A couple of weeks ago, I made my first ever visit to China and I wanted to share some sociological observations with you about what I saw and experienced while I was there. My trip was under the auspices of my university’s International Programs Office (IPO) that’s in charge of all the study abroad programs on campus. From time to time, the IPO visits various study abroad sites around the world to make sure that they are high-quality programs for our students. Normally, the different staff at the IPO conducts these visits, but this time around, they asked me if I wanted to go to Beijing to check out the Council on International Educational Exchange’s (CIEE) programs in Beijing. It was an offer I could not pass up, so I jumped at the opportunity.

Specifically, the CIEE programs that I visited were based at Minzu University and Peking University. As the CIEE staff described to me, Minzu University was established in 1951 to basically assimilate members of China’s 56 ethnic minority groups (such as Tibetans, Uyghurs, Zhuang, Manchus, Hui, Miao, Yi, Mongols, etc.) into the majority Han culture. However, through the years, its focus and curriculum have evolved to become more tolerant and now promotes the retention of many aspects of culture and tradition among such ethnic minorities. Peking University is frequently called the “Harvard of China” and is considered to be the crown jewel of China’s university system. In its 2011-2012 ranking of universities around the world, the Times Higher Education listed Peking University as number 49 overall and as the top university in China.

Although I do not have anything to which I can compare these study abroad programs since this was my first such site visit, overall I found the CIEE programs at both universities to be comprehensive and impressive. There was a wide variety of academic and field opportunities for U.S. students at both schools to learn about Chinese language and culture inside and outside of the classroom. I found the staff there to be very friendly, professional, well-skilled, and enthusiastic about their programs. I also talked to a number of U.S. students currently studying abroad in these two CIEE programs and they all raved about the positive experiences they’ve had there. From what I saw during my site visit, I would certainly recommend these programs to my students.

Below are a few pictures from my visit to China. You can view a more detailed photostream at my Flickr page.

Inside Manzu University
Street scene just outside of Manzu University
Inside the Temple of Heaven complex
'No Name' Lake and traditional pagoda inside Peking University
The front of Tiananmen Square just after sunrise

China at a Crossroads

While I was in China and in my conversations with the CIEE staff and with both Chinese and U.S. students, a recurring theme was that China seems to be at a crossroads in its history and that there are two important issues within which China is struggling to find its balance in terms of where it wants to position itself politically, economically, and culturally within the global community. Each of these issues that I’ll discuss in more detail below represent a paradox or set of interesting contradictions that are playing themselves out within modern Chinese society.

I am certainly not the first observer, analyst, or scholar to discuss these issues, nor can I claim to have comprehensive expertise on such issues. Nonetheless, I would like to share my observations as a sociologist who wants to apply my academic interest in how Asians (and China specifically) fit into the contemporary global community in the 21st century and how Asian Americans fit into these international dynamics as well.

The first paradoxical issue concerns the growing sense of nationalism in China. This nationalism was most recently manifested in angry and sometimes violent protests against Japan over some small islands that lie between China (Diaoyu in Chinese) and Japan (Senkaku in Japanese) and are claimed by both countries. More generally, nationalism directed against foreigners has been evident in China for a while and from time to time, flares up and can turn ugly.

In my conversations with different people in China, they mentioned that a famous Chinese philosopher named Lu Xun observed about a hundred years ago that China frequently see themselves as either superior or inferior in relation to foreign powers, but never equal to them — it’s either a feeling of superiority or inferiority. With this in mind, nationalist feelings of superiority or inferiority need points of comparison. In modern times, China has two main international points of comparison — in Asia, it’s Japan and in the western world, it’s the U.S.

My contacts also observed that in most cases, the average Chinese citizen will rarely express such nationalist feelings directly to a foreigner, there was one instance in which this nationalism was directly visible to me and other site visitors in this trip. Specifically, a group of us (all from the U.S. involved in the CIEE site visit) was walking through Peking University when a Chinese male in his mid-40s came up to us and started speaking Chinese to us. Unfortunately none of us spoke Chinese, but even after we said that to him in English, he still kept speaking. We then pulled a Chinese American study abroad student (let’s call him ‘Keith’) who was accompanying us while we were at Peking University into the conversation. The Chinese man then turned his attention to Keith and as Keith relayed to us later, went into a tirade against the presence of foreigners in China. Although this man was not shouting, he was obviously very assertive in expressing himself. Considering the recent protests against Japan, this was probably a relatively mild form of nationalism that we experienced.

The contradiction here is that China very much wants to attain a position of respect and status within the international community and wants to continue attracting international investment and promoting global trade. In other words, it needs to engage with the international community. But on the other hand, a large part of the national discourse within China emphasizes China’s superiority over foreign powers and in fact, advocates limiting or even eliminating the presence of foreigners inside China.

An interesting component to this emerging nationalism in China is that much of it was initiated and encouraged by the Chinese government, at least in the beginning. As other analysts have pointed out, when it comes to particular issues such as the disputes with Japan, Chinese government officials have tried to maintain a sense of diplomacy in public while behind the scenes, frequently allowed or even facilitated nationalist rhetoric and citizen protests to serve their political interests. The problem however, is that the Chinese government may be losing control over this nationalist monster that they’ve created. As one of my contacts noted, when you keep feeding the citizens ‘wolves’ milk,’ eventually they’ll grow up to be wolves.

