As news organizations are reporting, the Senate has confirmed Gary Locke as the new Secretary of Commerce. Below is an Associated Press news clip of President Obama introducing Secretary Locke:

If you’re keeping track, Sec. Locke is the third Asian American in President Obama’s cabinet, following Secretary of Veteran Affairs Eric Shinseki and Secretary of Energy Steven Chu. Three Asian American cabinet secretaries is unprecedented in American history and needless to say, I join many others in expressing my elation and gratitude at President Obama’s picks for his cabinet.

For those who haven’t heard of Sec. Locke before, as Governor of Washington between 1997-2005, he was the first Chinese American governor in American history and the first Asian American governor of a mainland state. He was seen as a rising star in the Democratic Party and a possible Vice Presidential candidate. However, he declined to run for Governor after his second term and returned to private life thereafter.

As illustrated in PBS’s excellent 2005 documentary Searching for Asian America, Sec. Locke is known for being very intelligent and detail-oriented and as such, in many ways personifies some common cultural assumptions about Asian Americans. That’s not to say it’s good or bad, just to say that he represents a “safe choice” for President Obama in that way and was an attractive option since Obama’s first two nominees for the position both dropped out.

But I think another reason that President Obama chose Gary Locke is because, as also pointed out in the PBS documentary, Sec. Locke has many ties to the land of his ancestors, China. Therefore, it’s probably safe to assume that President Obama felt those personal and professional ties to China would come in handy as our nation and its economy tries to navigate through this recession and the 21st century global economy in general, one in which China will play a major role.

As such, Sec. Locke is the latest example of a theme that I’ve been writing about for some time — how Asian Americans are forging a new identity for themselves, one in which our “foreignness” or more specifically our transnational cultural ties and networks back to Asia, are seen as assets, rather than liabilities as we assert our identities as legitimate Americans in the 21st century.

In other words, in this era where American society is inevitably becoming more racially, ethnically, and culturally diverse and where economic issues are likely to be a paramount concern for Americans individually and American society institutionally, we as Asian Americans now have the opportunity to make a significant contribution to American society. In the process of doing so, we can also help to reshape the image and definition of what it means to be an “American.”

This expanded definition of being an American includes not just emotional attachment and patriotic loyalty to an American identity, but also involves helping to achieve greater economic prosperity for American society. As we’re seeing right now, economic issues have emerged as significant factors and challenges to American society and its overall sense of national identity.

Within this contexts, Asian American are poised to make significant contributions to rebuilding the American economy and helping it become more competitive in the 21st century. These opportunities can involve many different examples. First, we know that at the aggregate level, Asian American households have the highest median income of all the major racial/ethnic groups.

Even when it comes to personal/per capita level, as data is beginning to show, US-born Asian American have matched or even exceeded the income level of Whites. Of course, we have to be careful and recognize that not all Asian Americans are economically successful, but overall, I think our community is doing well.

In fact, a recent article at New America Media noted that said communities of color have an estimated $282 billion in purchasing power, with Asian Americans possessing about $90 billion of that.

There was also the recent commentary in the NY Times which suggested, slightly tongue-in-cheek, that one way to stimulate the economy is to let in more Asian immigrants, who would buy up all he sub-prime homes, work 14 hour days to do it, improve the national savings rate, and start up businesses that will employ American workers.

More realistically, we’ve already seen examples of Asian enclaves proliferating around the country — in both urban and increasingly suburban areas — that have resulted in these areas becoming revitalized, with new businesses, jobs, homes, and other amenities being created.

The point is, the economic contributions of Asian Americans to the American economy is undeniable.

The second way that Asian American can contribute to a new and stronger American society relates more to the cultural level. As I mentioned earlier, it is clear that the world in general and American society in particular is becoming more diverse, globalized, and transnational. With that in mind, Asian Americans occupy a very central role in this evolving process.

