a student body almost entirely comprised of African American and Latino children. I remember telling Ed that while I wished him the best, my documentary might show him falling on his face and getting fired midway through the year. When Ed said he was OK with that level of honesty, I knew that I could go ahead and start filming.

There’s a debate about whether race or social class are the bigger barrier for African Americans and Latinos these days. What are your thoughts on this question?

In the South Bronx district of New York City, race and social class are almost identical. The South Bronx is the poorest district in the entire country, and it’s no coincidence that you almost never encounter a white face on the street (unless it’s a cop). So, for a kid who comes from a low-income, African American/Latino family, they have so many hurdles to overcome just to make it into college. They often have no support from their parents, no role models who have gone to college, and few friends with high career aspirations.

And they certainly don’t have the financial means to afford college, or other things that are sometimes necessary to get admitted (e.g. SAT prep courses). Having said that, I don’t think that South Bronx kids should use these barriers as excuses for lack of achievement; however, when we do see someone from that kind of environment make it to college, we should recognize that accomplishment as something truly great.

What do you think are the biggest challenges facing Asian American students these days?

Just like there are poor African American and Latino students, there are also very poor Asian American students. So, a lot of the challenges are the same. But what seems to be different is that there is an ingrained cultural respect for education and the value of a college degree. Thus, as a whole, Asian Americans have significantly higher college attendance and graduation rates. Therefore, the challenge to Asian American students generally has nothing to do with access to college or finding jobs that pay well. Rather, the real challenge for our community is to seek after jobs that are truly meaningful, and that have positive effects on society at large.

For too long, Asian Americans have been satisfied with replicating the financial success of their white American counterparts, all the while neglecting to invest themselves in causes greater than themselves. Truthfully, much of that selfish motivation comes directly from our Asian American immigrant parents, whose main goals were survival, stability, and social conformity. Liberating ourselves from our parents’ dreams for us is not an easy battle.

Asian Americans as a whole have done pretty well occupationally and economically but in many ways, are still not perceived to be “leaders.” Individuals like Edward Tom are slowly emerging as exceptions to this image, but what else do Asian Americans need to do to change this perception?

To be seen as leaders, Asian Americans need to get more involved in issues that extend beyond their own ethnic community. I think that’s what makes Edward Tom such an amazing figure, because he is absolutely putting his life on the line for people that neither look like him nor can give him back anything in return.

Leaders are made through sacrifice and commitment (e.g Martin Luther King, Jr.), and Asian Americans need to do a better job of understanding that. On a positive note, I should say that I have recently seen more and more Asian Americans pursuing unconventional careers and being willing to take risks on the behalf of others.

Today is International Womens Day so I would like to use this occasion to reflect a little bit on the state of affairs for Asian and Asian American women by discussing two recent news events. This is not meant to be a comprehensive or exhaustive review of the political, economic, and social status of Asian/Asian American women, just only some observations based on a couple of recent news stories.

The first article concerns the success of female figure skaters of Asian descent in the just-concluded Winter Olympics in Vancouver Canada. As the New York Times points out, Asian skaters such Kim Yu-Na and Shizuka Arakawa have elevated the status of the sport significantly in their home countries while and Asian Americans such as Mirai Nagasu try to follow in the legacy of recent Asian American champions Kristi Yamaguchi and Michelle Kwan:

Skaters of Asian descent, primarily women but also men, have risen to prominence in large numbers both nationally and internationally. The reasons are varied, skaters and coaches say. They have to do with rules changes, body type, hard work and discipline, diet and the emergence over the past two decades of role models like Kristi Yamaguchi and Michelle Kwan of the United States and Midori Ito of Japan. . . .

Maybe Asians are switching from studying to sports,” said [Mirai] Nagasu. The influx of Asian skaters can be traced in part to the elimination of compulsory school figures, coaches said. . . . Without compulsory figures, skating became more like gymnastics. . . . The key to jumping is to leap high and spin quickly and tightly through two, three or four revolutions before returning to the ice. Asian skaters are often small and willowy, which can be an asset when jumping. . . .

Asian skaters also often adhere to a diet of rice and vegetables and fish, avoiding large quantities of beef and fat, Carroll said. This can make them less vulnerable to weight gain in a sport where five pounds can make a difference between a winning jumper and a struggling one.

