Asian American Evangelicalism and Middle Class Individualism

About every 3 years or so, a collegiate parachurch ministry called Intervarsity Christian Fellowship holds a national week-long conference named after its original meeting place, Urbana. I was reminded that the next meeting would take place this winter break. It also helped remind me of some news pieces I had been meaning to read on how young Asian American evangelicals (like the ones who will attend Urbana 2012) think about race. In referring to young Asian American evangelicals it’s important to point out that this is a highly selective group. When we think about young white evangelicals for example, we normally don’t consider nativity, immigration, or physical appearance as salient characteristics of this group. Young Asian American evangelicals on the other hand are typically the first in their families to be born or raised in the US; according to the Pew Asian American Survey, while 68% of Asian Americans are Protestant Protestants are foriegn-born, 32% are native-born (and of the 32%, most (22%) are second-generation, and the remainder (10%) is multigenerational (p.172 of full report). Put in big numbers, if there are about 17 million Asian Americans, about 3.7 million are Protestant, and of these 822,800 approximately are second-generation Protestants. What’s more, since the most recent major immigration wave started around 1965, most second-generation Asian American evangelicals (as well as most second-generation Asian Americans in general) are children of baby boomer-era and pre-baby-boomer-era Asian immigrants. This means while post-baby-boomer white evangelicals were growing up and going to college in the 80s and 90s, the typical Asian American evangelical they might encounter would be second-generation.

As I posted recently, about 6% of undergraduates in the US are Asian American; if groups like Intervarsity were proportionally present on US college campuses, then about 1.3% of their target audience might be Asian American Protestant undergrads. From this perspective, we would not expect there to be a large Asian American presence in this organization. But that’s not the case since Intervarsity and other parachurch groups are more present in higher-profile schools than in smaller or lower-profile schools. It’s at these higher-profile schools where Asian Americans are generally over-represented in the aggregate racial figures. Even though only 22% of Asian Americans are Protestant, the greater presence of Asian Americans in high-profile schools increases the potential pool of participants in groups like Intervarsity. This explains to some extent why the proportion of Asian American evangelicals is so high in this organization. A glance at their website of Intervarsity’s Asian American ministries statistics we see the following:

  • 20% of the students who participate regularly with Intervarsity are Asian American (5,758) a 32% increase in the past 5 years
  • 29 Asian American monoethnic groups or chapters, and
  • 230 staff workers of Asian American descent

Judging by the comparative figures for Intervarsity’s African American and Latino student ministries, Asian Americans form the largest minority group in this religious organization.

(Nerds will notice that the figures don’t quite work out the way they should – The main organization’s statistics say there are 180 Asian American staff for example, and the number of Asian American students divided by the number of undergraduates who participate in this organization is more like 16%). While it’s hard to gauge the validity of numbers reported by these organizations, numerous news pieces and books have noted the remarkably high percentage of Asian American evangelicals in these organizations (see this previous post with links to some of these works).

In short, Intervarsity has placed staff and considerable resources toward developing Asian American evangelical spirituality. This has been part of their larger strategy to engage issues of racial and ethnic identity awareness in their ministry by developing multiethnic and monoethnic subgroups. This strategy reveals the complex reality of conveying a universal faith to the cultural particularities of a diverse audience. But in a provocative essay by Paul Matsushima (and reposted on racialicious – a blog site on race issues), providing resources aimed at cultivating ethnic identity awareness may not be enough, and its current efforts might be falling on deaf ears. He argues that Asian American evangelicals by and large are influenced by three social scripts: colorblindness (the view that differential social treatment of groups based on race has no bearing on life outcomes), individualism (life outcomes are strictly the result of personal effort alone), and middle-class identity (those who achieve middle class status are morally superior to those who remain in the working and lower classes). In each of these scripts, Matsushima provides examples of how evangelicalism justifies them through spiritualizing these beliefs. The poor are poor because of their immorality, not as a result of structural barriers, especially racialized structural barriers. Spiritualizing a script for American middle-class mobility has important consequences then for second-generation Asian American evangelicals. It would be one thing if the evangelical script had a balanced perspective that not only accounts for personal effort but also the contexts that limit opportunity for some but not for others. Sociologists Michael Emerson and Christian Smith noted over a decade ago however, that this combination of beliefs creates a firm anti-structural frame of thinking of which African American Christians are perhaps the most immune.

