Tag Archives: The Rise of Asian Americans

Fear of a Brown Planet: Our Majority-Minority Future

16 Aug

Sometimes, you just gotta admit when you’re wrong.

In several posts on this site, I’ve referenced Census projections pointing toward a tipping of the racial scales in the U.S. around the year 2042. The claim is that around that time whites will make up only a minority of the U.S. population. A Race Files reader questioned the accuracy of this claim, pointing me to an AlterNet article disputing that projection.

That article put me on the trail of more information. At this point on my journey, I find myself scratching my head over how easily I got sucked into drinking the Kool-Aid. I guess it was wishful thinking. The optimism I felt over shifting demographics whacked my understanding of how race works right out of my head.

Note to self, race is a political system. Census categories play to the system, not against it.

Because race is all about politics, it is a system that’s flexible, or at least manipulable by the white power elite.

This manipulation is direct in some cases, such as the imposing of a color line through the U.S. by way of slavery and Jim Crow, or indirectly, through extending white privilege to those who, knowingly or not, strengthen white supremacy. Such was the case with the whitening of the Irish and Italians.

The majority-minority projections manipulate race by counting only non-Hispanics among whites. The reality is that around 27,000,000, or slightly more than half of those who identified as Latino or Hispanic in the 2010 Census, also identified as white. If you count them as they count themselves, that alone indicates that whites aren’t headed toward minority status any time soon.

Then you gotta consider Asian Americans. While many disadvantaged Asian ethnic minorities are not being invited along for the ride, there are some pretty powerful indications that certain Asian groups are being whitened.

According to the Pew Research Center’s highly problematic report on the Rise of Asian Americans, 61% of recent Asian immigrants ages 25-64 have at least a bachelor’s degree. This is true in part as a result of fast tracked visas that are provided to Asian business investors and “highly skilled” workers who wish to immigrate to the U.S.

Those coming from Asia on fast tracked visas may not identify as white, but I’m guessing they identify with whites far more than they identify with African Americans or undocumented Latino immigrants. According to the same report, 37% of all recent Asian-American brides wed a non-Asian groom, and in the vast majority of cases “non-Asian” means white, an indication of a powerful trend toward assimilation, and not in the direction of brown folks.

Now, I’m not trying to be a Debbie Downer here. I’m raising this issue because while many who’ve made the majority-minority claim are, like I was, looking at the upside of that equation, many others are using fear of a brown planet as a dog whistle to agitate older, race sensitive white voters. You know, the group who were young voters in 1963 when 75% of whites responded to polls concerning the Civil Rights Movement by saying the movement was asking for too much? 1963 was the year Medgar Evers was assassinated and the 16th St. Baptist Church was bombed by racial terrorists resulting in the deaths of four Black girls.

For many among this group, the idea of a majority-minority demographic is downright terrifying. So, wanna get them to approve Voter ID restrictions or support tighter border controls? You tell them minorities are about to become the majority any minute.

So best to be careful with the rhetoric, right?

It’s also important to note that the racial system isn’t entirely fluid. Whiteness has expanded over time to maintain white privilege, but Black is and always has been on the downside of unjust racial relations in the U.S. Similarly, Native Americans are treated as a conquered people whose status as political inferiors by race is described in treaty agreements and delineated by the borders of reservations. So far, those realities have remained largely fixed and rigid, even as the identity of the latest group of evil outsiders has shifted around some.

And, as author Joshua Holland pointed out in that article I referenced earlier,

It’s long been argued that various groups of lighter skinned immigrants have only truly been assimilated into the fabric of the nation once they began to see themselves, as a group, as superior to African Americans.

So even as the meaning of whiteness changes, there’s still a color line and we gotta decide which side of it we’re on.

The question as we move towards the future is, I propose, not how many of us there are by color, but how many of us there are by allegiance. And we need to define our allegiances in terms of whether or not we identify with and define our own status in relationship to the political status of Blacks and Native Americans.* If not, I fear, our allegiance defaults to white supremacy, regardless of demographics.

*Note: I said with Blacks and Native Americans, not “as” so please, no white folks turning Native American on us or Asian Americans deciding they’re Vanilla Rice, okay?

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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