Other cultural factors are also at play, coaches said. Discipline at home often transfers to discipline at the rink, Carroll said. Audrey Weisiger, a prominent Chinese-American coach, said: “A lot of Asian families really drive their kids, and I don’t mean in the car. They’re not allowed to be marginal.”

To summarize, the NY Times article cites several potential reasons why Asian American skaters have become so prominent in recent years. For the most part, the factors discussed sound plausible, although there is certainly still a lot of room for exceptions and variations (i.e., taller figure skaters, both male and female, have still achieved success, no physical size isn’t everything).

However, the one factor mentioned in the article that caught my attention was the parental pressure on Asian American figure skaters to succeed. Unfortunately, it seems that wherever you look, Asians and Asian American consistently face these kinds of “model minority” pressures to do well, live up to their parents’ expectations, and to outperform everybody else. This is the case when it comes to academics and apparently, to more “recreational” activities like figure skating as well.

I have also written about how such parental pressures on their children to succeed can become overwhelming and even dysfunctional to the point of resulting in tragic consequences.

Along the same lines, the next news story focuses on some of the challenges that Asian and Asian American women still face in contemporary society these days. As the Washington Post reports, a recent full-page newspaper advertisement in South Korea illuminates how, despite the rising status of women in the country, numerous working mothers face severe contradictions and in many cases, a no-win situation:

In a full-page newspaper advertisement headlined “I Am a Bad Woman,” Hwang Myoung-eun explained the trauma of being a working mom in South Korea. “I may be a good employee, but to my family I am a failure,” wrote Hwang, a marketing executive and mother of a 6-year-old son. “In their eyes, I am a bad daughter-in-law, bad wife and bad mother.”

The highly unusual ad gave voice to the resentment and repressed anger that are common to working women across South Korea.

In a country where people work more and sleep less than anywhere else in the developed world, women are often elbowed away from rewards in their professional lives. If they have a job, they make 38 percent less money than men, the largest gender gap in the developed world. If they become pregnant, they are pressured at work not to take legally guaranteed maternity leave.

Thanks to gender equality in education, the professional skills and career aspirations of women in South Korea have soared over the past two decades. But those gains are colliding with a corporate culture that often marginalizes mothers at the workplace — or ejects them altogether.

Women who do combine work and family find themselves squeezed between too little time and too much guilt: for neglecting the education of children in a nation obsessed with education, for shirking family obligations as dictated by assertive mothers-in-law, and for failing to attend to the care and feeding of overworked and resentful husbands.

As Hwang complained in two mournful newspaper advertisements she bought last fall in Seoul newspapers: “We work harder than anyone to manage housekeeping and earn wages, so why are we branded as selfish, irresponsible women?”

It seems that in terms of society’s acknowledgment and recognition of the challenges that working mothers face in balancing the demands of work and family, South Korea is very similar to the U.S. That is, despite laws and formal policies in place to provide working mothers with job security, the actual implicit and cultural expectations frequently deter many mothers from taking full advantage of them.

While this situation is slowly changing for the better, in many ways the U.S. is still grappling with both firmly-embedded institutional practices and individual attitudes. With this in mind, unfortunately South Korea is likely to also be dealing with these societal contradictions for some time to come.

Ultimately, International Womens Day gives us a chance to reflect on both the successes, progress, and positives that women around the world have achieved, but also how many barriers still remain in the way toward attaining full equality. Like racial/ethnic relations, in many ways achieving gender equality also seems to be a “two steps forward, one step back” process.

As many of you have undoubtedly heard about already, there has been a series of racist incidents at the University of California San Diego (UCSD) recently. It was first sparked by a fraternity party held off-campus with a “Compton Cookout” theme in which attendees “celebrated” Black History Month by dressing up in ghetto costumes and imitating racist caricatures of Blacks. As one of their fliers put it, “For those of you who are unfamiliar with ghetto chicks — Ghetto chicks usually have gold teeth, start fights and drama, and wear cheap clothes.”

As news of this event became publicized and as various members of the UCSD community expressed their outrage, a student-run radio station and newspaper further flamed the tensions by airing a live segment on closed-circuit television in which they expressed their support for the frat party and called the African American students protesting it “ungrateful niggers.”