I have written about this kind of “cultural schizophrenia” in China before. On the institutional and national level, this sense of fluctuating between two extremes while trying to find your identity is actually similar to what many Asian Americans face on the individual level as they try to balance the ‘Asian’ and ‘American’ sides of their identity. In China’s case, as it tries to solidify its position in the international community, it’s likely that such internal struggles will continue to take place and it remains to be seen how the emerging contradictions between the government’s ‘Dr. Jekyll’ and the nationalists’ ‘Mr. Hyde’ will play themselves out.

Where Do Chinese Americans Fit Into China?

The second sociological dynamic that I observed while in China relates to where Chinese Americans fit into modern Chinese society. Like a number of other Asian American scholars, I have a growing interest in looking at how Asian Americans fit into Asian societies and how they use both their Asian and American identities to potentially bridge the political and cultural gaps between the U.S. and Asian countries. As such, I was very interested in hearing from Chinese American students and their experiences studying abroad in China.

In addition to ‘Keith’ (mentioned above), I also spoke at length to another Chinese American student; let’s call her ‘Kathy.’ They both described similar experiences of feeling caught in a “cultural limbo” while in China. That is, on the one hand, their physical appearance is Asian and more specifically, Chinese. But on the other hand, their nationality is American. This frequently means that upon first contact, most Chinese nationals assume that they are Chinese. But once they start talking, they are quickly seen as American, even though they speak Chinese pretty well.

Interesting times ahead

Both Keith and Kathy noted to me that once this happens, more often than not, Chinese nationals lose interest in speaking to them. I asked them why and they said that Chinese tend to be more interested in talking to ‘regular’ Americans — i.e., White Americans. In other words, even within China, while they are treated generally as Americans (rather than as Chinese), Chinese Americans are generally not seen as representing the ‘normal’ image or perception of what Chinese think of as ‘American’ — i.e. they are not White.

Nonetheless, Kathy and Keith told me that once they got used to this cultural dynamic, they were eventually able to create and embrace their own “Chinese American” identity that is neither completely Chinese nor completely American, but a fluid combination of both. Upon doing this, they said that they felt more comfortable using this identity to begin bridging the cultural gaps between China and the U.S. in small ways during their stay in China.

This process of creating an ‘Asian American’ identity that combines and bridges two sets of cultures is what Americans of Asian ancestry have been doing for centuries. It is with this understanding in mind that I think Asian Americans are positioned to take make tangible contributions toward applying their globalized and transnational characteristics and experiences to bridging the political and cultural gaps between the U.S. and Asian countries. In fact, scholars are beginning to examine and describe examples of Asian Americans in different social settings acting as ‘cultural ambassadors‘ in Asian societies.

Therefore, if countries such as China continue to pursue a position of respect within the wider international community while still retaining elements of their national identity, they can learn from Chinese Americans who have have years of experience and expertise in doing exactly that — integrating themselves into mainstream U.S. society while keeping elements their Chinese culture intact. This is not to say that it has been a seamless or smooth process and in fact, Chinese- and Asian Americans have been and continue to face suspicions and challenges regarding their ‘real’ identity.

Nonetheless, institutional changes taking place, such as the ongoing effects of globalization, greater transnationalism, and increased multiculturalism, have transformed the racial, ethnic, and cultural landscape of both U.S. society and the world in general. Within this new social environment, there are new opportunities for minority groups such as Asian Americans to assert an identity that legitimately incorporates elements of, and for the benefit of, different societies and cultures.

There is an old Chinese saying that goes, “May you live in interesting times.” From a sociological point of view, this is indeed a very interesting time for China and there are a number of interesting ways that Chinese Americans (and Asian Americans as a whole) can participate in forging a more inclusive path forward into the 21st century.

This article originally published at Asian-Nation.org and is copyrighted © 2013 

I’m sure you have all heard by now that last week, after dealing with increased media publicity about questions regarding his U.S. citizenship, President Obama felt compelled to petition the state of Hawai’i to publicly release his long form Certificate of Live Birth that verifies that he was in fact born in the U.S. and is therefore eligible to be President. Below is a news clip of the story from NBC News:

As many observers point out, this release of the long form Certificate of Live Birth should appease many Americans who may have had a slight doubt about President Obama’s birthplace. However, it is not likely to convince “hardcore” birthers who will undoubtedly continue to question Obama’s status as an American, no matter what the evidence.

So let’s just cut to the chase: this “birther” movement is not really about Obama’s eligibility to be President. Rather, it just another example of the White Backlash that I have been describing for a while now and illustrates the resistance and difficulty that a number of White Americans still have about having a person of color as President and the larger context of demographic and cultural changes taking place in U.S. society. To summarize some of my earlier posts, several institutional trends are fundamentally changing U.S. society:

© James Noble/Corbis
  • 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.

In basic terms, these institutional trends have led many (as always, meaning a large number but not all) White Americans to feel destabilized as their implicit and taken-for-granted position at the top of the U.S. racial hierarchy is increasingly being threatened — politically, economically, and socially. They are also afraid that, as the U.S. is starting to lose its position of being the dominant political, economic, and military superpower in the world, their standard of living — and hence, their identity — are being threatened in the process.

As social scientists document, whenever anybody or any group feels threatened, they tend to get defensive, reactive, and attempt to cling on to their privileges as much as possible. One mechanism by which they do so is to assert a more rigid cultural boundary between them and “others” — insiders vs. outsiders, us vs. them. In the case of the birther movement, this attempt revolves around differentiating between “real” Americans (in the traditional image of U.S. society — White, middle class, and Protestant) and those perceived as “fake” Americans — immigrants, people of color, and specifically, President Obama.