As the U.S. seeks to maintain its influence around the world, it has no other choice but to embrace these global trends and to build more mutually-respectful connections with countries around the world, particular in Asia. In fact, Hillary Clinton has been doing just that as Secretary of State — in February she made high-profile visits to Japan, South Korea, China, and Indonesia.

So with this mind, Asian Americans can serve as a valuable facilitators in these connections because on the individual, community, and institutional levels, we still have strong ties and networks to Asian countries. This can take many different forms — maintaining relationships with friends and family and sending remittances back there, or using our bicultural skills and resources to do business back in Asia, or bringing our educational expertise to work on issues and projects focused on environmental sustainability, social equality, or human rights.

In the case of Secretary Locke, I think he represents this new form of Asian American identity — a “real” American of Asian ancestry but whose Asian ancestry can be a significant asset and advantage in terms of making significant contributions to strengthening our country, our economy, and our society.

Many Asian Americans (and for that matter, Americans from all kinds of backgrounds) are in a similar situation and as such, also have the same opportunity to become leaders in their community and in our society in the 21st century.

It doesn’t take a Ph.D. to recognize that Barack Obama is not like most of his predecessors. This can be applied not just to the obvious fact that he’s our nation’s first African American President, but also in regard to his “style” or more specifically, the way he expresses himself, verbally and non-verbally.

Politico.com recently had an interesting article that explores Barack Obama’s sense of demeanor, presentation, and language, how it has different effects on Whites and Blacks, and how it compares to George W. Bush’s style of expression:

On his pre-inaugural visit to Ben’s Chili Bowl, a landmark for Washington’s African-American community, President Barack Obama was asked by a cashier if he wanted his change back. “Nah, we straight,” Obama replied. The phrase was so subtle some listeners missed it. The reporter on pool duty quoted Obama as saying, “No, we’re straight.”

But many other listeners did not miss it. A video of the exchange became an Internet hit, and there was a clear moment of recognition among many blacks, who got a kick out of their Harvard-educated president sounding, as one commenter wrote on a hip-hop site, “mad cool.”

On matters of racial identity, many observers in the African-American community say he benefits from what’s known as “dog-whistle politics.” His language, mannerisms and symbols resonate deeply with his black supporters, even as the references largely sail over the heads of white audiences. . . .

“The code words matter, how you dress matters, how you speak matters; it’s all subliminal messaging, and all politicians use it,” said Michael Fauntroy, professor at George Mason University. “Ronald Reagan used to talk about making America the shining city on a hill, which is about America as divinely inspired, and it has a deep vein in the evangelical conservative movement.” . . .

[George W.] Bush used phrases lifted from church hymns and the Bible to signal an affinity for like-minded Christians. The phrase “culture of life,” became part of the political lexicon when Bush used it weeks before the 2000 election — it was a less political, more evangelical version of “pro-life.” . . .

Beyond speech, blacks have picked up certain of Obama’s mannerisms, particularly his walk, that signal authenticity. Bush had his cowboy strut, and Obama has a swagger — a rhythmic lope that says cool and confident and undeniably black.

The article basically notes that virtually all Presidents have their own unique “style” of verbal and non-verbal expression and they use subtle words, phrases, or mannerisms that reflect and appeal to a particular group of constituents to let them know that he’s “one of them,” but without making it so obvious that it turns off more mainstream Americans.

What makes Barack Obama’s style different of course, is that it’s a “Black” style, something Americans have never seen before from our President (Bill Clinton came as close as any previous President could, but obviously he had his limitations).

So what should we make of Obama’s unique style, or should it even matter? As a fervent fan and supporter, I personally love his style and find it to be a welcome change and a breath of fresh air for Washington DC and our country as a whole. But does it risk alienating White Americans who aren’t used to it?

That’s a hard question to answer. On the one hand, we’ve already seen and I’ve written before about the ways in which some Whites are reacting negatively to his victory and the growing racial, ethnic, and cultural diversification of American society in general. So it’s possible that these particular White Americans will use such examples of Obama’s “blackness” to reinforce their extremist and racist views of him and non-Whites like him.

