As I previously promoted on this blog, this past weekend, the annual conference of the East Coast Asian American Student Union (ECAASU) was held on my home campus, the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. ECAASU bills itself as the largest Asian American student conference in the nation and from most accounts, it was a big success with almost 1,500 attendees from schools all around the country. Kudos are in order for the organizers, attendees, presenters, and entertainers who all contributed to a dynamic and enriching event.

Inevitably, the conference was not without some controversy. Specifically, many attendees and presenters this year questioned the appropriateness of U.S. military branches such as the Navy and Coast Guard and government agencies such as the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) and the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) as sponsors of the event. In fact, there were several contentious instances in which speakers vocally criticized various historical and contemporary aspects of the U.S. military and security agencies along with their presence at the conference, with about 30 or so representatives of such military and security agencies sitting directly in front of them in the audience.

Apparently, these and other military branches and government agencies have prominently sponsored ECAASU conferences in the past, so their presence was not new. Since I have not attended many ECAASU conferences recently, I do not know whether there were similar objections raised in a very public way before. Nonetheless, this year the tensions were clearly out in the open.

In trying to not minimize the positive aspects of the conference, I would also like to reflect a little bit on this particular issue and source of tension. Also at the risk of contradicting one my favorite quotes — “I don’t know what’s the key to success, but the key to failure is trying to please everybody” (Bill Cosby) — my personal and sociological thoughts on this matter includes praise and criticism for both sides.

Speaking the Truth

On the one hand, the speakers who criticized the military and government agencies clearly had a right to do so and also had plenty of “ammunition” to back up their criticisms. There can be little denial that through the years, the U.S. military and security agencies and a number of individuals working for them have perpetrated or been directly complicit in innumerable instances of injustice and outright crimes against innocent civilians domestically and abroad and in the process, destroyed lives and livelihoods left and right.

To make a long story short, it is because of these actions that many people around the world have a very intense hatred of the U.S. and in extreme cases, feel compelled to resort to desperate actions to fight back against such historical and contemporary oppression. As such, the opposition to the presence of these U.S. military branches and government agencies at a conference focused on, among other things, counteracting institutional domination and cultural colonialism is perfectly understandable and justified.

Taking a Step Back

© Tina Healey and Images.com/Corbis

On the other hand, we cannot dismiss the fact that many members of the military put their very lives at risk to protect our right to criticize their employers — our government. More specifically, in criticizing the presence of the U.S. military and government agencies, I feel that the speakers missed an important distinction — the actions of individuals versus institutional policies. In other words, as a sociologist, one of the first things that I teach my students is that in order to properly understand a social issue or problem, we first need to recognize its dynamics and dimensions across different levels of analysis — the individual level, the group/community level, and the institutional level.

The issue of racism is an excellent example of the need to recognize how sociological understanding takes place at each of these levels of analysis. For instance, when a person of color points out how racism still exists in U.S. society these days, a White person may interpret that as a personal attack and direct implication against them and that they are being accused of being a racist when in fact, the person of color is referring to racism on the institutional level.

Similarly, many Whites may feel that racism will be eliminated once individuals are taught to be colorblind or that it’s wrong to have racial prejudices, when in fact the most enduring mechanisms that reinforce and perpetuate racism exist not among individuals, but within institutional policies and practices that privilege one racial group over another. Ultimately, it is when people discuss an issue like racism from different levels of analysis that misunderstandings, tensions, and hostility inevitably result.

As applied to the ECAASU conference and the speakers’ criticisms against the U.S. military and government agencies, I feel that they missed the opportunity to engage the military and agency personnel in a constructive sociological discussion because they largely conflated these levels of analysis. This happened in instances in which speakers implied that the military and government personnel in attendance at the conference, by virtue of their employment and position within such agencies, were directly complicit in committing crimes or acts of injustice.

More subtly, the conflating of these levels of analysis prevented speakers from conceptualizing the possibility that the military and government personnel in attendance might actually be agents of social change. In other words, on the one hand, there is the strong possibility that people of color, Asian Americans, or anyone else who has a commitment to racial equality and justice may end up just becoming another cog in the machine or another brick in the wall if they enter these military and government institutions and get swallowed into the perpetual system of bureaucracy.

But on the other hand, it is also possible that such individuals can bring their sense of racial equality and justice into an organization, build a coalition, consensus, or critical mass with like-minded others within the organization through time, and after achieving positions of power and authority, begin to apply their beliefs and little by little, change the culture and policies of that organization toward greater social/racial equality and justice. Organizations, institutions, and as we’re seeing in the Middle East, entire nations do change through individual actions — either toward more oppression, or toward more equality and democracy.

The Times They Are A’ Changing

Here in the U.S., we have three recent examples, including one involving the U.S. military — Gary Locke (Secretary of Commerce), Professor Steven Chu (Secretary of Energy), and General Eric Shinseki (Secretary of Veterans Affairs). Within each of their respective careers, all three of these Asian Americans have personified a sense of working toward greater social equality and while there is still plenty of work to be done, I feel are positive examples and role models of how social change can occur within institutions.

I also recall a conversation I had with a student in which she mentioned that, as an advertising major, she also has a strong commitment to use her experiences and training to work toward greater racial equality and justice for Asian Americans and people of color. But she also expressed reservations about entering the advertising industry with its history of portraying people of color in very narrow and even stereotypical ways. One of the things that I told her was that if students like her self-select out of these kinds of industries, everything will just be perpetual status quo and nothing will change. Instead, I encouraged her to bring her determination with her into the advertising industry and as I described earlier, build a critical mass with others who share similar goals and fight for the change that she wants to see happen.

