Tag Archives: Pew Research Center

Is It Apartheid Yet?

1 Aug

Lately friends of mine have been talking about the U.S. heading toward apartheid in response to white fears generated by census reports predicting demographic changes that are likely to erode white power. They point to various attempts to disenfranchise voters of color and marginalize us socially and economically as evidence.

My general reaction has been, “your kidding, right?” I mean, we beat legal apartheid in the courts and on the streets in the 1960s.

But folks say I’m taking the term too literally. They tell me I need consider de facto apartheid – a condition in which whites, even as a minority (though credible sources contradict census predictions and argue that a white minority is not in our near future), are able to rule by creating separate and unequal conditions for people based on race without resorting to explicit racial codes.

Okay, so maybe we’re just trapped in an argument over semantics. After all, we already have a system of minority rule, right?

For instance, the majority of us wanted the Affordable Care Act to include a public option. Regardless, we lost on that issue because a (white) minority interest opposed to the public option controls Congress.

And then there’s the wildly disproportionate targeting of Black men in the war on drugs, even when whites use drugs at the same rate as Blacks and are, by far, a bigger driver of the illegal drug trade. That seems like a pretty clear demonstration of how bald faced racism can drive public policy and institutional practices in spite of constitutional guarantees of equal protection. All you have to do is avoid certain trigger words and, at least to our courts, it’s not racism.

Advocates of the de facto apartheid scenario also point to efforts to economically marginalize people of color via attacks on government assistance and educational opportunity programs. It’s been pretty clearly demonstrated that leaders of both parties are far less responsive to poor people than to folks with money, so economic marginalization accrues to the political disadvantage of communities of color, right?

Attacks on government are also attacks on government employees, a disproportionate percentage of whom are people of color, reflecting the historical reality that government was (and is) one of very few avenues to good employment for many minorities. Government also plays a regulatory role, including by policing discrimination in hiring and promotions.

Then the prophets of doom ask that we consider conservative efforts to disenfranchise communities of color, especially Latinos and African Americans. By aiming the war on drugs at Black communities and making drug possession a felony that can cost you your voting rights, many states have gotten around the 15th Amendment and the 1965 Voting Rights Act, both of which prohibit denying ballot access based on race.

And Republican Voter I.D. Laws take things a step further. They know full well that this will have a disproportionate negative impact on communities of color. In fact, that’s the whole point of these laws. In Pennsylvania, House Majority Leader Mike Turzai (R), has gone so far as to describe Voter ID as a way to “allow Governor Romney to win the state…”

Good point. And don’t get it twisted, the Republican Party is the party of white power.

A 2009 Gallup poll found that 89% of Republicans were white. 2% were Black, 5% Latino, and 4% were “other race.” Of white Republicans, 60% identify as conservative. And, according to a more recent Pew Research Center report, the trend is toward Republicans growing more popular among whites since the election of Barack Obama (while either losing support or holding steady among voters of color).

Put it all together and those fearful of de facto apartheid might be onto something.

But, in spite of all of these arguments (and folks offer many more), I’m not joining the choir on this one yet. To me, it matters not whether the white elite (what we used to call the white power structure back in the day) are plotting (or bumbling into) a form of de facto apartheid because, well, it doesn’t seem to me to increase the urgency of resistance nor change the way we ought to go about it.

But where we agree is on the matter of Latinos, Native Americans, African Americans, and economically disadvantaged Asian Americans being systematically marginalized, socially, economically, and politically. And that is cause for alarm, especially because most of our leaders aren’t talking about it, opting instead to go along with the post-racial (or colorblind racism) consensus that the best way of addressing racism is to avoid talking about it.

Blinkered By Race

28 Jun

No, I don’t mean car blinkers. I’m referring to the kind of blinkers that are used to keep race horses looking straight ahead at the jockey’s goal while blinding them to the distractions on either side.

Racism blinkers us. It imposes a kind of tunnel vision, causing social problems to appear to be related to differences in race and culture (and not racism), while blinding us to the common roots of many of our problems.

The study conducted by the Pew Research Center on Asian Americans that I wrote about in my last post is a good example. In it, Pew reports that 49% of Asian American adults have college degrees compared with 28% of adults in general. In addition, Asian Americans are reported to have substantially higher median household incomes and wealth than the general population, and then describes the relatively high levels of education and financial success of Asian Americans as distinctive racial characteristics.

There are significant problems with Pew’s number crunching you can read about in an excellent article in COLORLINES. But even if we put those problems aside, there’s still the issue of how ascribing relative Asian American success to race blinds us to the real social and economic realities dictating these outcomes, and how those realities affect everyone.

Here’s what I mean. In surveys measuring the educational levels of the most highly industrialized nations, the U.S. is scored at about average. That’s pretty bad news for the nation that is the richest by far, and the former world leader in education. It is for this reason that visas must be fast tracked for certain highly skilled workers, resulting in skewed educational attainment statistics among some immigrant groups, including some of the most educationally privileged of Asian immigrants.

And on that question of higher incomes and household wealth among Asians. Is it more useful to study these indices of success as racial characteristics, or to ask ourselves why the median income for Americans in general is so low?

According to Peter Edelman, 20 million Americans earned incomes less than $9,000 a year. Six million Americans have only food stamps as income. Half of U.S. jobs pay less than $34,000 a year. A fourth pay less than the poverty rate for a family of four. These statistics bring down the median income of Americans, even as that median obscures the reality for those on the bottom of the U.S. economy.