But on the other hand, I’m confident that most others will recognize that different doesn’t have to mean bad or inferior. That is, I hope that the vast majority of Whites in this country will understand that America is inevitably changing — politically, economically, and culturally. With that in mind, there is now more room for different forms of an American identity to emerge, one that expands on the “traditional” image of American as being White, middle class, and Protestant.

Rather than denying or resisting such an evolution of American society and our national identity, my hope is that we can embrace them and use them as a source of strength and unity to create an inclusive collective identity as Americans in the 21st century. Sure, we’ll still have our differences, but my point is that such differences are good for America and will make our society stronger, not weaker.

As I’ve discussed numerous times on this site and blog, there is no denying that American society is becoming increasingly racially, ethnically, and culturally diverse, despite the apprehension that some Americans have toward these demographic trends. With that in mind, it is also inevitable that the number of multiracial Americans is also increasing, with our own President Barack Obama being the most prominent example.

With that in mind, the question for many sociologists is, where will this burgeoning population of multiracial Americans fit into the American racial landscape? Many sociologists have documented — and others can surely attest — that American society tends to be structured around monoracial identities. That is, on the institutional and individual levels, our culture and our thinking has historically revolved around using distinct, “clear cut” racial categories (although of course, these categories exists only culturally, not biologically).

With this social constraints in mind, is it better for multiracial to choose one identity more than the other? As Time magazine reports, a new study suggests that rather than being forced to choose one identity over another, multiracial Americans may be happiest and best-adjusted when they identify with both/all of their identities:

In the early years, research on these kids highlighted their difficulties: the disapproval they faced from neighbors and members of their extended families; the sense that they weren’t “full” members in any racial community; the insecurity and self-loathing that often resulted from feeling marginalized on all sides.

That simple but harsh playground question — “What are you?” — torments many multiracial kids. Psychologists call this a “forced-choice dilemma” that compels children to claim some kind of identity — even if only a half-identity — in return for social acceptance.

But the new Journal of Social Issues paper suggests this dilemma has become less burdensome in the age of Tiger Woods and Barack Obama. The paper’s authors . . . write that those kids who identified with multiple racial groups reported significantly less psychological stress than those who identified with a single group, whether a “low-status” group like African-Americans or a “high-status” group like whites. . . .

The writers theorize that multiracial kids who choose to associate with a single race are troubled by their attempts to “pass,” whereas those who choose to give voice to their own uniqueness find pride in that act. “Rather than being ‘caught’ between two worlds,” the authors write, “it might be that individuals who identify with multiple groups are better able to navigate both racially homogeneous and heterogeneous environments than individuals who primarily identify with one racial group.” . . .

In short, multiracial kids seem to create their own definitions for fitting in, and they show more psychological flexibility than those mixed-race kids who feel bound to one choice or another.

For me, the most important part of this study is the finding that multiracial Americans are able to “create their own definitions for fitting in.” In other words, they are actively shaping their own identity, rather than waiting around and letting others dictate to them what their identity should be.

For many of us, this idea may not sound new or significant. That is, isn’t it a given that we shape our own identity? Well, yes and no. Ultimately, we are responsible for choosing how we identify ourselves (”Am I Asian, Asian American, Vietnamese American, or just plain American?”). But, others around us and our society and culture in general exert a very strong influence on our choice, more than most of us realize.

So in that sense, it is somewhat innovative and significant when someone steps out of these conventional identity boundaries and instead, creates their own identity that actively includes elements of both or many cultures.

Having said that, I would like to point out that in fact, Asian Americans (and Latino Americans) have been doing something like this for many generations, as we reconcile our identities as both Asian and American. So actually, we might say that multiracial Americans are now doing through the same process that we as Asian American have been going through for years.