The birthers usually counter with accusations that critics like me are just “playing the race card” and that their questions about Obama’s status as an American have nothing to do with his race. Unfortunately the evidence is not in their favor. As observers and critics like Tim Wise have argued elsewhere, the racial overtones of the birther movement and the larger White backlash movement are overwhelming.

At this point, it is almost exasperating to list and recount every single example of the racist aspects of the birther and White backlash movement. So for now, perhaps the best way to illustrate this further is to use humor and satire. For that, I will turn to Stephen Colbert and his recent observations about this issue below — make sure you view the video through to the end — punchline is well worth it:

Not only are we nearing the end of the year but also the end of the first decade of the new millennium. I recently posted about the best and worst news events of 2010. In this post, I would like to take an even broader look at news events and other political, economic, cultural, and demographic trends of the last 10 years to identify what I consider the most important and significant issue that has affected racial/ethnic relations in the U.S. so far in the 21st century.

There are certainly many potential issues, trends, and events from which to choose. An obvious one are the 9/11 Attacks and the resultant War on Terrorism. As I’ve detailed since that fateful day in 2001, lives of Americans from all racial/ethnic backgrounds were literally changed overnight, not the least of whom were and are Arab and Muslim Americans, who have to balance their dual identities of being both Americans while also frequently being seen as “enemies in our own backyards.”

Another clear choice would have been the election of Barack Obama as the U.S.’s first non-White President. His campaign and eventual victory were certainly very historical moments in the racial/ethnic landscape of American society. For good and for bad, they further brought many underlying racial issues to the surface of American society and resulted in both more cohesion and divisions across racial/ethnic lines.

Further, a third good choice could be the emergence of Unauthorized Immigration as a divisive, hot button issue within American society. As the need for cheap labor increased, so did the numbers of immigrants from all over the world but particularly from Mexico and Central America arriving in the U.S. to fill that need. In the process, their presence led to numerous and ongoing debates and conflicts over whether their presence is good and bad for the country.

But in the end, I believe that one racial/ethnic issue in particular is even more significant than the others. This issue has become a underlying political, economic, and cultural dynamic that has exacerbated, intensified, and reinforced the effects of the other three that I mentioned above. In many ways, this issue has become a fundamental factor upon which many contemporary forms of racial/ethnic inequality and controversy are now based. That issue — the most significant racial/ethnic issue of the decade — is Globalization.

Globalization: Its Forms & Effects

Of course, there are different definitions of globalization. For my purposes, I define it as the contemporary and ongoing institutional process involving increasingly frequent and complex political, economic, and cultural interconnections and competition between countries and groups of citizens around the world.

Globalization © Wojtek Kozak & Images.com/Corbis

Globalization can also take many specific forms. As I detail below, those that have had significant effects on racial/ethnic relations in the U.S. this first decade of the 21st century include demographic change, outsourcing and postindustrial occupational shifts, increased economic competition in the global marketplace, and decreased economic stability on the institutional and individual levels.

In taking each form one at a time, the first significant effect of globalization on American society and racial/ethnic relations is demographic change. For some time now, due to the continuation of high levels of immigration from non-European countries and the relatively high birth rates of non-White racial/ethnic groups, the U.S.’s population is gradually shifting from overwhelmingly White to more racially diverse and multicultural. In fact, the Census Bureau projects that if current trends are sustained, Whites will cease to be the majority population somewhere around 2050. Whites will still be the largest racial/ethnic group by far but for the first time in several centuries, non-Whites will comprise more than 50% of the U.S.’s population.

These demographic changes have already transformed the racial/ethnic composition of numerous cities, metropolitan areas, and states around the country. Further, such shifts have inevitably led to political and cultural transformations as well in these locations as well, such as the creation of new ethnic enclaves and communities where the majority of the population are Asian American, as one example. As social disorganization theory describes, such demographic changes have inevitably led to some resentment and tension between more established residents (predominantly White) and “newcomer” groups (who are predominantly non-White).

Globalization has also resulted in accelerating postindustrial trends in the occupational structure of the U.S. While the U.S.’s economy has been gradually shifting from one dominated by manufacturing to one focused more on services, in the past two decades, globalization seems to institutionalized a segmented labor market in which almost all new jobs that are created are located either near the top of the occupational structure (involving knowledge management and information technology, requiring high levels of education and job skills, and resultant high pay) or near the bottom (manual labor service sector jobs that require little education or job skills and involving low pay and job security). New middle-level (for example, “blue collar” skilled manufacturing) jobs are much less common these days.

The New Normal: Economic Instability

What this means for racial/ethnic relations is that there is more economic competition for jobs that offer some opportunity for social mobility. In the past, White workers were able to count on these mid- and high-level jobs that would propel them and their families into the middle and upper classes through succeeding generations. But today, due to globalization (and other factors), Whites face more frequent and more intense competition for such jobs from immigrants and non-Whites.

This is important because one of the most consistent sociological patterns through the years has been that whenever you have economic competition, almost always it will eventually lead to racial/ethnic hostility. Taken together, this increased economic competition seems poised to become the norm in the near future due to the ongoing effects of globalization and related forces.

