You may have heard that long-time civil rights activist and Asian American icon Yuri Kochiyama passed away earlier this week at the age of 93. Readers can learn more details about her amazing life through boted Asian American scholar Diana Fujino’s biography Heartbeat of Struggle: The Revolutionary Life of Yuri Kochiyama. Prominent Asian American blog Reappropriate also has links to several other articles from major media outlets about her passing.

Yuri Kochiyama, © ColorLines magazine

The biography and articles highlight how she grew up in the Los Angeles area and had a seemingly normal middle-class life. All of that changed after the Japanese military attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. As history records, this eventually resulted in 120,000 Japanese Americans (two-thirds of them being U.S. citizens) having their constitutional rights revoked and incarcerated, just based on their Japanese ancestry, in dozens of prison camps across the U.S., without any due process whatsoever.

Among those imprisoned were Yuri and her family and this experience forever changed her perspective on the state of race relations, racism, and the overwhelming need for social justice in the U.S. She eventually married a Japanese American GI and moved to Harlem, New York City. There, she befriended a young Black nationalist named Malcolm X and in the course of her friendship, galvanized her determination to work toward social equality and justice on behalf of her community. She was there when Malcolm X was assassinated on February 21, 1965.

Thereafter, she became known for actively participating in the movements for ending the Viet Nam War, Puerto Rican independence (highlighted by being part of the group that occupied the Statue of Liberty in 1977), and for Japanese American reparations. In her later years in Oakland, CA, she kept up her activism and social justice work, particularly around the fight against racial profiling and rounding up of Arab and Muslim Americans in the aftermath of 9/11, as detailed in the excellent documentary “Lest We Forget” that highlighted the similarities between Japanese Americans after Pearl Harbor and Arab & Muslim Americans after 9/11. Here at my institution, the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, our Asian American student center is named the “Yuri Kochiyama Cultural Center” on her behalf.

For me personally, Yuri Kochiyama was a hero and an inspiration. Like Yuri, I grew up in a predominantly White community and was entrenched in an assimilationist environment. I did not care about my roots as an Asian American, an immigrant, or a person of color — I just wanted to fit in and be like everybody else around me. In doing so, I was ignorant of all the racial injustices that had been perpetrated against people like me throughout U.S. and world history and that was still taking place all around me in different ways.

It wasn’t until my later years in college and after I started studying Sociology and Asian American Studies that I finally woke up, opened my eyes, reclaimed my identity, and pledged myself to do what I could to fight for racial equality and justice. That’s when I first learned about Yuri Kochiyama. She represented not just someone who was determined to draw on her personal experiences of racism to fight on behalf of others in similar situations, but as an Asian American woman, she stood in stark contrast to the stereotypical images of Asian American women as meek, submissive, exotic, and hypersexualized “geishas” and “China dolls.”

In other words, she gave all of us — men and women, Asian American or not — a different example of what Asian Americans, particularly women, are capable of. It is these examples and memories of Yuri Kochiyama as a strong, determined, committed, and inclusive activist and Asian American woman that I will carry forth with me.

This is the second of my three-part list of the best documentaries that focus on immigration and are great choices for showing in high school and college immigration classes. This second part will focus specifically on the issue of unauthorized immigration. We all know that unauthorized immigration has become one of the most controversial, hotly-debated, and emotionally-charged issues in American society today. In that context, these documentaries highlight various sides of the debate and taken together, will hopefully provide a more comprehensive picture of this complicate and often contradictory issue.

Part 1 focused on the historical and global context of immigration and Part 3 will look at socioeconomic attainment, mobility, and assimilation. The following list is organized by topic and corresponds to the chronological order in which I discuss each topic in my “Sociology of Immigration” course. For each topic, I highlight the documentary that I tend to show the most often, followed by other videos that are good choices for that topic as well.

The Land of Opportunity © Dave Cutler, Images.com/Corbis

Unauthorized Immigration: The Basics

As the name implies, this section lays out the basic historical, political, and economic foundation and concepts that frame the contemporary nature of unauthorized immigration. I focus much of the discussion on such immigration from Mexico but also stress that much of the unauthorized immigrant population are people who had official permission to enter the U.S., and with that in mind, why we as a society focus such a disproportionate amount of attention on those from Mexico.

Nativism and Xenophobia

In this section, I describe historical and contemporary examples of how immigrants from various backgrounds and countries have encountered nativism, xenophobia, and racism upon their arrival. At the same time, I also focus on how such hostility and tensions have been magnified in recent years against unauthorized immigrants and the racial/ethnic connotations behind them.

Immigration Reform

This section explores the various proposals, programs, and laws that attempt to address the unauthorized immigration issue. I cover the pros and cons of both the “enforcement only” and “comprehensive reform” approaches, as well as examining the variety of costs and benefits that unauthorized immigration have on American society and its economy.

Women, Gender, & Family

This section highlights the immigration process and experiences of women, children, and families specifically. I examine the multi-level issues involved in transnational families where parents are separated from their children and the effects that workplace raids by Immigration Control and Enforcement agents have on unauthorized immigrant families.

Make no mistake, all the available evidence suggests that the American political economy is headed for a major crash.  Some are even speculating that this is the end of American economic dominance in the world’s financial market.  But don’t be deceived by the blame-the-victim rationalizing that’s being floated now.   Let’s be clear about what policies and which people are behind the current financial crisis: neoliberal policies and the overwhelmingly majority of economically privileged white men (photo from same link) who created, implemented and benefited from those policies.