I point this out not to diminish or minimize the cultural significance of multiracial Americans or their increasing population size. Rather, it’s just the opposite — I hope that sharing this common process of actively shaping our own identities that combine elements from diverse cultures is a way for our communities to connect with each other.

This is especially important as the racial dynamics in American society continue to evolve and from time to time, lead to confusion and even conflict. In such times of cultural adjustment, it’s always helpful to have similarities that can bridge any such differences.

Firstly, thanks for your patience these past few weeks — between the end of the semester, grading, traveling to visit relatives over the holidays, and most recently, switching web hosts, I was not able to post as often as I wanted. But a new year brings a new start!

As many of you already know, since I am a sociology professor and a person of color, issues related to the intersection of those two areas of my life are particularly significant for me. With that in mind, as Inside Higher Education reports, a new report examines levels of job satisfaction among college faculty and finds some interesting differences by racial group:

Compared to white faculty members, African American, Asian and Native American faculty were less satisfied on a series of questions on climate, culture and collegiality at their institutions. Of the 10 climate measures in the survey, Asians were less satisfied on 6; Native Americans on 5; and African Americans on 4, all by statistically significant margins.

These gaps may be particularly important to colleges seeking to diversify their faculties, as a key theme of COACHE reports has been the idea that today’s younger generation of professors — far more than previous generations — will judge colleges as employers on issues of campus culture and supportive employment policies, not just on prestige or compensation.

At the same time, the new data show that the issues are not identical for all minority groups and that colleges that “lump everyone together” may not be reaching the topics crucial to different populations. . .

For black faculty members, for example, job satisfaction levels with regard to work-life balance were similar to those for white faculty members. But they reported lower levels of satisfaction on interactions with tenured and pre-tenure colleagues, with sense of “fit” at their institutions, and with their sense of fair treatment in their departments. African American faculty members are also less likely than their white counterparts to believe that tenure decisions are made primarily on job performance. . . .

Asian faculty members indicated a different set of issues. Compared to their white counterparts, Asian faculty reported greater clarity about tenure expectations and higher levels of satisfaction on many questions about job satisfaction. But when it comes to questions related to teaching, they were less happy on most questions.

The actual report provides more detailed descriptions of the findings by racial group. Since I have a particular interest in the findings regarding Asian American faculty, some of the findings that struck me was as noteworthy are (as stated in the text of the report):

  • Asian faculty responded that expectations for performance as scholars were significantly more reasonable than did white faculty; however, they felt that expectations for performance as campus citizens were significantly less reasonable than did white faculty.
  • Asian faculty reported significantly more satisfaction than did white faculty with how they spend their time, the number of hours they work as a faculty member in an average week, the amount of time they have to conduct research, the quality of the facilities, the amount of access they have to [graduate assistants]. . . . However, they reported significantly less satisfaction than did white faculty with all but one item in the teaching composite (number of students they teach).
  • Asian faculty reported significantly less agreement than white faculty that their institutions do what they can to make raising children and the tenure-track compatible
  • Asian faculty reported significantly less satisfaction than their white colleagues with regard to the fairness with which their immediate supervisors evaluate their work . . . and their sense of ‘fit’ in their departments.

To summarize, the report data shows that, compared to their White counterparts, Asian tenure-track faculty generally felt that expectations for scholarly performance were reasonable, that they were satisfied with how they spent their professional time and the quality of the academic resources available to them.

However, also compared to their White colleagues, Asian tenure-track faculty were more dissatisfied with their teaching demands, the demands of them as “campus citizens,” with the resources available to them to balance work and family responsibilities, with how their immediate supervisors evaluated their work, and their overall “fit” within their departments.

How should we make sense of these results regarding Asian faculty? At first, these results may actually seem contradictory but for those like me who work in academic settings, they do make sense. The results basically show the Asian faculty know what’s expected of them research-wise and are fine with such expectations, but generally don’t like the teaching demands.