There followed a series of protests and marches where participants demanded that UCSD’s administration take immediate and decisive steps to improve the campus’ racial climate. After listening to and accepting many of the protesters’ demands (although giving few details about how they will be eventually implemented), the administration organized a teach-in on racial tolerance to publicly address the issues. However, hundreds of attendees of this teach-in walked out, calling the event an inadequate response.

Students protesting peacefully at UCSD © Don Bartletti/Los Angeles Times

Most recently, a noose was found at the university library. A student of color subsequently admitted to playing with some rope, fashioning the noose and “inadvertently” leaving it at the library. Her apology reads in part: “As a minority student who sympathizes with the students that have been affected by the recent issues on campus, I am distraught to know that I have unintentionally added to their pain.”

The students note that only 1.3% of UCSD’s student population are African American (believed to be the lowest of all the University of California campuses) and that as illustrated by these recent events, there is a climate of ignorance and hostility in which African American students do not feel welcomed or even safe around campus and where their history and culture are routinely ignored, marginalized, or ridiculed.

Unfortunately, these kinds of racial incidents are not new nor isolated incidents (thanks, Lisa and Gwen at Sociological Images). Not only have I written about other similar incidents but as just the latest example of this kind of climate of ignorance and intolerance directed against students of color on college campuses, some cotton balls were recently found scattered in front of the Black Cultural Center at Missouri University. For many, the cotton balls symbolizes the racist legacy of slavery and racial subordination of African Americans. Along the same lines and as a second latest example, an Arizona congressman recently asserted that African Americans were better off under slavery than today.

Beyond feeling profoundly sad and depressed about the state of race relations in this country, what should we make of these incidents?

My colleagues at Racism Review quote activist Tim Wise in analyzing in depth the sociological meanings and implications of these kinds of incidents. I would only add and emphasize that for me, these incidents serve to highlight the utter failure of colorblindness and the tragic belief that if we just don’t acknowledge or talk about race and racial differences in American society that racism will just magically go away.

I’ve written about this on numerous occasions but for those who want to hear from someone else, Wired magazine’s blog cites a recent study that further describes the fallacies of trying to be colorblind:

What Bronson and Merryman discovered, through various studies, was that most white parents don’t ever talk to their kids about race. The attitude (at least of those who think racism is wrong) is generally that because we want our kids to be color-blind, we don’t point out skin color. We’ll say things like “everybody’s equal” but find it hard to be more specific than that.

If our kids point out somebody who looks different, we shush them and tell them it’s rude to talk about it. We think that simply putting our kids in a diverse environment will teach them that diversity is natural and good. And what are they learning? Here are a few depressing facts: Only 8% of white American high-schoolers have a best friend of another race. (For blacks, it’s about 15%.) The more diverse a school is, the less likely it is that kids will form cross-race friendships. 75% of white parents never or almost never talk about race with their kids.

That is, simply exposing a White child to racial diversity is not enough. Merely expressing generalized respect for racial diversity is not enough. This is because in keeping matters on a general level, racial differences and history get “watered down” and children do not understand why, despite the fact that we’re all supposed to be equal, Blacks and other people of color occupy different statuses and are portrayed in stereotypical ways in the media, which they inevitably are exposed to.

In other words, without a detailed and specific understanding of racial discrimination, children then just assume that it’s because individual Blacks and persons of color are entirely responsible for their subordinate status and have “earned” the scorn, prejudice, and hostility directed at them, not to mention being blind to the subtle privileges they enjoy as being part of the White majority. Ultimately, the assumption becomes, “Since American society is supposed to be equal, why aren’t you successful? What are you doing wrong?”

If we as a society are going to make any headway in alleviating this climate of racial ignorance and intolerance, the first place to start is to simply acknowledge race as a fundamental social distinction in American society. Only from this specific understanding of how racism works can we then begin addressing the consequences of racism.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

Update: MSNBC reports that last night, a KKK-style hood was found on a statue outside the main UCSD library:

A university statement said the hood was found about 11 p.m. Monday. The object appeared to be a white pillowcase that had been crudely fashioned into a hood with a hand-drawn symbol. A rose had also been inserted into the statue’s fingers. The university said an aggressive investigation was under way, including fingerprint and DNA analysis, and vowed to punish the culprits to the fullest extent of the law.