However, because many White Americans have grown accustomed (perhaps even feeling entitled) to economic security and a middle class standard of living, these fundamental institutional changes and feelings of economic insecurity are likely to be the biggest shock to them. Feeling destabilized themselves and perceiving that others (particularly immigrants, American non-Whites, and international non-Whites) to be benefiting at their expense, it is not surprising that many Whites would ultimately feel threatened, angry, and engage in some form of backlash or scapegoating.

Therefore, it is within this context that I feel that globalization is the most significant racial/ethnic issue of this past decade. The demographic shifts and economic instability brought on by globalization and felt by many Americans, but particularly White Americans, forms the foundation upon which much of the anti-immigrant and anti-minority tensions, hostility, and backlash of the past 10 years is based, along with magnifying its political, economic, and cultural effects.

The war on terrorism and much of the anti-Arab and anti-Muslim suspicions involve the conscious or unconscious fear of America’s majority White and Christian cultural dominance being threatened. In many ways, Barack Obama’s election as our first non-White President also symbolizes a loss of power for the majority White establishment. And much of the vehement opposition to unauthorized immigration again is based on the direct and indirect fear that non-Whites are “taking over” or “invading” the U.S., determined to “overthrow” its majority White culture.

So while there have been many notable and important news events in this past decade that have affected racial/ethnic relations, from a sociological point of view, one significant common thread among them all is that, to a large extent, they are based on the demographic, political, economic, and cultural effects of globalization and how such effects are perceived to be a threat to the institutional power and hegemony of the U.S. White majority population.

A few recent articles about China caught my attention. After taking them all in, one common theme became clear to me: China has made a lot of economic and cultural progress in recent years as it strives to become the next global superpower. At the same, as my previous blog posts have mentioned, China still lags other countries and societies when it comes to certain issues such as human rights, consumer protection, etc.

With this dichotomy in mind and as these most recent articles will highlight, China seems to be at a crossroads: is China willing to and capable of taking the next step and becoming a truly respected global superpower, or is it fated to just have economic power without real global acceptance as a legitimate ‘developed’ nation?

Specifically, in a recent column in Time magazine, Fareed Zakaria argues that despite the ongoing controversy over whether China’s government deliberately devalues its currency to artificially keep its goods cheap in overseas markets, China’s real problem is that, for it to continue to stay globally competitive, it needs to invest in improving the human capital (education, postindustrial job skills, etc.) of its citizens:

The real challenge we face from China is not that it will keep flooding us with cheap goods. It’s actually the opposite: China is moving up the value chain, and this could constitute the most significant new competition to the U.S. economy in the future. For much of the past three decades, China focused its efforts on building up its physical infrastructure. It didn’t need to invest in its people; the country was aiming to produce mainly low-wage, low-margin goods. As long as its workers were cheap and worked hard, that was good enough. . . .

Now China wants to get into higher-quality goods and services. That means the next phase of its economic development, clearly identified by government officials, requires it to invest in human capital with the same determination it used to build highways. Since 1998, Beijing has undertaken a massive expansion of education, nearly tripling the share of GDP devoted to it. In the decade since, the number of colleges in China has doubled and the number of students quintupled, going from 1 million in 1997 to 5.5 million in 2007. China has identified its nine top universities and singled them out as its version of the Ivy League.

That rationale makes perfect sense to me — as the world economy becomes more globalized, postindustrial, and information- and data-intensive, workers with these advanced educational and job skills are poised to have an advantage in the labor market. This is basically what the rest of the world believes as well. But as a New York Times article points out, the problem in China however, is that this rush and pressure to improve one’s education seems to be increasingly associated with academic fraud:

The exposure of Mr. Zhang’s faked credentials provoked a fresh round of hand-wringing over what many scholars and Chinese complain are the dishonest practices that permeate society, including students who cheat on college entrance exams, scholars who promote fake or unoriginal research, and dairy companies that sell poisoned milk to infants. . . .

[A] lack of integrity among researchers is hindering China’s potential and harming collaboration between Chinese scholars and their international counterparts, scholars in China and abroad say. . . . Pressure on scholars by administrators of state-run universities to earn journal citations — a measure of innovation — has produced a deluge of plagiarized or fabricated research. . . . [E]arlier this year, The Lancet, the British medical journal, warned that faked or plagiarized research posed a threat to President Hu Jintao’s vow to make China a “research superpower” by 2020. . . .

[P]lagiarizers often go unpunished, which only encourages more of it. . . . The Chinese government has vowed to address the problem. Editorials in the state-run press frequently condemn plagiarism and last month, Liu Yandong, a powerful Politburo member who oversees Chinese publications, vowed to close some of the 5,000 academic journals whose sole existence, many scholars say, is to provide an outlet for doctoral students and professors eager to inflate their publishing credentials.

Fang Shimin and another crusading journalist, Fang Xuanchang, have heard the vows and threats before. In 2004 and again in 2006, the Ministry of Education announced antifraud campaigns but the two bodies they established to tackle the problem have yet to mete out any punishments.

We do need to keep in mind that in many Asian countries, there is a greater sense of collective harmony and group cooperation that differs from the ethos of individualism and “every-man-for-himself” that is more prominent in western countries. Also considering the rash of American corporate greed and deceit that contributed to the onset of the current recession, fraud is certainly not exclusive to China.

At the same time, and as Chinese authorities seem to recognize at least verbally, it is clear that this mentality of malfeasance is a problem that needs to be addressed for China to move closer toward full acceptance and respect as a true global superpower.