But perhaps most troubling is that Asian faculty generally feel that they aren’t fully integrated or aren’t given fair opportunities to integrate into the more informal “collegial” social environment around them. If this is true, what are the reasons behind such frustrations?

To try to answer that question, I refer back to my earlier post about the effects of racial diversity on college students in which the results of a different study showed that, among other things, increased racial/ethnic diversity among student populations resulted in more racial tolerance, with the notable exception of when White and Black students had an Asian roommate.

I pointed out that perhaps there is a qualitative difference between having an Asian immigrant roommate and having an Asian American (U.S.-born or raised) roommate and that such a distinction would account for this particular negative finding. I think the same idea can be applied to these results regarding Asian faculty.

That is, perhaps Asian immigrant faculty have a qualitatively harder time integrating into the “mainstream’ collegial social environment than do U.S.-born or raised Asian American faculty. This difficulty may be due to cultural and language barriers.

Or perhaps more interestingly (and again alluding to what I wrote in my earlier post), perhaps it may also involve an unconscious bias or hostility against Asians as ‘foreigners’ and as Asian faculty being perceived as representatives of the economic and cultural threat posed by the rise of countries such as China and India.

I think there is a lot of circumstantial evidence emerging that suggests that as the world in general and American society in particular become increasingly diverse, racial/ethnic tensions seem to be gradually and unfortunately rising as “mainstream” Americans feel economically and culturally unstable and even threatened.

Nonetheless, that does not mean everything is doom and gloom. With the example of Obama’s election as our next President, I think there are some very strong rays of optimism, tolerance, and cooperation.

Inevitably, there will be an adjustment period for a new sense of “normalcy” to get established, but ultimately, I am hopeful and confident that as a society, we are on the right track and that racial/ethnic disparities, whether they relate to college faculty of color or some other set of issues, will become less of a problem as we move forward.

As an educator and a person of color, I have a particular interest in issues surrounding racial/ethnic diversity on college campuses. In fact, this topic is a common theme that I’ve written about on this blog. Like most liberals, I happen to think that greater diversity is generally a good thing, although I acknowledge that there are some ways in which diversity can lead to some challenges in the short run.

In other words, racial/ethnic diversity is a complicated and multidimensional phenomenon. This is especially true on college campuses where, in most cases, there are students who come from a wide range of backgrounds and once they interact with each other, can lead to an equally wide range of outcomes. To illustrate this point, Inside Higher Education reports on the release of a new study that looks at actual outcomes of racial/ethnic diversity on college students and finds, you guessed it, some mixed results:

One key finding was the generally positive impact on racial attitudes of living with someone of a different race. Students were surveyed on their attitudes before being assigned someone to live with, and after a year in which some lived with “outgroup roommates.”

Generally, and regardless of the attitudes with which students entered UCLA, those who lived with members of other ethnic groups showed statistically significant gains in comfort levels with people of different groups, having circles of friends beyond one’s own group, and a variety of other measures of tolerance toward different groups. The changes in attitudes were most striking for those living with either black or Latino roommates.

The one exception to this positive impact was with Asian students as roommates: White and black students who lived with Asians tended to show increased prejudice against Asians on some measures after living with them. . . .

[However], the researchers examined the impact of membership in groups that are defined largely by race and ethnicity (such as black student unions) as well as membership in groups that do not have an explicit racial or ethnic mission, but have overwhelmingly white members (some fraternities and sororities). Generally, they found that a negative impact resulted from membership in these groups — white or minority — in which belonging to such a group led to an increase in feelings of victimization.

There are several key findings here, so let me address them one at a time.

The Benefits of Diversity

The study’s finding that increased racial/ethnic contact and interaction among students leads to greater comfort with others of a different race is not new and in fact, reinforces what sociologists have been saying for decades — this is frequently referred to as the “Contact Hypothesis.” Nonetheless, it is nice to see real, concrete evidence of this idea in a real-world situation.