Neoliberalism refers to a set of policies that encourage “less government” and unfettered (and unregulated) capitalism.   The key elements of neoliberalism include: 1) the rule of the market, 2) reducing government expenditures on social services, 3) deregulation, 4) privatization, and 5) gutting the notion of “the public good.”    While this may strike some readers as sounding astonishingly similar to any recent Republican stump speech, neoliberalism has infected Democratic politics as well, and either Clinton’s policies (and way too many of Obama’s, for my tastes), fit neatly within the framework of neoliberalism.  Remember, “welfare reform” was a large part of what got Bill Clinton elected, and that’s a quintessential neoliberal policy.   Now, it seems self-evident to me what the connection is between neoliberalism and the current financial crisis, but allow me to connect a few of the dots here.   As those in the White House and Congress, including John McCain, touted the benefits of deregulation (link opens video of interview with McCain) of the financial markets and passed legislation “freeing” up those industries from any sort of government oversight, whole new markets developed and a few people got very, very rich.   Many of those who got very, very rich did so in financial services that are obtuse at best and an elaborate shell game at worse.   Others got very, very rich by targeting minority communities for subprime mortgages, the new version of “redlining.”  Now, those who conceived of, established and profited from these businesses have either cashed out or, if they’re still in the game, are looking to the U.S. tax-payers (some of the same people who’ve been fleeced by these schemes) for a $700 billion bailout, making the U.S. government the insurer-of-last-resort for these highly risky capitalist ventures.    The end result of neoliberal policies is that while a handful of people get very, very rich, these policies simultaneously exacerbate the suffering of just about everyone else and increase domestic and international instability.    So, what we’re seeing now is just the logical, perhaps inevitable, result of these policies.

Economically privileged white men have had a disproportionate level of involvement in the development, administration and profit from neoliberalism.  If you look at the roster of those in power on Wall Street and in the financial services sector more broadly in the U.S., what you will see is overwhelmingly white men who have gone to elite schools and, for the most part, come from upper-middle class and upper-class backgrounds.   Granted, there are token women (usually white) and people of color (some African American men), but these exceptions highlight the prevailing demographic fact about the industry.   While the “secret societies” of the wealthy occasionally make the news, the fact is, the power elite has been a feature of American life since before C. Wright Mills wrote about it in the 1950s, yet it rarely gets discussed in any meaningful way in the mainstream news. Instead, we get a lot of reporting about how the bailout failure was the result of partisanship – certainly part of the story, but doesn’t explain why conservative republicans and democrats rejected the plan.  Instead, what we need is more reporting, more information about how the state is working to protect the interests of the power elite.

Fortunately, critics on the left have pointed out the elite interests behind this crisis and the proposed bailout.   The reality is that bailout or not, the worsening economic landscape is not going to affect everyone in the U.S. – and the world – evenly.   Instead, people of color, women, and particularly women of color, are going to get laid off, not have health care, lose their homes and be forced into bankruptcy, while privileged white men may have to sell one of their vacation homes.  It’s time to shift this burden back onto the shoulders of the people who created it.

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There’s a lot of talk about how McCain’s running mate, Sarah Palin, is energizing conservative voters, but the real “base” that she energizes is white women Go, Sarah!(
Creative Commons License photo credit: GrodsCorp ). And, it’s very likely that white women will be the ones to decide this election.   While many news analysts continue to adhere to the facile equation of race versus gender (rather than race and gender), and interpret white women’s embrace of Palin as a symbol of “true womanhood,” even feminism, what such analyses leave out is the racism of white women.  The racism of white women like Sarah Palin herself.   Writing at the LA Progressive, Charley James reports that Alaskan citizens who know Palin well say she is “racist, sexist, vindictive, and mean.” According to a James’ interview with a local resident who served Palin breakfast shortly after an Obama victory over Hilary Rodham Clinton, Palin said:

“So Sambo beat the bitch!”

Charming.   Yet, as Adia so deftly pointed out here, because Palin and the McCain campaign are hiding behind protestations of “sexism in the media” Palin isn’t subjected to any hard-hitting questions about this statement, or any of her views on race, racism, or racial inequality (or anything else, for that matter).   That’s a wise move from the campaign’s perspective, because I don’t think it would be long before this sort of invective would escape Palin’s lips.   Even setting aside Palin’s overt racism (as some will inevitably call it an “aberration” and/or deny that she ever said it), her rhetoric of being a “hockey mom” and a “pitbull with lipstick,” is a rhetorical – and political – strategy that excludes women of color from the conversation.  As  Maegan la Mala eloquently writes as Vivir Latino (hat tip to Maria Niles):

Palin positions herself as continuing Clinton’s struggle, as continuing the struggle set forth by Geraldine Ferraro, the first woman to run as a vice-presidential candidate. Let’s not forget that Ferraro called Obama “lucky” for being black. Is Palin then lucky for having five children, like my abuela did before being forcibly sterilized? You wanna talk about Palin’s uterus or the uterus of her daughter? I want to talk about my abuela’s uterus, how it’s power was deemed dangerous because of it’s power to bear brown Spanish speaking babies, my uterus and it’s abortions, miscarriages, and pregnancies, violations upon it, the uterus of an immigrant woman being viewed as a weapon in a culture war and the need to put those immigrant women in chains as they push babies from them and the need the U.S. government has to separate mamis and babies and deport and dispose.

My uterus and my head is tired.

Unfortunately, this is a lesson that white liberal feminists fail to get over centuries of opportunities to learn this lesson: there is nothing incompatible about racism and white feminism.   In fact, they go together quite seamlessly.   Will racism pick the next president? You betcha.  And it’ll be the racism of white women leading the way.

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