Another aspect of China’s “cultural schizophrenia” that caught my attention concerns the Nobel Peace Prize being awarded to Chinese dissident Liu Xiaobo, a former literature professor who has been variously persecuted by the Chinese government the past 20 years for championing democratic reform. The vast majority of the world is applauding the choice of Liu for the prize, with the obvious exception being the Chinese government. However, as a different New York Times article notes, another notable group of critics against Liu are other Chinese pro-democracy dissidents:

In recent days, a group of 14 overseas Chinese dissidents, many of them hard-boiled exiles dedicated to overthrowing the Communist Party, have been calling on the Nobel committee to deny the prize to Mr. Liu, whom they say would make an “unsuitable” laureate. In a letter, the signatories accused Mr. Liu of maligning fellow activists, abandoning persecuted members of the Falun Gong spiritual movement and going soft on China’s leaders. “His open praise in the last 20 years for the Chinese Communist Party, which has never stopped trampling on human rights, has been extremely misleading and influential,” they wrote. . . .

The letter and calls from other detractors have infuriated many rights advocates, inside and outside of China, who say the attack distorts Mr. Liu’s record as a longtime proponent of peaceful [and pragmatic] change. . . . More recently, Mr. Liu was given an 11-year prison sentence last Christmas for his role in shaping a manifesto, known as Charter ’08, that called for popular elections and an end to the Communist Party’s unchallenged grip on power. . . .

Whatever the merits of the anti-Liu Xiaobo camp, their very public sentiments provide a window into the state of the overseas Chinese dissidents, a fractured group beset by squabbling and competing claims of anti-authoritarian righteousness. . . . Even if they have differences over strategy, many intellectuals and activists inside China describe Mr. Liu as a dynamic thinker who appealed both to members of the party and many of its die-hard opponents.

Despite — or perhaps because of — Mr. Liu’s compassionate and forgiving nature, he seems to be caught in the “key to failure” conundrum as articulated once by Bill Cosby: “I don’t know what’s the key to success, but the key to failure is trying to please everybody.” In other words, his opposition to authoritarian rule has made him an enemy of the state to the Chinese government, but apparently he is not considered “radical” enough for other pro-democracy Chinese dissidents. It’s the classic no-win scenario.

It also reminds me of similar intra-ethnic tensions within the Vietnamese American community in which hard-line anti-communist refugees often accuse others within their community of being a communist when there is a disagreement on some issue. Another example is when some Asian Americans dismiss or criticize other Asian Americans for not being “Asian” enough, particularly those who are adopted or mixed-race.

On the one hand, it’s obviously unrealistic to expect that all Chinese — both inside and outside the country — to agree on all issues and aspects of their society and government policies. On the other hand, when members of your own community reject one of their own, particularly when it comes to a highly prestigious award such as the Nobel Peace Prize, it makes me wonder about whether such a fractured group can effectively act as a respected counterbalance to China’s authoritarian rule and its continuing less-than-stellar record on human rights.

Every country has its own problems and its contradictions when it comes to establishing a united identity and collective path forward so in that regard, China is no different from, say, the U.S. Also, I am not suggesting that China should blindly conform to all social aspects and policies that are characteristic of western societies. But what is unique in China’s case is that it wants very, very badly to ascend to the position and status of being a globally respected political, economic, and cultural superpower.

In many ways, China already has enormous global influence. But that is not necessarily the same as global respect and authority.

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 all the major media organizations are reporting, President Obama is in the middle of a high-profile trip to Asia, visiting many of our major allies and trading partners, particularly China. Rather than focus specifically on the political and economic policies about which he and his Asian counterparts will speak, haggle, and disagree, I’d like to take his visit as an opportunity to focus on the love-hate relationship that the U.S. seems to have with China these days.

It is undeniable that globalization has made the economies of the U.S. and China much more intertwined and dependent on each other. One result of this trend is that when the U.S. economy is struggling (like it is these days), China has resources in terms of investing in U.S. businesses and opening up markets in China for U.S. businesses to sell to, both of which help alleviate some of those struggles. For example, and as a nice “Globalization 101″ lesson, the Washington Post has an article that uses a few examples to describe U.S. companies vying for Chinese investment:

On visits to Shanghai and Beijing, Obama will encounter not simply a rising global power but a nation that is transforming and challenging the way Americans live overseas and at home, from college classrooms to real estate offices to the ginseng farms of central Wisconsin. . . .

“Years ago, it didn’t matter what we grew. They bought everything we had,” said Randy Ross, a 54-year-old former dairy farmer who has been growing ginseng since 1978. “Now we’ve got to learn how to satisfy them. They are changing us.” . . . Hate it or love it, China is a major player in American life. . . .

Meanwhile, in a state that has lost more than 160,000 (or one-third) of its manufacturing jobs in a decade, local newspapers have been running editorials praising the People’s Republic and blasting those who oppose closer trade ties or Chinese investment. “China is a friend to Wisconsin and its businesses, not an enemy in a trade war,” the Wisconsin State Journal said in an editorial.

At the University of Wisconsin in Madison, Chinese undergraduates now account for more than half of the 1,109 Chinese students there. That increase is another sign that China is coming because Wisconsin, like many state schools, doesn’t provide scholarships for international undergrads. Last year, Chinese students paid out $2 billion in tuition nationwide. “That money is keeping some American colleges alive,” said Laurie Cox, who runs the international student center at the Madison campus.

The Washington Post article lists several other ways, many just using businesses in Wisconsin as examples, that Americans and American companies have become dependent on China. In reading over these accounts, one might conclude that to a certain extent, many Americans see China as an “economic savior,” without whom they would be much worse off.

