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 Feature Article
Thursday June 7

After 50 years of 'Asian American,' advocates say the term is 'more essential than ever'

LOS ANGELES — The term “Asian American” appears innocuous today. It’s in the name of film festivals, professional organizations, college clubs and an officially recognized heritage month.

But that wasn’t always so.

When the phrase Asian American was created — in 1968, according to activists and academics — it was a radical label of self-determination that indicated a political agenda of equality, anti-racism and anti-imperialism. Asian American was an identity that was chosen, not one that was given.

Over the last 50 years, however, as people of Asian ancestry in the United States have grown in number and diversity, the term has evolved — raising new questions of who is included in Asian America, what it stands for and if it’s still relevant.

“If you were to ask most people who are Asian American, ‘Describe your race or ethnicity,’ they would say, ‘I’m Japanese American,’ ‘I’m Thai, Cambodian, Filipino.’ Very few of us would start out by saying, ‘I’m Asian American,’” Daryl Maeda, a professor of Asian-American studies at the University of Colorado, Boulder and author of the book, “Rethinking the Asian American Movement,” said.

“Instead, 'Asian American' — rather than describing our personally felt identities or describing our family histories — expresses an idea. And that idea is that as Asian Americans, we have to work together to fight for social justice and equality, not only for ourselves, but for all of the people around us.”

Activists and academics trace the origins of the term back to 1968 and University of California, Berkeley students Yuji Ichioka and Emma Gee, who, inspired by the Black Power Movement and the protests against the Vietnam War, founded the Asian American Political Alliance as way to unite Japanese, Chinese and Filipino American students on campus.

But Ronald Quidachay, who co-founded the Philippine American Collegiate Endeavor (PACE) at the then-San Francisco State College in 1967, said the term “Asian American” took time to catch on.

“Nobody was referring to themselves as ‘Asian,’” he said of the Third World Liberation Front strikes in 1968 and 1969, when Ichioka and Gee’s Asian American Political Alliance joined with PACE, the Intercollegiate Chinese for Social Action, as well as black, Latino and Native American students at San Francisco State to demand ethnic studies and more faculty and students of color.

“It was very interesting,” Quidachay, who is now a Superior Court judge in San Francisco, said of first hearing the term. “My step-dad from Guam, his father was decapitated in World War II by the Japanese… I didn’t have this animosity, but I was certainly familiar with these sorts of concerns that people from Guam, and even the Philippines, had.”

This pan-Asian identity wasn’t necessarily an obvious one. Before this, people of Asian ancestry identified with their ethnic group and didn’t see commonalities with each other.

For instance, when the Chinese Exclusion Act was up for renewal in 1902, Maeda said, Japanese immigrants didn’t protest it, and when people of Japanese descent were forced into incarceration camps during World War II, Chinese and Korean Americans often wore buttons stating their ethnicity so that they wouldn’t be mistaken for being Japanese.

“In other words, the injustice here isn’t that you’re incarcerating Japanese Americans, the injustice is that you’re lumping us in with them unfairly,” Maeda said.

The term Asian American, however, signaled a shared and interconnected history of immigration, labor exploitation and racism, as well as a common political agenda. It was also a pushback against the pejorative word "Oriental."

“There was a recognition that the term Oriental was a Eurocentric term that geographically referenced the East relative to Europe,” said Karen Umemoto, director of UCLA’s Asian American Studies Center, which was co-founded by Ichioka in 1969. “Many of the stereotypes of Orientals and Orientalism was part of the project of imperialist conquest — British, and later, American — in Asia, with the exoticization of the Oriental as well as the creation of threat and fear, as evidenced in the yellow peril movement.”

The U.S. Census first used the term Asian American in 1980, according to Paul Ong, a professor of Asian American Studies at UCLA who has also served as an advisor to the U.S. Bureau of the Census. It was only in 2016 that the U.S. government formally banned the word Oriental in federal law, instead requiring the use of the term Asian American.

While the term Asian American was used in activist and academic circles, it took decades for the term to become popularized across the country.

The turning point, said Helen Zia, a journalist and author of the book, “Asian American Dreams: The Emergence of an American People,” was the 1982 murder of Vincent Chin, a Chinese American who was mistaken for being Japanese at a time when auto workers in Detroit were being laid off in part because of competition with Japanese manufacturers.

“The nature of the killing of Vincent Chin compelled people to see what there was in common,” said Zia, referring to different Asian ethnicities. “So whether people wanted to feel like there was anything in common or not, they could not deny that if they looked that way, they could be killed, whether they were Japanese ethnically or not.”