This brings us back to Intervarsity and other parachurch groups. It’s clear that racial difference is on their radar, and they have made efforts to address racial difference through groups aimed at celebrating and understanding difference in multiethnic and monoethnic settings. But to what extent are these settings unintentionally reinforcing the same anti-structuralism that is pervasive in American evangelicalism as Matsushima and others ask? If they offer alternative scripts, is it a viable consideration for second-generation participants in these groups? I wonder whether Asian American evangelicals are aware of the particular advantages that many of them have from being born into highly educated families, or families that sacrificed a great deal to provide even better educational opportunities through entry into predominantly white neighborhoods and schools. How many of them have considered the possibility that they and their families were viewed as an acceptable minority in contradistinction from those other minorities who were denied the same opportunities. If they are aware of these advantages, I wonder if the response is very often an individualized one: give back to one’s parents through a successful high-paying prestigious career. In other words, I wonder whether many second-generation Asian American evangelicals (and other Asian Americans in this same social position) grow aware that their advantages result (in part) from colorblindness and anti-structuralism, and yet resolve it through a colorblind and anti-structural solution (e.g. avoiding social justice, focusing only on career).

Still Retreating from Race: Asian Americans in the Ivy League


“…claims that Asian American students were as well qualified but less likely than whites to gain entry to the elite schools set in motion a tedious debate over the definition of ‘excellence,’ ‘merit,’ and ‘diversity.’”

When do you think this was written? Would you believe it was 1992 when this first appeared in Dr. Dana Takagi’s Retreat From Race: Asian American Admissions and Racial Politics (p. 176)? This award-winning work chronicled the affirmative action and racial preference debates taking place at the elite level of higher education (the schools that are usually around the top 15 or 25 research university schools listed in US News and World Report). 

In it, Takagi shows that the political groups and actors involved in these arguments back in the 1980s and 1990s grew more and more mixed in their views on the merits of affirmative action and better alternatives to it (assuming it was not ameliorating social inequalities). As she states:

“Both conservatives and liberals support equal opportunity and abhor discrimination—but they disagree over how to achieve the former and how to discourage the latter. In the battleground over policy, the two leading strategies for achieving equal opportunity—racial preferences and color-blind policies—do not neatly correspond to conservative or liberal politics.” (184).

Part of the reason for this mixed response was the new complication of race that entered into the debate when Asian Americans were brought into what used to be a “white and black issue.” Takagi reminds us that the changes in Asian enrollment corresponded with changes in immigration that began in the 1960s. By 1980, Berkeley was already at 20% Asian enrollment whereas the US Asian population was hovering at around 3-4%. Much of this can be explained by immigration; highly educated and skilled workers such as nurses, engineers, laboratory scientists were recruited and hired from Asia; these adults brought their families to the US (or started them stateside). Parents with a lot of education usually encourage their children to  achieve similarly. Not surprisingly then, within about 15 years we saw an influx of high-test-scoring, multi-talented Asian young adults applying to Berkeley, Harvard, and Princeton.

But a new problem emerged. It seemed that while the Asian American population was increasing rapidly in size, there should have been more qualified applicants of Asian descent who should have entered the hallowed halls of the Ivy League and other elite institutions. But that did not appear to be the case. Many interpreted this as a case of outright discrimination, and indeed federal intervention analyzed the admissions data to see whether the ratio of applicants and admits disfavored Asian Americans over others. University officials pointed out that Asian American admissions were already disproportional to their presence in the population; further they were seen as uniformly “good but not exceptional,” lacking subjective qualities like “capacity for involvement, commitment, and personal growth.” (from Yale’s definition (see Takagi p.81)).

