Asian Americans and Affirmative Action

Race still matters infographic AAAJ - for websiteAffirmative action is now the latest wedge issue in California to keep ethnic minorities from seeing our common interests.

In California, a bill to revive affirmative action is dead. Mainstream media reports convey that opposition from insurgent Asian Americans groups killed the measure at the last minute. If this is true, then there is much work to be done in Asian American communities about the benefits of affirmative action. 

However, it is more likely that the measure was primarily opposed by white voters, and an over-hyped loud minority of Asian American opposition became a convenient scapegoat for lawmakers. After all, more than 75 percent of Asian American support affirmative action programs. Even when Prop 209 was passed by overwhelmingly white voters, Asian Americans were scapegoated for supporting the repeal effort even though 61 percent of Asian Americans voted against the ban. The backlash against Asian-Americans for the latest affirmative action debacle is the same old “divide and conquer” strategy, and we must stop falling for it.

I support affirmative action. I have written at length about the need for affirmative action, as well as why it is constitutional. Contrary to myths, Asian Americans have been hurt by Prop. 209, and projected Asian-American enrollment rates have fallen as a result of Prop 209. Moreover, Asian-Americans do not lead single issue lives. Many Asian-American women and LGBT Asian-Americans directly benefit from affirmative action. 

We need to restore affirmative action in California, and we need to stop allowing the white majority to use the increased Asian American enrollment numbers as a way to defend a ban that only they support overwhelmingly. 

SALTAF – South Asian American Literary Goodness

“If you want to know my ethnicity just ask me my ethnicity. Don’t ask me where I’m from.” – Roksana Badruddoja

A bunch of South Asians occupied the Smithsonian on a gorgeous Saturday for the South Asian Literary and Theater Arts Festival (SALTAF).

SALTAF started off with the screening of The Boy Mir: Ten Years in Afghanistan, a documentary by Phil Grabsky.

While I love that a South Asian festival kicked off with a focus on Afghanistan, the narrative didn’t hold my attention and I kept questioning the lens and authenticity of the work, given the film-maker is British after all. I don’t understand why we need to showcase movies made by the Brits on Afghanistan, especially in a South Asian space. It was just perplexing, to say the least.

But that is my only complaint for the day and forgotten as I was introduced to Dr. Roksana Badruddoja (Eyes of a Storm) and Shailja Patel (Migritude), whose words touched my soul, blew my mind and still resonate in my spirit.

Shailja told me to not be apologetic about being ill because other people’s immune systems was not my problem. She handed me a bookmark that read:

“We overdress, we migrants. We care too much how we look to you. We get it wrong. We show up ridiculously groomed, bearing elaborate gifts. We are too formally grateful.”

Roksana’s book, Eyes of a Storm, is a feminist anthology of South Asian American women that critiques quite a number of award-winning and best-selling South Asian novelists. She rejects the binary narrative of individual desires vs. family desires found in way too many of our novels.

“This is not going to be politically correct but the kind of South Asian American books that make the New York Bestseller’s list are written for the consumption of white people.”

I went up to her to get my book signed and told her that she was right, not that she needs my re-affirmation. It’s just heartening to have someone finally call out Pulitzer-Prize winning authors like Jhumpa Lahiri for selling what is an unauthentic depiction of second generation South Asians and pandering to white people. I mean, there is no one authentic way of being South Asian American, which in itself is an amorphous term, but lets get real: most of us do find ways to pursue our individual desires while keeping our families together, and often, these are not in tension with one another.

I’m looking forward to reading the two great books after the inconvenience of law school exams. Law school sometimes gets in the way of pursuing more intellectually stimulating things that are relevant to my life.

I also picked up a copy of Nina Godiwalla’s Suits, who signed it for me and told me that lawyers relate to the book quite a lot. We’ll see how that one turns out.


What if a Muslim Had Taken Hostages at Discovery Channel?