Zia, who helped organize the community in response to Chin’s murder, said the national movement that followed helped bring together Asian Americans of all different backgrounds at a time when they made up only about 3.5 million, or less than 2 percent of the total population, according to the U.S. Census.

“The fact that they could come together and multiply their presence in the American democracy was huge,” she said. “It really was an empowering recognition… It raised the stakes in terms of no—you can’t ignore this population.”

In addition, Chin’s case also introduced the Asian Americans to white Americans.

“To the rest of America at the time, Asian people didn’t exist in the popular consciousness,” said Zia. “They were like, ‘Oh, where did these people come from? What — they’re organizing, they have a voice, they’re talking about racism? What — they speak English?’ These were all the reactions we got… It was a teaching process.”

But just as Asian America took shape, it expanded and evolved.

The 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act — which changed immigration quotas for non-European countries — and the conflicts in Southeast Asia resulted in new populations from countries such as Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. In addition, the U.S. Supreme Court’s overturning of anti-miscegenation laws in 1967’s Loving v. Virginia led to a boom in the number of multiracial Asian Americans.

Even as Asian American remained a strategic political label, this diversity also meant that recognizing each ethnicity on its own terms became a critical tool for advancement.

For instance, Kathy Ko Chin, president of the Asian and Pacific Islander American Health Forum, explained that when viewed as a single group, Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders had the highest rates of health insurance coverage in the country in 2013. But by disaggregating the data, she found that not all groups fared equally well — for example, more than 20 percent of Korean Americans were uninsured in her analysis, a higher rate than any other racial category. Knowing this, the APIAHF was able to address the disparity.

“Because we see the challenges of having only aggregated data,” said Chin, “the only way to address those challenges is through disaggregated data. It’s using a powerful tool to zero in on how to best achieve equity for our communities.”

There are approximately 21.4 million people of Asian descent living in the United States, according to a 2016 U.S. Census estimate. They come from more than 20 countries and are now the fastest growing major racial or ethnic group in the United States, according to the Pew Research Center.

With this growth and diversification of the community come new questions about what it means to be Asian American, who belongs, and which issues to advocate for.

Sarath Suong, executive director of the Providence Youth Student Movement, which organizes Southeast Asian youth in Rhode Island, said that as a Cambodian refugee, he often feels like he doesn’t fit into Asian America.

“Growing up during the 1980s and 1990s, the Asians we saw were East Asian, and often images of the model minority,” he said. “And that never felt like us. We were failing out of schools, we were being harassed and profiled by the police, and there was a really fast school to prison pipeline — and now, a school to deportation pipeline.”

“When I wanted to join Asian-American groups, I always felt like I was othered by my skin color, my class or my refugee experience,” Suong added. “I’ve always felt, personally and as a community, rejected by Asian America.”

Deepa Iyer, author of the book “We Too Sing America: South Asian, Arab, Muslim, and Sikh Immigrants Shape Our Multiracial Future,” said South Asians grapple with similar questions of who — and which issues — belong under the umbrella of Asian America.

“In the wake of 9/11, South Asians would bring up the need to address national security and that be something that Asian Americans look at broadly, but oftentimes they felt that those issues were not part and parcel of the policy agenda of Asian-American organizations,” she said, citing Islamophobia as another such issue.

“Questions from those who find themselves on the margins of the Asian-American community — who are mainly South Asian and Southeast Asian — can be really helpful in refining an analysis of what it means to be Asian in this country.”

For others, the future of Asian American is about reconnecting with the term’s roots.

“Today when a community of immigrants and the descendants of immigrants from Asia is more diverse than ever, the term Asian American is more essential than ever before,” Maeda said. “People of Asian ancestry continue to face discrimination, harassment and prejudice, and just as it’s been over the past century-and-a-half, we exist in a society that sees us all as one, as all looking the same, as all being the same.”

“And given that that’s the case,” he added, “it’s even more incumbent upon us to come together to fight for social justice.”

See original article here.

The views expressed here are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of Asian Diversity.
Thursday June 7

New Milestones in Jobs Report Signal a Bustling Economy

The American economy roared into overdrive last month, the Labor Department reported Friday, extending the longest streak of job growth on record and echoing other recent signs of strength.

The unemployment rate fell to 3.8 percent, its lowest level since the heady days of the dot-com boom in early 2000.

The net increase of 223,000 jobs reflected healthy gains in a broad range of industries, from manufacturing and transportation to health care and retailing.