The use of admissions data, revealed the importance of interpretation. Evidence showed that admissions of Asian Americans were capped regardless of the size of the Asian applicant pool. Some argued that this was discrimination, but others argued that this was a reflection of diversity initiatives. The latter argument asserts that there are many kinds of excellent students and the limit on Asian American acceptance was a reflection of that. Again “good but not exceptional.” Neoconservatives who once argued that affirmative action was “reverse discrimination” in which whites were the victims, exchanged this picture with that of Asian Americans. From this perspective Asian Americans were now the victims of affirmative action, making African Americans the beneficiaries of anti-Asian discrimination. More insidious was the implied message that affirmative action replaced “quality” (i.e. Asian and white applicants) for color (i.e. black applicants). As Takagi narrates, liberal university officials were on the defensive:

“At pains to reassure their public that conservative claims about declining standards were not true, the proponents of liberalism zealously reiterated their commitment to individualism and merit.” (170)

This resulted in a concession that the best way forward was to support the neoconservative solution of having admissions policy based on class, rather than race.

Does this sound familiar? Takagi’s study came to mind when I was reflecting on the debates going on in the New York Times recently over “Fears of an Asian Quota in the Ivy League.” The central question asked: “Are top colleges limiting the number of Asian-Americans they admit?” The question behind that question is: if it’s true, what’s the justification? The perceived restriction of Asian American admissions to the Ivy League returns.

What’s changed since the 1990s to 2012 in terms of admissions at elite higher education institutions? Publisher Ron Unz shows the Asian American enrollment levels in the Ivy League dropped from a high of 20% in 1993 to 16% and has remained level since then, as seen in the image capture below taken from his lengthy article.

The main change is that the population of 18-21 year-old Asian Americans has continued to climb (again due to continued high immigration and regular birth rates). Assuming that the recruiting of highly-skilled, highly-educated immigrants hasn’t changed, there are likely more eligible bright Asian American young people who should qualify for the ranks of Harvard and Berkeley. As Unz points out, Caltech is the only school that has kept pace with population growth in comparison to the Ivy League schools. What’s the difference? Caltech, a primarily math, science and engineering school admits applicants based on merit, almost exclusively.

Notice that the same pattern we saw in the late 1980s to the 1990s in the discourse seems similar to the one we’re seeing now almost 20 years later. Data is presented to illustrate 1) a disproportional presence of Asian Americans in the elite schools, and 2) a flatlining of Asian enrollment levels at these schools, beginning roughly around 1995. Neoconservatives again interpret the disparity as evidence of anti-Asian discrimination via affirmative action; liberals point out that there is no evidence of discrimination via affirmative action. As Khin Mai Aung, director of the educational equity program at the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, points out,

“Affirmative action “simply allows admissions officers to consider an applicant’s racial background in a limited way as one of a myriad of factors that make up who he or she is. It neither condones nor facilitates racial discrimination and quotas.”

Whether or not an informal quota is actually placed on Asian American admissions into the Ivy League, it’s important to stress that 1) this is an extremely rarefied set of schools, 2) it is not a result of affirmative action. Using the dynamics of these schools as an explanation for the dismantling of affirmative action is really dangerous. To put this in numerical perspective, data from the National Center for Educational Statistics for 2011 shows that white non-Hispanic enrollment in degree-granting institutions was about 61% or 12.7 million out of 21 million students. For African Americans it was 14.5%, Latinos 13% and Asian/Pacific Islanders 6.1%. By this count, Latinos are underrepresented by about 3 percentage points relative to their presence in the US. Asian Americans are about on par with their population.

