Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Social Capital

Asian-American Cultural Poverty.

I think that few people are surprised by the acquittal of George Zimmerman in the trial over his shooting of Trayvon Martin. Although the story is probably well-known, I'll summarize it briefly. Zimmerman, who was part of a neighbourhood watch group, observed Martin walking through his neighbourhood and presumed that he was up to no good. In his own words, Zimmerman describes how he thought that Martin looked suspicious, and seemed like he was on "drugs or something". Having alerted the police, Zimmerman was told by them to not approach the "suspect", advice he ignored. Armed, he approached Martin, who apparently (and reasonably), according to reports, felt threatened by Zimmerman's approach. What happened next will never be truly known, but what is accepted is that a fight ensued, that was ended when Zimmerman shot Martin dead.

What has interested me is the way that race politics has played out during the case and in its aftermath. Initially, it seemed like an open and shut case of white on black violence until it was realized that Zimmerman is - according to commonly held standards of description - Hispanic. Yet, it has seemed to me that this nuance has been downplayed, seemingly by both the black and Hispanic communities and their leaders. Granted, I live on a different continent, so I may have missed some nuanced reporting, but it has definitely seemed to me that the mainstream and community leaders have downplayed Zimmerman's "Hispanic-ness".

This may be in keeping with the general tendency to downplay what some believe to be rapidly deteriorating black/Hispanic relations. But, it also highlights the way that the influence of America's various ethnicities is beginning to emerge.

As I wrote about here, there are some who believe that new racial demarcation lines are being drawn, that elevate Asians and Hispanics to a social level closer to America's whites, but leaving blacks rooted firmly at the bottom of the social hierarchy. I pointed out how simplistic that idea was - particularly regarding the Asian community, where there is a distinct disparity in cultural, social, and perhaps even political integration between the genders. Furthermore, one of the main factors used by that study to suggest a blurring of lines between whites and Asians was high outmarriage rates of Asian women, which I discount as a reasonable thesis based on the contradictory evidence of culturally normalized anti-Asian racism, disparate experiences based on gender (which the study did acknowledge), and pervasive racist attitudes and behaviours exhibited towards Asians by non-Asian children. The point here, is that a more holistic approach might paint a more accurate picture of how attitudes towards race might, or might not, be changing.

For example, it could be argued that blacks are almost fully integrated and accepted as participants in the political arena, and as cultural leaders. Anti-black racism - although rampant - is largely accepted as a moral infringement that is detrimental to society. Asians by contrast are largely culturally invisible, and have only recently begun to emerge as viable political leaders in any numbers. Furthermore, anti-Asian racism is normalized, and Americans conditioned to accept anti-Asian racism as normal, by America's culture, such that it considered appropriate to mock Asian victims of a plane crash - some of whom died in the incident. Clearly, if race lines are being re-drawn, then there it is more sensible to take into account several factors beyond high out-marriage rates, and perhaps even income levels.

Hispanics are an interesting case. My personal observation is that Hispanics are more readily accepted by white America than either blacks or Asians. In fact, my sense is that Hispanics are more readily accepted by Asians and blacks than Asians and blacks accept each other. This may sound like a strange thing to say but, again, if we look at culture, it seems as though there is more room for maneuver for Hispanics. To begin, I cannot imagine large swathes of white Americans supporting legislation that offers amnesty to eleven million undocumented Asian immigrants. Given that white parents can't stand the thought of their kids being around sizeable numbers of Americans of Asian descent in America's schools, it is reasonable to accept that Asians would not be welcomed in the numbers that Hispanics have been relatively accepted.

Of course, the cultural clues support this idea of white America's relative comfort with Hispanic people and "Latin" cultures. Hispanics have a strong political presence and, culturally, there are myriad numbers of Hispanic cultural figures - Hispanic males can and do take leading roles in film and television, in ways that blacks can do in limited ways, and Asians are excluded from doing. For example, Hispanic male leads are regularly cast as the love interest of white women, but black men are not, even though there have been several black male actors with huge box-office appeal - I'm reminded of the movie "Hancock", in which the superhero Will Smith, was portrayed as the soul-mate of Charlize Theron, but the nerdy white guy still ended up with her.