When white men like Joseph Stack run their plans into federal buildings, they are insane and suicidal. When Timothy McVeigh blew up a  federal building in Oklahoma City, no one dared to say that his actions reflected the collective thought and behavior of all Caucasians. But Allah forbid, a Muslim male takes over a building. All hell would break lose against everyone perceived as a Muslim in America.

Interestingly, an Asian-American male taking hostages in a building does not spark the same irrational collective fear and hatred in the hearts of Americans as a Muslim army officer would for opening fire on some troops. This is not to say that the media is treating the Discovery Channel gunman James Lee in the same way it would a white male like Joseph Stack.

No, James Lee was acting out of a hysterical radical environment agenda that had nothing to do with his ethnicity or religion. His individual actions and manifesto will be used as a weapon against pro-environmental groups to discredit their claims. Watch out Al Gore! But we won’t view all Asian-Americans with the same contempt and suspicion that is faced by Arab-Americans and South Asians in America.

If a Muslim of Arab or Asian descent committed such an act, the entire community would be held responsible. They hate us. They also hate our animals. They shall not have a mosque (rather, a cultural center) anywhere near a wildlife refuge. They must be put into internment camps. And insert other moralistic oversimplifications here.

Mainstream media reports and blogs mostly refer to Discovery gunmen James Lee as “wacko” and “crazy” instead of extending the culpability of his actions to all Asian-Americans. He acted alone and irrationally. There is no rationality in his actions, and hence no blame is extended to any particular ethnic group or religion. But is there a connection based on mental health issues between the actions of James Lee and that of Seung-Hui Cho, the Virginia Tech gunman who killed over thirty college students in 2007?

Angry Asian Man would decry any such connection. Reappropriate draws a comparison that goes beyond ethnicity to draw out attention to how themes like alienation and oppression resonated with both gunmen. Of course, there is little chance that a happy-go-lucky person who is mentally healthy would take anyone hostage. James Lee had death-wish of sorts, and our job is to make sure that seeking help is not a stigma.

The Truth About the Asian-American Model Minority

The jury’s still out on the fabled Asian-American success story.

Sure, the statistics might tell you otherwise. Once again this year, Asian-American men topped the charts in the latest U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics on earnings for the 2nd quarter of 2010, making $901 in median weekly earnings. Asian women were second at $854, followed by white men at $838. Not surprisingly, those with advanced degrees, who were working in the financial or business sectors, had the highest salaries.

Yet the image of Asian-Americans as a homogeneous group of high achievers ignores the diversity of Asian-American experiences. Statistics like those above mostly help to perpetuate the model minority myth, when in fact there are as many Asian-Americans above the curve as there are below it. While some South Asians and Northeast Asians are doing particularly well, the same is not true for the vast majority of Southeast Asians, including the Hmong or Cambodians.

Let’s break down the demographics further. For example, a quick peek at the stats shows that Asian Indians have the highest level of educational attainment with 64% holding bachelor’s degrees. Conversely, Laotians, Cambodians and Hmong have the lowest rates of high school completion. The same disparities hold for family and personal median incomes. Lumping together all Asian groups into one category masks the poverty and ignores the academic difficulties of certain subgroups.

The success of more established Asian-American communities also disguises the struggles of recent immigrants. Currently, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders make up close to 5% of the U.S. population, but comprise 12% (1.5 million) of the undocumented immigrant population. Asian Americans are not only the fastest-growing minority population in many states, but an estimated 40-50% of the population has only limited English-language proficiency. Yet thanks to the model minority myth, they lack the benefit of policy initiatives such as targeted bilingual education programs.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics also obscure the fact that return on investments is, overall, substantially lower for Asian Americans than for white men. Those who possess only an undergraduate degree tend to have higher unemployment rates than whites with the same level of education. In fact, Asian Americans need more years and higher quality of education to attain the same wages that a white male earns.

So there’s nothing to worry about here — white males aren’t falling behind in the rat race. But let’s remember: the relative success of some individuals doesn’t mean we should ignore those who fail to fit our stereotypes.

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