If race is allowed as a consideration for admission at schools that are just below (or a good deal below) the super-elite schools, then maybe we should consider how affirmative action works generally, rather than extrapolating from Harvard and Yale. The question of why the Asian American enrollment levels are compressed in the Ivy League is an important one to be sure, but this concern should not be conflated with the effectiveness of affirmative action overall.

The top schools to a certain extent reveal the tensions of reflecting the dual values of merit and diversity, as noted by Takagi and others. Two interesting solutions have been proposed. Sociologist Carolyn Chen advocates a hybrid system that utilizes affirmative action for underrepresented groups, and a merit system for whites and Asians.  This approach protects the potential opportunity for those groups who remain at a significant social disadvantage in America today. It changes the terms of admission for those other groups by placing them on a level playing field such that subjective factors are secondary to objective merit factors. When applied to the Ivy League, this may have the effect of readjusting the enrollment levels of Asian American undergraduates. Unz’s solution (pp.41-44 of his essay) is what he terms the Inner and Outer Ring solution. Super-elite schools should use merit criteria for 20% of each entering class and a lottery for the remaining 80%. In the latter, applicants must still pass certain minimal merit credentials, but since most of these Ivy League applicants will meet them, a lottery solves the problem of using subjective variables, as well as potential bias in admissions officers (he cites corruption and cronyism at work in the admissions processes at the Ivy League). Whether these are workable solutions remains to be seen, but in the deliberations over affirmative action, it’s important to distinguish the debate that takes place at the very top of higher education and the realities that occur further down the ivory tower. I suspect that solutions that make sense for elite schools will not be the same for lower tier schools, and hopefully our courts will know the difference.




Sexism in Racist Tones

Last spring UCLA was the site of a YouTube rant by a former student who was white non-Hispanic, about “Asians in the library” including her version of “Asian speak”- sociologists call this and other derogatory verbage against a group ethnophaulisms. Much of the work on the sociology of race focuses on the influence of the dominant group over subordinate groups; in the case of the US it usually refers to the influence of white non-Hispanics over non-whites. The Alexandra Wallace case is one of these. This is pretty straightforward racism and its significance is due in part to the public platform of YouTube used to convey her thoughts and feelings.

But I was reminded of the Wallace incident because it was implicitly linked to a more recent incident that seemed somewhat ambiguous. On Tuesday November 27th, the Vietnamese Student Union of UCLA had a banner in the student union building where (I think) each student organization has a space to promote their group. It goes unmanned for many hours a day. So on Tuesday morning some members of VSU found a paper with the words “asian women R Honkie white-boy worshipping Whores” tacked onto their banner.  The following day, a similar phrase was found scrawled in one of the women’s bathrooms in Powell Library. The question everyone is asking: who would do this?

Because Wallace was mentioned in the reporting, we’re led to believe that these are similar in nature. Maybe. Perhaps a white student may have done this but in this discussion by the online news site “The Young Turks” they suggest that it may be more complicated than our race-sensitive intuitions might suggest.

YouTube Preview Image

Notably as they point out, the remark is not merely about race but about gender – it’s an attack on Asian American women. It specifically accuses them of “white-boy worship.” We have to agree with the news discussion and ask, why would someone white promote this? Instead we might consider turning attention to the complex matters of interracial dating, and the perceived differences in dating patterns among white and Asian college students. From this perspective, this incident is the ranting of a unique individual, probably Asian American, who feels frustrated about rejection (real or perceived) and externalizes his insecurity by making a public show of his emotions.

So this story does not actually seem similar to the Wallace story at all. The news reports also made mention of another incident at UCLA of anti-Latina sentiment earlier in February 2012. In that one, sexist language was used again with a racial tone. It was not enough to make an ethnophaulism against Latinos, it was specifically aimed at women, and most likely women’s agency in crossing racial lines (evidenced by the phrase “Meximelt”). At this level, perhaps the real issue is sexism. Certain ethnic minority males feel threatened by their female peers in the decisions they make regarding who they will and won’t date. Perhaps that is where the problem rests.