The monthly numbers are traditionally kept under wraps by the Labor Department until their release, under rules meant to keep officials from influencing markets by discussing them publicly beforehand or immediately afterward. But in an unusual departure from protocol, President Trump hinted on Twitter more than an hour before the announcement that positive data was in store. “Looking forward to seeing the employment numbers at 8:30 this morning,” he tweeted.

It was the 92nd consecutive month of job creation. Most economists expect the momentum to continue, but a deeper drop in the unemployment rate or a big bump up in average hourly earnings would stoke fears of inflation and, in turn, a more hawkish Federal Reserve.

Fed policymakers are almost certain to raise interest rates when they meet this month, with at least one additional increase likely in the second half of 2018.

In May, average hourly earnings rose slightly, lifting the year-on-year gain to 2.7 percent. That’s healthy enough to assuage fears that wages are stagnating but not so strong as to change the Fed’s expected course.

“It was a stronger report than expected, but it wasn’t so hot as to lead the Fed to believe it’s behind the curve,” said Michael Gapen, chief United States economist at Barclays, adding that the Fed’s plans shouldn’t worry stock-market bulls. “It will keep the Fed on its gradual normalization path.”

Indeed, the stock market rallied in the wake of the news. The Standard & Poor’s 500-stock index finished the day up more than 1 percent. Bond prices dipped slightly as traders braced for the possibility of faster economic growth, lifting the yield on benchmark 10-year Treasury bonds to 2.9 percent.

Mr. Gapen believes the unemployment rate could sink as low as 3 percent by the end of 2019. That would bring it to levels last seen in 1953, the height of the economic boom after World War II.

The only negative in the report was a slight drop in the share of Americans who are either working or looking for a job, paced by a 170,000 increase in the number of people not in the labor force. That, in turn, put downward pressure on the unemployment rate, which sank from 3.9 percent in April.

Still, the overall report painted a picture of a robust labor market by any measure. Unemployment among African-Americans fell to 5.9 percent from 6.6 percent in April, the lowest since the Labor Department began breaking out unemployment by race in 1972. Among college graduates, the unemployment rate is 2 percent, while it stands at 3.9 percent for workers with a high school diploma.

“It was certainly a good number, with some weather-related bounce-back in construction,” said Diane Swonk, an economist with Grant Thornton.

Wages, Wages, Wages

Ms. Swonk said the great conundrum in the current economic environment was why wage growth had been so modest. After all, a tighter labor market should prompt employers to raise salaries to keep the workers they have and lure new ones, right?

In theory, yes, but in practice it hasn’t been working out that way — and everything from slow productivity growth to the decline of unions and digital disruption has been cited as a reason.

“This is the last shoe to drop in the labor market,” said Torsten Slok, chief international economist at Deutsche Bank. “It’s just a matter of time before wages start going up more strongly, but there’s frustration that it hasn’t happened yet, even though unemployment is the lowest it has been in almost 18 years.”

Besides the other potential causes, Mr. Slok has one of his own: While job switchers are being rewarded with raises, people who stay where they are not. Nearly 15 percent of what he calls “job stayers” saw no increase in wages in the past 12 months. At comparable periods in past economic cycles, that share was more like 10 percent.

“If you just stay around, you have less bargaining power,” Mr. Slok said.

Back From the Sidelines?

Sectors like construction, energy, transportation and hospitals have been especially tight, Ms. Swonk said, with some employers offering signing bonuses to lure workers. For evidence of the trend, she is watching teenage unemployment, which was 12.8 percent last month. In April, it stood at 12.9 percent, down from 14.7 percent in April 2017.

The teenage unemployment rate is significant because this cohort is a prime beneficiary of tight labor markets, Ms. Swonk explained. When there was more slack in the system, teenagers had to compete with 50-somethings for scarce jobs. Now, as the latter group finds higher-paying positions, young workers are filling the gap.

In some regions, workers have grown particularly scarce, forcing companies to pony up to compete for new hires. Union Pacific, the railroad giant, has long struggled to find mechanics, electricians and other skilled trade workers. But now it is having trouble filling even unskilled positions in some areas.

In Council Bluffs, Iowa, where the unemployment rate is under 3 percent, Union Pacific has started offering $20,000 in hiring incentives for train crews — a job requiring no experience or education beyond a high school diploma. In some cases, the company isn’t even waiting for students to graduate to start the recruiting process.

“We have communities where we work where the unemployment rate is a percent and a half,” said Lance Fritz, Union Pacific’s chairman and chief executive. “Finding people to do work there is mostly about getting them in high school and making them aware of the career path so that when they graduate and are in the work force, we get them.”