On the other hand, we can contrast those positive sentiments with other, more negative assessments and suspicions about China’s impact on the U.S. I’ve already written Americans being upset towards China for unsafe consumer products, human rights abuses, and allegations of spying and espionage.

More specifically, within this same process of China investing in U.S. companies, many Americans allege that the main reason China is doing so is to take them over and use them to eventually dominate and “take over” the U.S. economy. These suspicions were illustrated loud and clear in a CBS 60 Minutes segment from April of 2008 (entire episode is below, about 12 minutes long):

As I mentioned, these suspicions about China’s “real” intentions are opposite sides of the same coin and are great illustrations of the love-hate relationship that we Americans have with the Chinese. We love their money and their 1.3 billion consumer market, but we hate that their money might lead to them having a say in how our business is run or may eventually lead to them taking over the business completely (this is sometimes referred to as the “New Yellow Peril.”)

In fact, this kind of love-hate relationship that the American society has with Asians, Asian Americans, and Chinese Americans is not new. Starting with when the first large-scale immigration of Chinese to the U.S. in the mid-1800s, reinforced through subsequent decades, and continuing these days, these kinds of contradictory sentiments have manifested themselves in different ways.

For example, mainstream American society loved our cheap labor, how hard we work, and that (at least in the past), we were relatively powerless in asserting our rights for equal treatment. But they hated that we wanted to settle here, raise families here, and that our hard work frequently resulted in us making more money.

In the past, mainstream American society and the White majority also did not want us to freely intermingle with them — that’s why they passed the Chinese Exclusion Act and various other local and state laws that restricted where we could live, what jobs we could work in, and who we could marry. Such rampant hostility forced many of us to live in segregated ghettos as a matter of survival. But at the same time, they also criticized us for congregating in our own ethnic communities and accused us of not wanting to assimilate and to be American.

Fast forward to today and the same kind of cultural schizophrenia still exist in regard to the relationship between Asians/Asian Americans and the rest of American society and the White majority. The most visible example seems to be simultaneous hopes and fears over China’s investment in the U.S. economy. Such contradictions are also seen when Asian Americans are both praised and criticized for supposedly being the “model minority.”

Alas, this seems to be the consistent pattern in terms of the relationship between Asians/Asian Americans and the rest of American society — two steps forward, one step back.

As many news organizations have been reporting, Vietnamese Americans in San Jose, CA are blasting the police department there for several incidents of police brutality, the latest one happening last month in which officers were videoed beating a young Vietnamese American man, Phuong Ho, who appeared to be unarmed and submissive, as shown below:

As the San Jose Mercury News reports, the incident started as a private argument with Ho and one of his roommates and escalated due to language and cultural barriers:

The grainy video depicts the event as Siegel struck Ho, a math major from Vietnam, more than 10 times with a baton in the hallway of the house. Payne shocked Ho with a Taser gun. Ho does not appear to be combative in the video, although it does not record the entire interaction between Ho and the officers. . . .

The incident developed after Ho had argued with a roommate over soap being slopped onto a steak. Ho reportedly picked up a steak knife and told the roommate that in Vietnam, “I would kill you” over that. Ho dropped the knife and was not armed by the time police arrived, according to witnesses.

Officer Siegel had trouble understanding Ho when he asked his name, and attempted to enter Ho’s room to look for identification. He told Ho to wait in the hall, according to police reports. When Ho ignored Siegel’s order and attempted to follow him into the room, Payne pushed him into a wall, setting off the events that another roommate captured on cell phone video, in which the officers are seen striking Ho as they yell at him to turn over onto his back.

As the Mercury News article notes and as Raj Jayadev at New America Media elaborates upon, this particular incident was just the latest in a series of questionable conduct by the San Jose police against the Vietnamese American community and other racial/ethnic minorities in the area, who allege that officers have engaged in police brutality on several occasions and on top of them, the police department and city officials have refused to address such allegations:

The Phuong Ho video has elicited such outrage in San Jose because it comes on the heels of a year-long sequence of various public revelations of police abuse, and a matching series of failures by city leadership to respond to the demands for transparency and accountability that have spanned ethnic communities.

To begin with, last October, the Mercury News released data from the Department of Justice that showed that San Jose had a dramatically higher arrest rate for public intoxication that any other city in California (even those with much larger populations) and were arresting minorities at a disproportionate rate. Latinos in particular were heavily overrepresented in the arrest rates, accounting for nearly 57 percent of all arrests despite only representing 30 percent of the general population.

The news set of a firestorm in San Jose, leading to a raucous City Hall forum, where hundreds of people recounted stories of being arrested without cause, and roughed up in the process. . . .

On Mother’s Day of [2009], Daniel Pham, a 28-year-old Vietnamese man with mental health issues, was shot and killed by police. Police were called after Pham cut his brother with a knife. Pham was dead shortly after they arrived. The San Jose Police Department did not release the police reports and the transcript of the 911 call, despite an overwhelming demand from the Vietnamese community for transparency.

The District Attorney chose to have a closed grand jury for the officer-involved shooting – meaning no one, including Pham’s family members, would be allowed to know what happened inside the courtroom. On Oct.18, 2009, the District Attorney announced the results of the closed grand jury – no indictment. The public still has no answers as to why Pham is dead, and there is a growing sentiment being voiced in the Vietnamese community not to call the police if they need help, lest they risk the fate of being the next Daniel Pham.