But we should ask further still: in a post-racial America, why would an ethnic minority male feel threatened by dating preferences that cross racial and ethnic lines? Perceived threat of this sort presumes a lack or loss of power by the threatened, and the available power by those they feel threatened by. In these two instances of public sexist-racist remarks, the perceived power of minority women to date outside of their ethnic community is the primary target. But implied in the messages too is a perceived threat of white males who date interracially. Why would white males be perceived as having more power than ethnic minority males? In a society that privileges white masculinity, some non-white males will be particularly sensitive to the difference (i.e. unfair treatment) they experience or perceive in their day-to-day lives. This combination of sexism and racism reflects what sociologists describe as intersections of power which cannot be reduced to one social category or the other. Both racism and sexism structure the kinds of language one uses to express hostility such as the cases we see here.

The upshot is that if both the anti-Asian and anti-Latina sexist remarks are reflective of irresponsible young non-white men, it works to create a climate of fear and insecurity for all. Perhaps that was the aim of those responsible for the rants, but in the end this doesn’t improve their chances at dating someone from their own culture-group. The effect of their behavior chills relations between men and women within these ethnic communities, and promotes distrust between ethnic minorities and whites. If this is the case, those responsible are basically saying “I want everyone else to suffer for the anger I feel from rejection.” In sum, while race is certainly a factor in these incidents involving defacing private, public or communal property, it cannot be decoupled from the sexism that work together in a matrix of inequality that privileges white masculinity.

Sex Work in Vietnam

Much of the material I teach on racial, gender, and class inequalities is US based, but given the increasing relationship between the US and the rest of the world, I’m learning to add more to my repertoire on the push factors that bring new immigrants to the US and the life conditions of the people there. Sometimes documentaries help me figure out the big frameworks for a particular issue, and that helps me to dig my way into the literature on a particular topic. One such documentary I viewed recently is called Half the Sky, based on the book with the same title by journalists (and husband-wife team) Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn (the first Asian American Pulitzer Prize winner btw).

In the two part series, Kristof invites noted celebrities who have an interest in meeting the needs of women in the developing world or the Global South. In each of their cases, viewers are exposed to the after effects of female genital mutilation, systemic rape, and child sex trafficking. As Patheos critic Azra noted the documentary suffers from a kind of Western tourism where American celebrities are filmed in conversation with women who have at various times been recipients of truly brutal behavior. It creates this picture that suggests that women in the West are superior since they are embodied by beautiful celebrities who never remark on the inequalities they or other women face in the west. Nonetheless, the documentary illuminated to me some of the ways that women find agency after trauma. Protective spaces and organizations are formed where young girls find new ground in which to recover, and grow through unconditional affection and education.

The sections that focused on Asia intrigued me of course because of my interest in Asian America. And it helped me to engage some new research on the sociology of sex work that’s appearing in some of the best sociology academic journals. One of these is by Dr. Kimberly Kay Hoang, a post-doctoral fellow at Rice University and soon-to-be Assistant Professor at Boston University College.  

Dr. Hoang’s study (which was part of her dissertation and won the American Sociological Association’s best dissertation award for 2012) was an examination of voluntary sex workers in Ho Chi Minh City, the largest city in Vietnam which accounts for 30% of the nation’s GDP. She selected this site because it’s one of those destination cities that casual tourists and business travelers visit with increasing frequency. Vietnam like many developing countries builds its economy from tourism. Less well discussed is that part of that tourism entails sexual tourism via prostitution. As Hoang states there are an estimated 200,000 prostitutes in HCMC alone; this amounts to about 2.7% of the city’s population. This is astounding to me, but I do not know how it compares to other contexts.