Turning to Trucking

In Wisconsin, workers like Chris Bogan are benefiting from a surprisingly tight labor market. When he was laid off last fall by Appleton Coated, a paper mill, he feared the worst. As his family’s main breadwinner, Mr. Bogan was earning $28.66 per hour, a solidly middle-class wage in the Neenah area, which The New York Times reported on in November.

As it turned out, a shortage of workers in one of the industries recently cited in the Fed’s Beige Book economic survey — trucking — came to Mr. Bogan’s rescue. The day the mill shut, he signed up for a course at Fox Valley Technical College to get a license to drive trucks. And the day after he graduated, he landed a job at a local trucking company.

“I didn’t wait around,” Mr. Bogan said. “I graduated on a Thursday night and went to the trucking company office on Friday morning.”

Trucking accounted for nearly 7,000 of the jobs gained nationwide last month. And the demand for workers that Mr. Bogan encountered is part of the larger economic picture in Wisconsin, which has one of the nation’s lowest unemployment rates. The jobless rate there stands at 2.8 percent, down from 3.3 percent a year ago.

In fact, after the mill resumed production and Mr. Bogan got a call asking if he’d like to come back, he politely declined. Under a Teamsters union contract, Mr. Bogan’s employer covers all of the cost of his health insurance, so he’s essentially earning the same take-home pay as before.

“Things are going pretty well,” he said. “I love it. Instead of just watching that machine turning, I’m outside, and it’s different every day.”

See original article here.

The views expressed here are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of Asian Diversity.
Thursday June 7

Why Have So Many South Asian-Americans Won the Spelling Bee?

Balu Natarajan correctly spelled the word “milieu” to win the Scripps National Spelling Bee in 1985. He was the first South Asian-American to do so. Three years later, Rageshree Ramachandran seized the title with the word “elegiacal.” And this week, Karthik Nemmani became the 11th straight South Asian-American to win the bee. His word: “koinonia,” which means an intimate spiritual or Christian communion.

Even as the spelling bee’s words seem to have grown tougher, something else has stayed fairly consistent: 19 of the last 23 winners have been of South Asian descent.

A recently released film, “Breaking the Bee,” tackled the question: Why have so many South Asian-Americans won the spelling bee? In an interview, Sam Rega, the filmmaker, offered several theories. The interview has been edited and condensed.

What was the starting point for South Asian-American success at spelling bees?

The 1965 Immigration Act. This act lifted race-based quotas about who could come and not come into the United States. Subsequently, there was an influx of highly educated immigrants, especially from India, coming into the U.S. These families had a strong focus on education and raised their kids to also value education.

What role did Balu Natarajan’s win in 1985 play in this phenomenon?

It was the first time people from the community saw a South Asian kid on screen. Kids thought, “If he can do it, I can do it. Our families are from the same place. He looks like me.”

Newspapers covered his win. This was a key moment. A headline like that on the front page of newspapers meant a lot to the community.

In recent years, I’ve heard kids describe past winners as role models, like you might hear a young kid say they want to play like Michael Jordan. ESPN’s decision to broadcast the bee starting in 1994, the 2002 Academy Award-nominated film “Spellbound” — all raised the profile of spelling in the South Asian community and made more kids want to participate.

Is there something about South Asian values or families that explains success in spelling?

To me, the key is how much these families believe in the idea of family. And how much spelling is a family sport. They believe in working together as a family unit. They want to create a bond between parent and child. Spellers look to their parents as role models and coaches. Their siblings often play assistant coach. Parents like to instill values like dedication, hard work, and how to handle yourself in defeat or success.

These families also tend to be multilingual, sometimes with moms and dads who speak different languages. Exposure to multiple languages can also play a role in spellers’ facility with spelling. Spelling is a worldly sport, it connects you to languages and places far away from you.

Are there groups that help children compete in this sport?

Yes, there are organizations like the North South Foundation, which started in the late 1980s to help kids succeed academically in the U.S. In the early 1990s, they started hosting academic competitions like spelling bees. They focus on helping spellers prepare for the national competition. They’ll even stop in the middle of a bee, and give guidance like, “speak a little louder, ask this question, or that question.”

Since 2008, there’s also been a South Asian Spelling Bee. Which, coincidentally, is also the beginning of the 11-year streak of South Asian winners of the national bee.

Is there a downside to focusing on spelling in the South Asian community?

No, I think these families know what sacrifices they’re making. These kids could have more vacation or more time to play with friends, sure, but most families I met try to strike a healthy balance. To be driven and focused on something requires sacrifice, whether you’re a speller or a basketball player or a musician.

See original article here.

The views expressed here are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of Asian Diversity.
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