I cannot guarantee that the 30 or so military or government personnel in attendance at the ECAASU conference have the same kind of drive toward achieving racial equality and justice, but based on the brief speeches that a few of them gave, I am confident that many of them do. As such, while we can and should continue to criticize their institutions for the injustices that they’ve perpetrated through the years, that should not preclude us from encouraging individual members of such institutions from doing what they can to change their institutions from within.

This is the third of my three-part list of the best documentaries that focus on immigration and are great choices for showing in high school and college immigration classes. This third and final part will focus specifically on issues related to socioeconomic attainment, mobility, and assimilation — the individual-, community-, and institutional-level processes involved as immigrants (regardless of their legal status) become integrated into the rest of U.S. society.

Part 1 focused on the historical and global context of immigration and Part 2 looked at unauthorized immigration. The following list is organized by topic and corresponds to the chronological order in which I discuss each topic in my “Sociology of Immigration” course. For each topic, I highlight the documentary that I tend to show the most often, followed by other videos that are good choices for that topic as well.

Assimilation © Corbis

Socioeconomic Mobility and Settlement Patterns

What are the historical and contemporary patterns of educational, occupational, and income attainment on the part of immigrants and how do such patterns compare across waves of immigration, nationality/ethnic group, and in relation to U.S.-born racial/ethnic groups? Also, what are some recent developments regarding where immigrants settle, how they create their own communities and enclaves, and role of these ethnic communities in their overall assimilation process?

Assimilation and Ethnic Identity

In this section, I focus on the assimilation and integration process on the individual level. Specifically, I look at the different forms of forms of assimilation that immigrants undergo, the factors that affect their own personal racial/ethnic/cultural identity, and how community- and institutional factors influence whether immigrants experience upward or downward assimilation through time.

Language, Religious, and Political Incorporation

This section explores assimilation and integration specifically related to native language retention vs. English acquisition among immigrants, their religious patterns and the roles that religious organizations play in their lives, and their patterns of participating in the political process at various levels and in particular, the prospects of immigrants leveraging their growing population size into greater political power.

Emerging Issues and a Changing National Identity

In this final section of my “Sociology of Immigration” course, I reflect back on where immigrants to the U.S. have been — politically, economically, and culturally — and just as important, take a look at where immigration and immigration policy are headed as we move forward into the 21st century and in particular, as we become more culturally diverse, globalized, and transnational.

In my travels around the internet, I recently came across three interesting infographics related to race/ethnicity and immigration.

The first one is a “Map of American Slavery,” published in the New York Times (small thumbnail below, you can click on it to go to the larger version at the NY Times site). For casual historians like me, it is interesting to see that the counties that had the highest concentration of slaves were generally located along the Mississippi River and whose labor was in demand the most to facilitate trade, further reinforcing the notion that so much of the American south’s economy was fundamentally tied to slavery.

Map of American Slavery © Geography and Map Division, Library of Congress

The second interesting infographic is entitled “Who is Marrying Whom,” also was published by the New York Times, and shows a visual breakdown of interracial marriage across the major racial/ethnic groups in the U.S. (again, you can click on the thumbnail below to see the full-size version). In looking it over, some of the most interesting results are:

Who is Marrying Whom © New York Times
  • The groups that seem to have the highest rates of being interracially married are American Indians and Black Hispanics.
  • The largest gender disparities are among Blacks and Asian Americans, although the gender pattern is the opposite for each: Black men are 124% more likely to be interracially married than Black women, while Asian American women are 125% more likely to be married interracially than Asian American men.
  • Since around 1990 or so, interracial marriage rates have actually been declining for White Hispanics and American Indians. Moreover, for Asian Americans, they’ve been generally declining since 1980. For White Hispanics and Asian Americans, I believe much of this decline is due to the large influx of immigrants since the ’80s and ’90s, many of whom are already married as they arrive in the U.S. or are less likely to intermarry in general. As such, it would be interesting to see these same numbers for just U.S.-raised members of these racial groups (those who were born in the U.S. or arrived at at 13 or younger and therefore, and therefore were socialized within the U.S. racial landscape).

The interracial marriage graphic is linked to an interesting article also on the NY Times site that discusses the growing multiracial/mixed-race population in the U.S. and how they are increasingly forging their own identity that combines elements of both sides of their ancestry, rather than trying to fit themselves into preexisting and frequently narrowly-defined racial/ethnic categories, as this video clip shows:

A third interesting infographic was published by the National Geographic Society, titled “What’s in a Surname?” and shows some of the most common surnames in different geographic parts of the U.S. The map confirms what demographers have noted for some time now — racial/ethnic minorities (represented here by their surnames) are increasingly becoming the majority population in many parts of the U.S. (again, click on the thumbnail below to view the larger interactive graphic at the National Geographic Society site).

Map of American Surnames © National Geographic Society

As one example, in the southern California part of the map, some of the most common surnames are Garcia, Martinez, Hernandez and even Nguyen (a nod to the huge Vietnamese American “Little Saigon” community in Orange County). There are further large concentrations of Latino surnames (represented in red) in the southwestern U.S., southern Florida, and upstate New York as well. And unbeknown to me, there is apparently a large contingent of Koreans named “Kim” in central California.