“I feel ashamed of myself because my grade is not what an Asian should get,” reads a PostSecret confession. The quote reflects the popular perception among Asians and non-Asians, alike, that if you are Asian, you should receive a top grade; anything less than an A is an “Asian F.”
The idea highlights two points. First, academic achievement is racialized, with Asian Americans as the reference group for academic excellence. Second, the expectations and the perceived norm for achievement are higher for Asian Americans than for other groups.
The association between Asian Americans and achievement is relatively recent. Less than a century ago, Asians were described as illiterate, undesirable, and unassimilable immigrants, full of “filth and disease.” As “marginal members of the human race,” they were denied the right to naturalize, denied the right to intermarry, and were segregated in crowded ethnic enclaves.
So what changed? The answer: the skills and educational profiles of post-1965 Asian immigration. According to the Pew Research Center, among recent Asian immigrants between the ages of 25 and 64, 61% have at least a bachelor’s degree — more than double the U.S. average of 28%. This is salient because children of highly-educated, middle-class parents — regardless of race/ethnicity — have a competitive edge over their poor and working-class counterparts.
That a higher proportion of Asian immigrant parents hail from educated backgrounds explains, in part, why they insist on supplementing their children’s education with tutors, after-school classes, and summer school. Their investment in supplementary education helps to insure that their children will stay ahead of their peers. In addition, because tutoring services and supplementary education classes are available in Asian ethnic communities, poor and working-class Asians have access to them, which, in turn, helps them academically achieve, in spite of their disadvantaged class status.
That the status of racial/ethnic groups have changed (and may likely change again) underscores that there is nothing obvious or natural about the link between race/ethnicity and achievement. But, without understanding the high-selectivity of Asian immigrants and their means of supplementing their children’s education, one could make the specious argument that there must be something natural or essential about Asian Americans that result in high expectations and exceptional academic outcomes.
Jennifer Lee, PhD, is a sociologist at the University of California, Irvine. Her book, The Diversity Paradox, examines patterns of intermarriage and multiracial identification among Asians, Latinos, and African Americans.
Quartz, a business and marketing website, recently released data on the Facebook dating app Are You Interested, which connects single people with others within the confines of their Facebook networks. Quartz’ data are based on a series of yes-or-no questions about who users are interested in, as well as response rates between users, once notified of a potential suitor. The data show that white men and Asian women receive the most interest, whereas black men and women receive the least amount of interest. The writers at Quartz summarize the findings as follows:
Unfortunately the data reveal winners and losers. All men except Asians preferred Asian women, while all except black women preferred white men. And both black men and black women got the lowest response rates for their respective genders.
Here’s what the data looks like:
As a sociologist, I am entirely unsurprised that race matters, especially in such a personal process like dating/mating. However, these findings may come as a surprise to the (quite significant) segments of the population who identify as color-blind; those who label contemporary society post-racial.
And this is why dating sites are so cool. Social psychologists know that what people say and what they do have little empirical connection. Dating sites capture what we do, and play it back for us. They expose who we are, who we want, and of course, who we don’t want. As shown by Quartz, “we” fetishize Asian women while devaluing blacks.
With a schism between what people say and what they do; between what they say and what the unconsciously think, surveys of racial attitudes are always already quite limited. People can say whatever they want — that race doesn’t matter, that they don’t see color — but when it comes to selecting a partner, and the selection criteria are formalized through profiles and response decisions, we, as individuals and a society, can no longer hide from ourselves. The numbers blare back at us, forcing us to prosume uncomfortable cultural and identity meanings both personally and collectively.
Indeed, before anyone has answered anything, the architecture of online dating sites say a lot. Namely, by defining what can be preferences at all, they tell us which characteristics are the ones about which we are likely to care; about which we should care.
Both the user data and the presence of racial identification and preference in the first place are revealing, demolishing arguments about colorblindness and post-racial culture.
Jenny L. Davis, PhD, is in the department of sociology at James Madison University. She studies social psychology, experimental research methods, and new and social media. She is also a contributing author and editor at Cyborgology. You can follow her at @Jenny_L_Davis.
The Redskins have been in the news lately — on the front page of the Times, for example — and not for their prowess on the gridiron. It’s their name. Many native Americans find it offensive, understandably so. “Redskins” was not a name they chose. It was a label invented by the European-Americans who took their land and slaughtered them in numbers that today would be considered genocide.
President Obama offered the most tepid hint of criticism of the name. He did not say they should change their name. He said that if he owned the team, he would “think about” changing the name. But that was enough for non-Indians to dismiss the idea as yet one more instance of “political correctness.”
