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Sociology / Panethnicity
Asian-American Panethnicity -- by Yen Le Espiritu
What issue is at stake and what is the author's point-of-view?
Before addressing the intellectual question that the author is pursuing in this book, there are some important preliminary concepts that are important to report about this book. There are positions the author takes, points-of-view he sets out to explain, in order to set up the main problems discussed in the book.
For example, the author makes clear on page 6 that "Panethnicity -- the generalization of solidarity among ethnic sub-groups -- is largely a product of categorization," and that the term "Asian-American" grew from "the racist discourse that constructs Asians as a homogeneous group," which they are certainly not.
When all Asians are "lumped together" (or categorized unfairly) into an "expanded 'ethnic' framework," Espirtu writes, subgroups boundaries -- such as Vietnamese, Laotians, Cambodians, or Chinese -- are largely ignored.
And meantime, what is "fundamental to racism," Espiritu asserts on page 7, is "excessive categorization"; and that is true, because the excessive categorization of ethnic sub-groups within the Asian community of immigrants permits "whites to order a universe of unfamiliar peoples without confronting their diversity and individuality."
An example of the physical harm that can be done to Asians as a result of this categorization of all Asians as one ethnicity appears in Chapter 6 (page 136): The rise of anti-Asianism had become so widespread in the late 1980s, that it was evidenced by an increase in the number of articles, the author writes, in the "New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Boston Globe, Washington Post, San Francisco Examiner, and Los Angeles Times."
The Vincent Chin Killing: The incidents of racial hatred toward Asians included "name-calling, hostile bumper stickers" and physical assaults. Among the more noteworthy physical assaults was the killing of Vincent Chin in Detroit in June, 1982. On page 141 the author reports that Chin and three friends went to a bar to celebrate Chin's upcoming wedding; but at some point in their celebrations a man named Ronald Ebens, a white foreman from the Chrysler factory in Detroit, hurled racial slurs at Chin (according to three eyewitnesses), and a fistfight ensued.
The slurs were reportedly aimed at Chin because of the fact that Detroit's unemployment rate was 18.5% (the national average was 5.8%), many auto workers had been laid off (Japanese imports at that time were selling very well in America, hence taking a quarter of the market away from American auto companies; and a sharp decline in U.S. auto sales nearly always results in auto worker layoffs), and apparently Ebens mistook Chin (Chinese) for a Japanese man, and was lashing out vis-a-vis layoffs at Chrysler.
The fight spilled out into the street in front of the bar, and at that point Ebens pulled a baseball bat from his car, threatening Chin. Later, in another part of the city, while Ebens' male companion Nitz grabbed Chin from behind, Ebens landed four baseball bat blows to Chin's head. Unfortunately, Chin died four days later, and so, instead of a wedding to celebrate, Chin's friends attended his funeral.
The judge in the case, Wayne County Judge Charles Kaufman, in a startling decision, imposed no prison time on Ebens and his companion, albeit Ebens had pleaded guilty to manslaughter and in Michigan that carries a sentence (maximum) of 15 years in prison. Both of the guilty suspects received three years' probation and a fine of $3,000. The judge said: "You don't make the punishment fit the crime; you make the punishment fit the criminal" (141). The judge also noted that both defendants had stable backgrounds in employment and no criminal records. Meantime, according to the author, "the linkage between Chin's death and anti-Japanese sentiment became the hallmark of the case."
The case went through many phases following the sentencing of the two men to probation, and later, a federal grand jury convicted Ebens of "violating Chin's civil rights but acquitted him of conspiracy." In the end, according to the author, "neither Ebens nor Nitz ever spent any time in prison for the killing."
And so, throughout the book, including the specific case alluded to above, the intellectual question that the author seeks to answer is, why do Americans, members of the nation that prides itself on cultural and ethnic diversity within the framework of freedom, have prejudices against minorities, in particular, against Asians? He poses the issue not so much as a question, but as a series of chapters that help to explain the situation and educate readers to the terrible stereotypes ("categorizing" all members of Asian sub-cultures as "Orientals" and other less-than-respectful terms)
Summary of the book
What the author is doing in this book, which is an excellent book for the lay person to read and understand, is first, to explain ethnicity and Panethnicity, very thoroughly, by giving examples of the confusion about Asians many Caucasians exhibit and express. Secondly, the author discusses the influx of Asian immigrants and refugees to America, and how they have had to adopt to the new culture -- in particular, Southeast Asian refugees who came to the U.S. following the war in Vietnam.
'Scholars and lay persons alike have argued that Asian-Americans are not a panethnic group," simply because Asians from Vietnam and Asians from Laos "do not share a common culture" -- any more than Chinese and Japanese share a common culture. The author, in going to great lengths on the issue of Panethnicity, points out that Native Americans, while they come from many tribes, have a common descent in "their unique relationship to the land"; and Latino-Americans have a common language that bonds them to a single Panethnicity.
The same cannot be said for Asian-Americans -- and much of the book is going into great detail to emphasize this point -- because they have "no readily identifiable symbols of ethnicity." For example, Vietnamese people do not speak the same language as Japanese, or Cambodians -- though they are all from Asia.
Meanwhile, there are things, though, the author points out, that do bind Asian-Americans to a common heritage, and they are not positive cultural things (p. 17). They are: "A history of exploitation, oppression, and discrimination."
And as to this commonality Asians share, the author writes that "individuals being treated alike does not automatically produce new groups." Only when people "become aware of being treated alike on the basis of some arbitrary criterion do they begin to establish identity on that basis," he continues. And this is the crux of the book, because "Asian-Americans ... [have this] 'arbitrary criterion' [as] their socially defined racial distinctiveness, or their imposed identity as 'Asians'.
Thirdly, the author describes the Asian-American movement in great detail, and gives an honest appraisal of the effective aspects of that movement, and the not-so-effective aspects of the movement. Asians are not above discriminating against other Asians, he points out. On page 20, he writes that "early Asian immigrant communities sought to keep their images discrete and were not above denigrating, or at least approving the denigration of other Asian groups."
In fact, prior to the 1960s, Asians in America "frequently practiced ethnic disidentification, the act of distancing one's group from another group so as not to be mistaken and suffer the blame for the presumed misdeeds of that group."
An example of that disidentification was the first student laborers from Japan and China, in the late 19th Century: "almost uniformly," Espiritu writes, "Japanese immigrants perceived their Chinese counterparts in an unsympathetic, negative light, and often repeated harsh American criticisms of the Chinese."
One reason this may have occurred is that (21) the Japanese government, in a very real way, looked at their citizen / emigrants to America as "representatives of their homeland." Japan even screened "prospective emigrants to ensure that they were healthy and literate and would uphold Japan's national honor." Not so with the Chinese immigrants; China made no such attempt to have their emigrants become "representatives of China."
And Japanese immigrants to America "distances themselves from the Chinese because they feared that Americans would lump them together."
The book also mentions (23) that during WWII, especially after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Chinese, Koreans, and Filipinos "distanced themselves from the Japanese." And it is well-known that immediately following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, in fact that very night, December 7, 1941, the FBI began "taking into custody persons of Japanese ancestry who had connections to the Japanese government."
Following that, more than 100,000 persons of Japanese ancestry were sent to concentration camps -- approximately two-thirds of whom "were American-born citizens," the author explains. Another important point this book makes, and the following statement is the strongest statement in that regard, is that "The Japanese community discovered [during the time Japanese-Americans were put into concentration camps] that the legal distinction between citizen and alien was not nearly so important as the distinction between white and yellow."
This is another way of showing that Panethnicity -- the…[continue]
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