As the article also notes, this finding confirms one of the basic principles of affirmative action — that increased racial/ethnic diversity represents a net benefit for American society and is therefore a worthwhile goal. Opponents of affirmative action are free to criticize other aspects of affirmative action that they disapprove of, but as this study confirms, the argument that increased diversity can’t improve people’s attitudes and levels of acceptance towards others is simply not true.

The Drawbacks of ‘Segregated’ Student Groups

On the other hand, the study points out that racially/ethnically homogeneous student groups and organizations generally do not improve racial tolerance and acceptance. This finding is basically the flip side to the first one that I discussed above. The only potentially controversial part of this finding is that it applies to all kinds of homogeneous groups, whether they are all-White fraternities/sororities or Black Student Unions, Asian American Student Associations, etc. that are based explicitly on a particular racial/ethnic identity.

On that count, I would point out that while feelings of victimization and anger may exist among students of color in such racial/ethnic student organizations, there are many benefits that also exist within such groups. For example, these groups can also foster a sense of community identity and support and can also empower students by educating them about their group’s history and shared experiences, as well as giving them opportunities to turn their feelings and emotions into positive, constructive activities that provide the campus community the chance to further promote racial/ethnic diversity.

In other words, to echo another central theme of this blog, there is a difference between all-White and all-minority organizations in terms of their historical, cultural, and political meanings. That is, in the past and frequently still true today, all-White organizations have been associated with excluding marginalized groups and perpetuating a superior position of power for themselves.

In contrast, minority organizations have traditionally been focused on working to eliminate that kind of social inequality and to improve the conditions and lives of its members so that they more equally match that of their White counterparts. Therefore, the social dynamics are likely to be different between all-White and all-minority organizations.

I am not saying that all-White fraternities or sororities exist to actively reinforce White superiority. Rather, the nature and impact of the “negative” consequences of segregation are different because the history of American race relations has been different through the years. That’s what we should keep in mind when considering the dynamics of such groups.

The Negative Impact of Having an Asian Roommate

I’ve left this finding for last because I have the most trouble understanding it. My first reaction is skepticism of the results themselves. But as an academic myself, for now I will presume that the results are valid and reliable until I read the study’s exact methodology myself.

That said, my first question is, are there differences between having an Asian immigrant roommate versus a U.S.-born Asian American roommate? In other words, did White and Black students who had an Asian roommate have conflicts with the fact that their roommate was Asian or that s/he was an immigrant and therefore, presumably not as “Americanized” as they were. That may help to explain this particular finding.

If there is no difference between having an immigrant versus U.S.-born Asian American roommate, then my second thought is that perhaps it has to do with the fact that Asian Americans are something like 40% of the student population at UCLA. More generally and at the national level, perhaps White and Black Americans see us as symbols of globalization and how the U.S. is slowing losing its cultural superiority around the world as the 21st century progresses.

In that sense, it is conceivable that Whites and Blacks unconsciously feel threatened by Asians/Asian Americans and see us as competitors, either on the international level or at the level of a college campus. On several occasions I’ve posted about anti-Asian incidents on college campuses, and more generally, the rise of racial tensions in general in recent years.

With that in mind, perhaps this finding that having an Asian roommate actually had a negative impact on racial tolerance for White and Black students at UCLA reflects this general atmosphere of economic insecurity and cultural change and instability.

While it is possible that individually, Asian American roommates exhibited specific behaviors that offended their White or Black roommates, I have a hard time seeing that this was a systemic or consistent pattern among most Asian American roommates. I will have to read the actual study and the authors’ explanations for this finding to have a more concrete idea.

Ultimately and with most studies dealing with the topic of racial diversity, there are many interpretations and conclusions to make. On the one hand, I am encouraged to see the study’s results that in almost all cases, increased racial/ethic diversity led directly to increased racial/ethnic tolerance among students.

At the same time, I am a little worried about how Asian Americans fit into this equation and to what extent this finding — that having an Asian American roommate had the lone negative impact on racial tolerance — is reliable and generalizable to American society in general.