Defenders of the name also argue that the name is not intended to be offensive, and besides, a survey shows that most Americans are not bothered by it. I would guess that most Americans also have no problem with the Cleveland Indians logo, another sports emblem that real Indians find offensive.
In response the National Congress of American Indians offers these possibilities. The Cleveland cap is the real thing. The other two are imagined variations on the same theme.
The pro-Redskins arguments could also apply here. The New York Jews and San Francisco Chinamen and their logos are not intended to offend, and a survey would probably find a majority of Americans untroubled by these names and logos. And those who do object are just victims of “the tyranny of political correctness.” This last phrase comes from a tweet by Washington quarterback Robert Griffin III, an African American. His response seems to make all the more relevant the suggestion of years ago by the American Indian Movement’s Russell Means: “Why don’t they call them The Washington Niggers?”
Two recent events had a strikingly similar theme. Kenichi Ebina won America’s Got Talent and Nina Davuluri won Miss America. In both instances, other Americans objected to their victories, claiming that they were not really American because Ebina and Davuluri are of Japanese and Indian origin respectively. Still other Americans objected to this reaction. And yet, as I’ll argue below, most of us share their bias.
These are stark examples of people who believe that only white people count as American. It’s a bizarre position, of course, because people of European descent are immigrants to America, and an overtly racist one as well. I don’t lose any sleep over publishing their identities on this blog.
But, the truth is, the majority of us — even those of us who oppose racism and embrace the idea that the U.S. is a nation of immigrants — hold the belief that America = white. We just believe this subconsciously.
Project Implicit is an online psychological test that measures implicit beliefs, ones we hold that we’re not necessarily conscious of holding. One test is of the association of Asian-ness with American-ness. It works by measuring how long it takes us to sort Asian and European faces and American and Foreign famous sites into the proper categories.
First they ask you to sort faces and places with Asian and Foreign together on the left and European and American together on the right. Like this:
Then they switch the bottom designations so that Asian and American are on one side and European and Foreign are on the other. For most people, the harms their ability to sort faces and places: it slows down and includes more errors, revealing that their brain implicitly sees Asian and foreign as one category and American and European as another.
Here’s the aggregate data. Almost a quarter of people make no association either way, 60% implicitly believe that Asians are less American than Europeans, and 17% think the opposite.
The take home message is: even though it’s easy to condemn the twits making overtly racist comments, this is a problem that is much more pervasive and pernicious. Even those of us who are horrified by those tweets likely carry the bias behind them.
Here is something quite simple, sent along by Judy B. It’s a screenshot of Gimp, an open source image editing application. An optional plug-in, created by a user, offers a series of filters for images, including ones that “beautify.” One of the options is “skin whitening.”
This is one more reminder that we live in a racist society that conflates whiteness with beauty. Remember, too, though, that someone — very possibly a set of people — had to make a conscious decision to include skin whitening as an option and position it as a sub-category of beautification. Then they had to, literally, type the words into the program and make it so.
This shit doesn’t just happen. It’s not random. Racism isn’t just an ephemeral cultural thing. It involves actual decisions made by real people who, if not motivated by racism, are complicit with it.
Trayvon Martin was a black teenage boy. He was walking home from the convenience store when he caught the attention and ire of George Zimmerman. Perceived as a “punk” and a threat, Martin was accosted by the older man, and a physical altercation ensued. Trayvon Martin died when he was shot through the heart at close range. Though Florida’s expansive “Stand Your Ground” laws were invoked in media conversations, that defense never even entered into the trial. Zimmerman was acquitted when a jury decided he’d killed Martin in self-defense. Zimmerman has since said Martin’s death was “God’s plan.”
Some Americans believe that race was not central to this killing or to the case that followed—they have believed it from February 2012 right up until today. But ask yourself: How many times you have been stopped and harassed because you looked threatening or suspicious wearing a hooded sweatshirt? For me, an Asian American female, that number is zero.
Yes, my gender alone distinguishes me from Trayvon Martin, but my partner Mike is a white male, and he, too, can only say “Zero.” We have never been stopped nor questioned, no matter how many times we’ve pulled on our hooded sweatshirts for warmth (and, in my case, to hide sea-tangled hair) after early morning surfing.
Stopping for breakfast or to run errands, Mike and I may not look polished in our hoodies, but we’ve also never had to worry that our appearance would cause suspicion. That’s privilege. It’s such a privilege, this presumed innocence of ours, that the morning after Zimmerman was acquitted, we went ignored even while acting suspiciously. Hoodies up, we casually stopped to look at a condo for rent in an affluent beach community in southern California. We knew from the online ad that the condo was vacant, so we parked outside, walked up the stairs to the unit, and peered into its windows. We sauntered around the grounds and walked into the unlocked community laundry room and garage. Several neighbors saw us, and they smiled.