Hoang’s thesis states:

“Globalization does not create a single market for poor exploited women who cater to wealthy foreigners; rather I contend that globalization creates diverse markets and new segments that expand already existing inequalities.” (370) “…women’s access to economic, cultural and bodily resources position them in higher and lower paying sectors of sex work with different relations of intimacy.” (370)

In order to support her argument, she frequented bars, cafes, sex workers’ homes, malls, restaurants and the street for seven months to meet with about 54 sex workers and 26 clients. She notes the difficulty in using the most formal method, the one-on-one interview since there is (understandably) a reluctance to divulge much of what they do. Keep in mind sex work is illegal in Vietnam, thus these women describe their work as “girls who accompany customers.”

In Hoang’s study she divides sex work in HCMC into three sectors: low, mid, and high tier. At the low end sector, sex is exchanged for money in a one-time encounter. Sex workers here resemble the ones seen in the Cambodian story in Half the Sky: poor rural and urban women. They work to escape severe poverty but they don’t make enough to get plastic surgery nor do they have the language and cultural capital to gain more expensive clientele. Since their bodies are the instrument of their work, “body capital” becomes important. Those with more resources can augment their bodies in ways that appeal to wealthier clientele. But for the low tier sex workers, they lack these advantages and their clients are usually local somewhat poor, Vietnamese men.

At the mid-tier level the exchange is what Hoang calls “relational.” Women in this class are typically poor and urban similar to the low-end sex workers mentioned earlier. They can obtain plastic surgery and some designer clothing but not of the quality of the high-end workers, and they are fluent enough in English to frequent areas with English-speaking clientele, who are collectively described as “white backpackers,” tourists of American, Australian and European background. These budget travelers seek “authentic” experiences, desiring to meet “real people” as opposed to a sanitized version of HCMC. As such, mid-tier sex workers try to create a sense of authenticity through exchanging intimate details of their lives. The client is then drawn into a relationship as opposed to a simple sex-for-money exchange. The clients are led to believe that they are “saving” good women from poverty by being more involved relationally with the sex worker. The most interesting aspect of the mid-tier sex workers is that that while some of the client-worker relationships are short term, some relationships turn into boyfriend-girlfriend as well as husband-wife pairings. The white backpackers sometimes maintain remittance relationships with sex workers.

At the high end, the exchange is somewhat complex. These encounters with clients happen more than once and the exchange includes sex, but also intimacy (sharing of personal information), gifts and money. Women here are college or vocational-school educated and from wealthy families. Their language ability and knowledge of upper class culture allows them access to high-end hotels and bars where their clients frequent. As such they can afford expensive plastic surgery and clothing which also add to their desirability among high-end clients. These clients are Vietnamese men from overseas (Viet Kieu). The Viet Kieu clients are also particularly interesting in that the women “project to clients an imagined nation: Vietnam as nostalgic ‘home’ for Viet Kieu men” (371). It’s not simply sex, but the illusion of traditional Vietnamese male dominance and traditional Vietnamese female subordination. The relationship between high-end sex worker and Viet Kieu client is very public: these men want to be seen as wealthy, the kind that can afford to lavish their paramour with gifts and money. High end sex workers take great effort to blend in with other women so that these public exchanges cannot be identified as worker-client.

What I learn from this are the ways in which sex work is a means of subsistence, a means of migration, and a means of upward mobility. It’s true that trafficking occurs and with disturbing frequency. But sex work also includes thousands of women who voluntarily participate in sex-for-money exchange. To quickly judge this as exploitation misses the complex realities that women in these conditions face, and the kind of micro-control that they obtain. For the lucky few in the high end they can experience material wealth that cannot be imagined by the low end. For the mid-tier, such sex work might result in migration to a new start. Where their bodies are clearly commodities to their clients, sex workers do what they can to control it as a means to a better life. Ending sex work, as some activists in the West might prefer, will not be necessarily viewed as beneficial from the perspective of some of the women in Hoang’s study, and her cutting edge research helps us understand why.