And just last week, days before the Phuong Ho video was released and days after the no indictment result of the Pham case, the City Council voted down a set of reforms that would have forced the San Jose Police Department to remove the veil of secrecy surrounding their department, and open up public access to police records. Mind you, these recommendations came from a Sunshine Reform Task Force assembled by the mayor himself, who had now become the most vocal proponent for not disclosing police files.

A number of community groups across ethnic lines – the Asian Law Alliance, NAACP, Vietnamese Association of Northern California, La Raza Lawyers Association, and others – have filed a demand for the immediate release of police reports associated with the Ho case. The city has yet to respond.

There are several aspects of these incidents of brutality and excessive force that are rather troubling. The first is that as the Mercury News article points out, the San Jose police department actually has several Vietnamese American officers and as far as I have heard, has done a relatively good job at recruiting and retaining such officers to supposedly better serve the Vietnamese American community there.

Secondly, much like their neighbors in San Francisco to the north, San Jose generally has a very racially and ethnically diverse population and a reputation as a relatively liberal community. With that in mind, one might presume that relations with their constituents would be better.

Nonetheless, despite the presence of Vietnamese American officers and the city’s liberal reputation, these incidents of police brutality and, just as important, the refusal of city and police officials to be transparent and accountable for such incidents continue to exist.

Why would this be the case? What other reasons might account for this widening rift between city and police officials and the residents they are supposed to “protect and serve?”

Until city and police officials open up and directly address these issues, we can only speculate about what else is going on. As such, I would hypothesize that the officials’ actions (or lack thereof) might be an unconscious form of resistance against the changing demographics and political/cultural makeup of the city.

As I’ve written about before, many (as in a large number, but not all) Whites likely feel threatened by the fact that “their” community, “their” state, and “their” country are increasingly become more culturally diverse and that the U.S.’s position as the dominant and most powerful country in the world is slowly eroding in the 21st century. On top of that, the current recession and the continuing effects of globalization have compounded their financial insecurities and personal anxieties.

Faced with these recent trends, many Whites have sought to adapt and indeed embrace such changes. However, these cultural, economic, and political shifts have led many others to become defensive and have led to a backlash. Others have pointed out that the vehement and racially-tinged opposition to President Obama by the far right is an example of this backlash. Further examples include increased interpersonal and institutional hostility towards immigrants and towards people of color in general, and Asian Americans continuing to be questioned on their loyalties and identity as “real” Americans.

It is within this larger social context that we might see the refusal of San Jose city and police officials to account for their actions and to make the details of police brutality allegations public as further examples of this unconscious White interpersonal and institutional backlash.

Change does not come easily and as sociologists have consistently documented, there is inevitably a stage of competition and conflict before things settle down and the cultural and political landscape stabilizes. Unfortunately, in the meantime, Vietnamese Americans in San Jose and other racial/ethnic minorities and immigrants throughout the country are likely to encounter more examples of these kinds of hostility.

Next month is Asian Pacific American Heritage Month and inevitably, many people wonder exactly who or which ethnic groups are included in the category of “Asian Pacific American.” Specifically, several have asked me whether Arab and Middle Eastern Americans should be included. This is a complicated question to be sure and the short answer is technically (i.e., from the Census Bureau and federal government’s definition), they are considered White, not Asian.

However, as the Los Angeles Times reports, several in the Arab and Middle Eastern American community don’t consider themselves White (and certainly aren’t always treated as if they’re White) nor Asian. Instead, they are tying to create a new racial definition that more accurately represents their history, characteristics, and experiences:

Nicole Salame, 19, was filling out an application to UCLA last year when she got to the question about race and ethnicity. She thought a mistake had been made. . . . Her Lebanese-born mother told her Arabs are considered white, but Salame didn’t believe her. Her high school counselor told her the same thing. . . . For years the federal government has classified Arab Americans and Middle Easterners as white. But confusion and disagreement have led some students to check “Asian” or “African,” depending on what part of the Middle East they came from. Some, like Salame, simply marked “Other.”

Now several UCLA student groups — including Arabs, Iranians, Afghanis and Armenians — have launched a campaign to add a Middle Eastern category, with various subgroups, to the University of California admissions application. They hope to emulate the Asian Pacific Coalition’s “Count Me In” campaign, which a few years ago successfully lobbied for the inclusion of 23 ethnic categories on the UC application, including Hmong, Pakistani, Native Hawaiian and Samoan.

The UCLA students said having their own ethnic designation goes beyond self-identity and has real implications for the larger Arab and Middle Eastern communities.

The article points out that in past decades, those of Arab and Middle Eastern descent fought to be legally and officially designated as White, which was formalized by the Census in 1970. However, in the context of recent demographic, political, and cultural trends, Arab and Middle Eastern Americans now are more inclined to identify as a separate racial/ethnic group, one that better reflects the uniqueness of their community:

UCLA junior Shawn Gabrill said he has more in common with other children of immigrants than with those whose parents were born in this country.

“I feel like when I put down ‘white’ on an application, they assume my parents finished high school, went to college and that English was my first language,” the 20-year-old English major said. “And none of these things describe me.”

Gabrill, the son of Jordanian and Egyptian parents, said he had difficulties with the college application but, because he was seen as white, he wasn’t identified as someone who needed extra help from high school counselors.

“So it’s kind of like we’re in between. We’re not white, but we’re not as disadvantaged as the other groups so we don’t get any of that aid,” he said. “So we’re kind of invisible in that way.”