But what is the point here, and what does it have to do with the Zimmerman case? Well, first of all, the way that the black/Hispanic dynamic has been downplayed shows a political will, on both sides perhaps, to de-escalate conflict. Compare, for example, how in black/Asian relations, Asian racism is highlighted, and often exaggerated by both community leaders and the media. This is where the level of cultural inclusion speaks volumes about social status. Both Hispanics and blacks have an influential political, social, and cultural, voice, and, thus, any accusations leveled at their groups can be swiftly and effectively responded to by a number of voices from a number of outlets. Asians, by contrast, have no such luxury - because Asians are marginalized in culture, our "voice" is effectively whatever anyone wants our voice to be. Naturally, because anti-Asian prejudice is normalized, much of the defining of who and what Asian-Americans are about, emerges as the natural outcome of this hostile culture and is, thus, uncompromising, confrontational, and is absent suggestions of conciliation.

And this, to me, characterizes how America interacts with its Asian minority - uncompromising and confrontational, but with the understanding that reconciliation isn't necessary because reconciliation implies inclusion. Because Asians have little social and political capital - so to speak - there is no obligation to de-escalate tensions between Asians and other groups. That is why, for instance, the pogrom against Koreans during the LA riots were justified based almost solely on accusations of racism against the Koreans (even by Asians themselves), and both community leaders and the media stoked the flames of America's racial antagonism towards Asians, but there is no equivalent stoking - by any group - of Hispanic/black tensions in the aftermath of the Zimmerman acquittal. I don't think we will be seeing many people attempting to pillage and burn Hispanic enclaves in America's cities - and if it does happen, Hispanics won't be castigated for defending themselves as the Koreans were castigated for defending themselves.

I suppose one could see this equilibrium as a positive sign, yet, I cannot help but be disappointed to once again realize that moral obligation isn't always the fundamental driving force in the interaction between peoples. What drives it, is the careful balance between any given  group's ability to hurt or help you. It is a testament to poor social status of the Asian minority that conciliatory positions seem to be rarely promoted when conflict arises with other groups. Instead, we see an attitude of brow-beating and score-settling, which is easy to do because Asians have little or no control over how their community represented in culture.

Of course, none of this changes the fact that a black child was profiled, followed, and ultimately shot, by a gung-ho, wannabe hero, who in my view, provoked an incident that should have been avoided. To me, that makes Zimmerman as guilty as any of the hundreds of offenders who have been convicted of manslaughter after causing death while driving drunk.


  1. Good analysis, but I'd probably argue that the reason for downplaying Zimmerman's Hispanic heritage is even simpler than that.

    I think the problem that the media had with calling Zimmerman Hispanic was that it doesn't fit the common narrative of White-on-Black violence. Even if Hispanic-on-Black violence does occur, it's a harder sell to the general American public, which has been raised on the idea of White-on-Black violence.

    If Zimmerman had been hapa Asian, they would probably do the same thing and call him White. Unless his Asian half were Korean, in which case they'd paint him as both in order to draw parallels to the LA Riots. The media and the American public are tricky like that.

    1. I would agree with that too . I think that Asian/black racial tensions plays into society's general hostility towards Asians, so playing up Korean/black tensions still allows mainstream America to assuage white guilt and maintain anti-Asian feeling all at the same time!

      Hispanics are a different kettle of fish altogether - they are far too entrenched in American society for white America to side against them.
      Anti-Hispanic feeling just isn't as ingrained in American culture as anti-Asian feeling is - people wouldn't have the hostile gut reaction to them as they would towards Asians involved in racial conflict with blacks.