I couldn’t help but think that the scenario would have been very different if Mike and I were black. Mike and I don’t have to wear our class in order to obviate being treated like threats or criminals; we can wear hoodies and board shorts without worrying that others will be suspicious, fearful, or make assumptions about our class status. Just being “not black” affords us this benefit of the doubt. It is a privilege because it is not something we have earned, but it is gifted to us every day regardless. I have always known about my privilege intellectually, but I felt it keenly last Saturday.
That some are afforded this privilege while others are systematically denied should make us all more empathetic. People perceive and experience the same event differently, depending on visible status markers such as race, gender, age, and class. Such status markers are more than just categories, they form a “system of social practices” that organize social relations. Status markers presume difference, and so people will react to and engage with Mike or with me differently than they would with someone like Trayvon Martin, even when we’re dressed the same.
We would like to believe that we don’t make assumptions based on race or gender, but evidence proves otherwise, as this social experiment of three individuals (a white male, a black male, and white female) trying to steal a bike clearly reveals:
As the sociologist Robert K. Merton insightfully observed nearly three-quarters of a century ago, “The very same behavior undergoes a complete change in evaluation in its transition from the in-group to the out-group.” As the video above indicates, the behavior of a black male (an out-group member) is regarded entirely differently than the same behavior of a white male and white female (in-group members).
The in-group/out-group divide goes further, with grave consequences in our criminal justice system. For example, Jennifer Eberhardt’s research has shown that race affects the severity of sentences that juvenile offenders receive, even for the same crime. Just the idea of a black juvenile offender leads people to imagine juveniles more like adults. Even liberal white Americans who claim low levels of prejudice project more blame onto black boys and sentence them more harshly. As Eberhardt has shown, “race has the power to dampen our desire to be merciful.”
I don’t have children, but if I did, I don’t know how I would explain Trayvon Martin’s death or the acquittal of his killer. But even just imagining being a parent to a black son makes me feel immense empathy for the parents of young black men. Can just that simple exercise make others more aware of race and class privilege, more aware of the power they have to recognize and even challenge that privilege and its consequences? As Henry David Thoreau asked, “Could a greater miracle take place than for us to look through each other’s eyes for an instant?”
Jennifer Eberhardt and Aneeta Rattan, “The Race Factor,” New York Times, June 12, 2012.
Robert K. Merton. 1968 . “Self-fulfilling Prophecy,” in Robert K. Merton, Social Theory and Social Structure, 2nd edition. New York: Free Press.
Cecilia L. Ridgeway. 2011. Framed by Gender. New York: Oxford University Press.
Jennifer Lee is a sociologist at the University of California, Irvine. Her book, The Diversity Paradox, examines patterns of intermarriage and multiracial identification among Asians, Latinos, and African Americans.
In analysis of Presidential pardons during the George W. Bush administration, ProPublica has found that whites were four times as likely as non-whites to be granted a pardon. Pardons were granted to 12% of whites, 10% of Hispanics and Asians, and zero percent of Blacks and Native Americans. The disparity remained even when investigators controlled for type of crime.
…President George W. Bush decided at the beginning of his first term to rely almost entirely on the recommendations made by career lawyers in the Office of the Pardon Attorney.
The office was given wide latitude to apply subjective standards, including judgments about the “attitude” and the marital and financial stability of applicants…
Bush followed the recommendations of the pardons office in nearly every case… President Obama — who has pardoned 22 people, two of them minorities — has continued the practice of relying on the pardons office.
Sometimes disparate decisions in pardon cases were eyebrow raising:
An African American woman from Little Rock, fined $3,000 for underreporting her income in 1989, was denied a pardon; a white woman from the same city who faked multiple tax returns to collect more than $25,000 in refunds got one. A black, first-time drug offender — a Vietnam veteran who got probation in South Carolina for possessing 1.1 grams of crack – was turned down. A white, fourth-time drug offender who did prison time for selling 1,050 grams of methamphetamine was pardoned.
ProPublica traces the disparity to age, leniency given to people who are seen as “upstanding” members of society (e.g., they’re married, have little debt), the influence of money and politics (letters from Congresspersons and donations to lawmakers by convicts’ spouses), and simple prejudice. Nevertheless:
When the effects of those factors and others were controlled using statistical methods, however, race emerged as one of the strongest predictors of a pardon.
Originally posted in 2012. Re-posted in solidarity with the African American community; regardless of the truth of the Martin/Zimmerman confrontation, it’s hard not to interpret the finding of not-guilty as anything but a continuance of the criminal justice system’s failure to ensure justice for young Black men.