Of course, the usual criticism from more “traditional” Americans is that such an effort to create a new racial category will only divide our country further and would make it harder to unite everyone under a universal “American” identity. The problem with that argument is that first, based on our country’s history and still embedded in most of our social institutions, a universal “American” identity has usually meant being White. Therefore, in denying Arab and Middle Eastern Americans their own identity amounts to another misguided “colorblind” approach that ignores the historical legacies and contemporary realities of American racial history.

The second problem with this colorblind argument is that it flies in the face of real and significant demographic changes taking place all around us, and the political and cultural shifts that result from such changes. As I’ve consistently written about, being “American” in the 21st century is more than just a sense of patriotic loyalty. That’s part of it, but it also includes making real contributions to America’s political, economic, and cultural future in the face of globalization, financial crises, and the changing political landscape around the world.

With that in mind, just like Asian Americans, Arab and Middle Eastern Americans are poised to use their transnational cultural ties to bridge the gaps that currently divide the U.S. from other religions and countries. If the U.S. is to retain its “superpower” status and level of influence around the world, trying to impose American ideals and models of government or economy will not work any longer and in fact, will only hasten our country’s decline.

Instead, as the Obama administration has recognized, we need to embrace these global trends and build more mutually-respectful connections, relationships, and networks with countries and religions around the world, particular in Asia and the Middle East. Although it’s too late to be officially implemented in the 2010 census, one step in that process is to support the efforts of Arab and Middle Eastern Americans to create their own racial category that reflects their unique history, experiences, and resources that they can contribute in helping us forge a new American identity here in the U.S. and around the world.

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.

We all know by now that the previously underdog movie Slumdog Millionaire is a huge hit around the world, but particularly in the U.S., having just won eight Academy Awards and grossing over $120 million dollars in North America. As MSNBC writes, the movie also symbolizes the cultural/popular emergence of Indian Americans as a community:

The past few weeks have underscored their increasingly high profile: Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal gave the Republican response Tuesday night to President Barack Obama’s speech to Congress, while Dr. Sanjay Gupta is under consideration to be Obama’s surgeon general.

Model and cooking author Padma Lakshmi finished another “Top Chef” TV season, then became the celebrity face for a new Procter & Gamble Co. Pantene shampoo line as well as a Hardee’s hamburger promotion. Anoop Desai, dubbed “Noop Dogg,” drew fans with his singing on this year’s “American Idol,” and Aziz Ansari was in TV’s medical comedy “Scrubs” before moving to a regular role in the upcoming comedy series “Parks and Recreation.” . . .

Indian-Americans have been one of the fastest-growing and most successful immigrant groups, though [Sreenath Sreenivasan, a professor and dean of student affairs for Columbia University’s journalism school] and other Indian-Americans are quick to point out that some Indians continue to struggle economically and socially in this country. . . .

For years, they have proliferated in this country in the fields of health care, information technology and engineering, with higher education levels and incomes than national averages. And recent years have brought more Indian heads of major U.S. companies — PepsiCo Inc.’s Indra Nooyi is among about a dozen current CEOs.

They also are making their presence felt in journalism. Gupta, a neurosurgeon and medical correspondent, and Fareed Zakaria, editor of Newsweek International, have their own weekend shows on CNN, for example.

Slumdog Millionaire’s extraordinary success is well-earned, although we should note that not all Indians and Indian Americans are enthralled by its story. Nonetheless, I agree with the MSNBC article that the film’s success does have cultural, as well as economic, significance for American society and the Indian American community in general.

Among other things, the article also spends some time discussing the political emergence of Bobby Jindal, who despite his less-than-successful televised response to Barack Obama’s recent address to Congress, is undoubtedly being groomed to be a high-profile national leader for the Republican party for years to come. By the way, CBS’s 60 Minutes just did a very interesting profile segment on him, embedded below (about 12 minutes long):

The part of the segment that I found most interesting was that he and his wife hardly identify as Indian American at all — they clearly prefer to think of themselves as just plain “Americans” and “Louisianians.” That is their prerogative of course — not everyone who has non-American ancestry should be compelled to identify with that particular ethnicity. But I am interested to hear what Indian Americans think of Jindal’s sense of his identity (apart from his politics) — does it bother Indian Americans that one of the most high-profile Indian Americans in the country has little if any personal attachment to his ethnic roots?

In the meantime, back to the Indian American community as a whole, the MSNBC article is not really groundbreaking news. As my article on Socioeconomic Statistics and Demographics show, Indian Americans are clearly the most socioeconomically successful of the major Asian American ethnic groups. As such, it should be no surprise that, along with their socioeconomic success, their cultural prominence would soon increase as well.

At the same time, I also wonder what effect political events back in India will have on Indian Americans and the perception that others have of Indian Americans. Specifically, there is still a lot of suspicion and even hostility towards India and the perception that is largely responsible for many jobs being outsourced away from the U.S. and that India is profiting from globalization at the expense of American workers. This is likely to continue being the case as the current recession gets worse before it gets better.

Second, the recent and continuing terrorist attacks and related violence in India have many people worried not just about the physical safety of people inside of India, but also of India’s political stability and even its future economic development. Both of these concerns affect Indian Americans both here in the U.S. and around the world in terms of their public image and of course, the well-being of friends and relatives back in India.

Nonetheless, I for one welcome this cultural emergence of our fellow Americans of Indian descent. Our society and its diverse mosaic of culture is enriched even further by it.