The poorest and most vulnerable are disproportionately people of color, and that’s all about racism. Racism is also at work when we allow negative racial stereotypes to lead us to blame people of color for the problem of persistent poverty. But looking for solutions to poverty in racial or cultural characteristics, as the model minority myth that is tacitly promoted by the Pew report leads us to do, takes us nowhere.

Whites in the U.S. have the highest per capita incomes. With the blinkers on, it’s easy to fall prey to the idea that white privilege translates into direct financial benefits for all white people. But then, how do we explain the fact that whites also constitute the majority of those who are poor?

According to the Economic Policy Institute, the average CEO of major companies in the U.S. earns in 10 hours what a typical worker earns in an entire year. So maybe the explanation is that income and wealth is not evenly distributed among whites – that the real driver of poverty is how the rich value the labor of the rest of us, regardless of race.

But it’s tough to know the nature of things we refuse to see. Among those things we’re blinded to by racism are our common humanity, our shared problems, and our linked destinies. Time to take off the blinkers. If we don’t, we might find that we’re racing to nowhere while the answers to where we ought to be heading lie in joining forces with our perceived opponents on either side.

Constructing Race: Pew Center Report On Asians

21 Jun

The June 19 release of the Pew Research Center report, The Rise of Asian Americans is generating buzz that is, frankly, giving me a headache.

The report summary opens with the following:

Asian Americans are the highest-income, best-educated and fastest-growing racial group in the United States. They are more satisfied than the general public with their lives, finances and the direction of the country, and they place more value than other Americans do on marriage, parenthood, hard work and career success….

Asian Americans trace their roots to any of dozens of countries in the Far East, Southeast Asia and the Indian subcontinent. Each country of origin subgroup has its own unique history, culture, language, religious beliefs, economic and demographic traits, social and political values, and pathways into America.

But despite often sizable subgroup differences, Asian Americans are distinctive as a whole, especially when compared with all U.S. adults, whom they exceed not just in the share with a college degree (49% vs. 28%), but also in median annual household income ($66,000 versus $49,800) and median household wealth ($83,500 vs. $68,529).

The National Council of Asian Pacific Americans (NCAPA) responded with a statement summed up by the line,

We need to move beyond one-dimensional narratives of exceptionalism about Asian Americans in order to better understand and address the diverse experiences facing our community members…

NCAPA’s response is a good start, but I’ll take it a step further.

The problem with the Pew report is that it constructs an idea about race that is very problematic. Bear with me here and I’ll explain.

The racial category Asian lumps together widely diverse groups with no common language, phenotype, or culture who come to the U.S. under vastly different circumstances. How, exactly, do you arrive at a “distinctive whole” from which you can deduce an average experience of, say, Japanese Americans and Laotian Americans?

The first wave of Japanese immigrants to the U.S. came through Hawaii in the 1800s as contract laborers lured by lies about grand opportunity and riches. The more recent wave of Japanese immigrants is being recruited to the U.S. as highly skilled workers or business investors.

The vast majority of Laotian immigrants on the other hand, came to the U.S. since 1973 as refugees of war. Here’s what that means for them, according to the Laotian American organization Legacies of War,

From 1964 to 1973, the U.S. dropped more than two million tons of ordnance over Laos during 580,000 bombing missions—equal to a planeload of bombs every 8 minutes, 24-hours a day, for 9 years. The bombing was part of the U.S. Secret War in Laos to support the Royal Lao Government…

Today, about one third of Laos, a country about the size of Utah, is contaminated with unexploded ordinance. Civilian contact with these unexploded weapons has resulted in 20,000 casualties since the war ended.

How do you mash together Laotian war refugees and Japanese business investors and come up with an average or mean experience?

Much ink is also spilled on the subject of how highly educated the new wave of Asian immigrants are. But this statistic reflects bias within the immigration system as much as anything else. Visas are fast tracked for highly skilled workers and business investors. The elite immigrants who come to the U.S. on these visas are from economically diverse countries, many with extraordinary levels of poverty. Yet the suggestion is that high levels of education are the product of racial or cultural characteristics.

So let’s get it straight. The term “Asian” in the U.S. was chosen by Asian American activists as an alternative to the pejorative “Oriental.” The Oriental is the creation of Europeans for whom the Orient was an object of curiosity and a source of riches to be studied and exploited. In modern times, the study of the Orient, especially in contrast with the civilized world of the Occident (aka Europe), solidified an idea of Orientals as exotic, potentially dangerous Others.

Activists back in the 1960s decided they wanted to reject the label Oriental and call themselves Asian American instead. Subsequent generations of Asian Americans have gathered as a coalition under the Asian American banner in order to resist being treated like Orientals. But don’t get it twisted, the idea of an Asian or Oriental race is a creation of white people, not of Asians.

There are many problems with the Pew report. Chief among them,

  1.  lumping us together tends to trivialize the very real service needs of those who are less well-off and,
  2. reports like this are powerful molders of Asian racial identity, popularizing ideas about Asian traits, capacities (and threats), and, of course, always in comparison with the supposed failures of Blacks, Latinos, and Native Americans.

On that first point, Hmong and Vietnamese immigrants are among the poorest ethnic groups in the U.S. There are real consequences to characterizing them as part of a “distinctive whole” with more successful groups when it comes time to seek funding for poverty alleviation programs.

That’s not to say that Asians don’t enjoy racial privilege over other groups of people of color. We do. The widely divergent histories of how different people of color entered the U.S. (or in the case of Native Americans, how the U.S. entered them) have resulted in very different contemporary realities. But studies like this marginalize those important historical differences and strengthen racist stereotypes and racism, not just against Asians, but against all our interests.

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