Austin day 6

Sunday, 6 December 2009:

There’s a significant Asian community here in Austin, especially as the 50,000-student University of Texas, based in this city, attracts a huge number from across the Pacific. The community provides a ready market for supermarkets catering to its needs, one of which is “Mai Dan” – which I believe is the Vietnamese pronunciation of its proper name.

Mai Dan is located in a shopping area called Chinatown Center – actually a large carpark surrounded by 4 or 5 single-storeyed, unconnected buildings. The place grated me the wrong way the moment I saw it. There was a stereotypical Chinese arch out front with statues of three sages (or were they gods of fortune?) while the roof over the building housing Mai Dan was upturned at its corners. Both were marks of shallow orientalism.

Entrance arch to Chinatown Center, Austin

Like Mai Dan, all the other shops catered to the Asian market. There were Chinese, Korean and Vietnamese restaurants, cellphone retailers, and a video store with nothing but Vietnamese movies.

Inside the supermarket itself, just about all the aisles were crammed full of stuff for a Chinese or Vietnamese lifestyle – many different grades of rice, soya sauce, bean paste, sesame oil and so forth. A few aisles were filled with things no Western supermarket would ever dream of. One had jars upon jars of creepy crawlies – it wasn’t clear to me if they were dead or alive, but edible they were meant to be. Another aisle offered many varieties of ancestral altars, censers, joss sticks and auspicious door plaques.

Where Western supermarkets had 100-metre walls lined with freezers for frozen foods, Mai Dan had a 50-metre wall lined with aquariums, from which you could pick your live fish, crab or eel. It was a world away from the antiseptic Western supermarket.

Upturned roof over the supermarket

The management, supervisors and key personnel, e.g. butchers, were, as far as I could tell, all Vietnamese, speaking Vietnamese among themselves. The shelf stackers, cleaners and security guards were all Hispanic, speaking spanish among themselves. The division was so stark, I didn’t see a single exception to the rule.

Where are the African-Americans? They generally share the same poorer neighbourhoods as the Hispanics, so if Mai Dan was close enough for Hispanics to find work there, why not the African-Americans? The first explanation that comes to mind is that the Vietnamese owners refuse to hire Blacks. But might it also be that the Blacks didn’t even come looking for work?

* * * * *

I see in Monday’s Straits Times that Minister for Muslim Affairs, Yaacob Ibrahim spoke out about the social problems within the Malay-Muslim community. One sentence in the news story (Straits Times, 7 December 2009, Deaths of kids from broken homes a ‘wake-up call’) struck me:

His despair is almost palpable as he described how these tragedies are symptomatic of a deeper sociological problem and spells out the dangers of ignoring this long-standing problem of broken homes in the Malay community, saying it will lead to an underclass.

‘Once it emerges… you can never remove it,’ he warned, as he expressed his fear of the situation deteriorating and going the way of the blacks and Hispanics in the United States.

There is a world of difference between the situation of the Blacks and that of the Hispanics. Exceptions notwithstanding, Black communities are too often characterised by single-parent families, absent fathers, drugs, jail and a culture of non-achievement. Hispanic families are not like that, if one looks past the illegal immigrants who tend to be detached from their families and living in fear of the law. In settled Hispanic communities, the family structure is very strong. There do come across as culturally less demanding of achievement compared to other immigrant communities from Asia, and yes, they do have a gang culture at its margins, but it’s quite unfair to lump them with the African-Americans.

My sister teaches English as a second language to adult students from many different immigrant sources, and her observation is that immigrants who have chosen to come to America work very hard to get up the ladder, and this is true whether they come from Latin America or Asia. The slight difference is that Asian families tend to invest very heavily in education for the next generation, and for that, the parents work extremely hard. Hispanic parents also work very hard though their priorities may be somewhat different.

First generation immigrants differ from what she loosely termed ‘indigenous’ communities in terms of the jobs that people would take. Immigrants do the low-status dirty work if they have to. Perhaps because they are separated from their home communities by physical distance, it is easier for them to take on low-status work. In contrast, it is hard for ‘indigenous’ communities to do that, because the loss of face is too great. Their communities are right here in the US, not across the border.

By ‘indigenous’ communities, she meant both the Native Americans and the African Americans, the first tending to feel a sense of entitlement as the original inhabitants, the second still nursing a sense of victimhood, and thus an elliptical sense of entitlement (remedy) too. Instead of competing hard like the Asian and Hispanic immigrants, they seem to be waiting for a kind of justice.

The Straits Times also reported:

Meanwhile, [Yaacob Ibrahim] made a plea to better-off Malay-Muslims not to turn their backs on these families but ‘make it their mission in life to think about it, to write about it and explore solutions’.

The African-Americans who have made it to the middle class and beyond, according to my sister, likewise turn their backs on the underperforming  ones. In fact, they may hold even more disdainful attitudes than Whites towards the ghetto Blacks. Their attitude is very easily summed up: They think the underperforming Blacks are plain lazy.

I would hasten to add that dysfunctional families and the cascade of problems that follow should not be so simplistically reduced to personal failure. Yaacob Ibrahim provided a similar caution:

However, he does not view their behaviour as a lack of morality, saying it is a sociological phenomenon.

There was one thing in the news story that I didn’t think was correct though. It was this:

[Yaacob Ibrahim] fears that should [having babies out of wedlock] become rooted, it would go the way of black and Hispanic Americans, where many girls get pregnant to get out of poverty because the state would then take care of them.

This may be true of many European countries, but I don’t think it is so in the United States.

4 Responses to “Austin day 6”

  1. 1 Paul 7 December 2009 at 21:12

    Dear Alex

    The New York Times had a good article explaining a little of what really happens when African American men try to look for a job…

    That is somewhat similar to what happens in Singapore when a Malay young man tries for a job in the SAF, a bank, a trading house etc….

    In Job Hunt, College Degree Can’t Close Racial Gap
    Damon Winter/The New York Times
    Johnny Williams has scrubbed his résumé of any details that might tip off his skin color.
    Published: November 30, 2009
    Johnny R. Williams, 30, would appear to be an unlikely person to have to fret about the impact of race on his job search, with companies like JPMorgan Chase and an M.B.A. from the University of Chicago on his résumé.

    Skip to next paragraph
    Racial Differences in Joblessness
    ‘Whitening’ the Résumé (December 6, 2009)
    Enlarge This Image

    Karena Cawthon for The New York Times
    Barry Jabbar Sykes goes by Barry J. Sykes in his job hunt.
    Readers’ Comments
    Readers shared their thoughts on this article.
    Read All Comments (457) »
    But after graduating from business school last year and not having much success garnering interviews, he decided to retool his résumé, scrubbing it of any details that might tip off his skin color. His membership, for instance, in the African-American business students association? Deleted.

    “If they’re going to X me,” Mr. Williams said, “I’d like to at least get in the door first.”

    Similarly, Barry Jabbar Sykes, 37, who has a degree in mathematics from Morehouse College, a historically black college in Atlanta, now uses Barry J. Sykes in his continuing search for an information technology position, even though he has gone by Jabbar his whole life.

    “Barry sounds like I could be from Ireland,” he said.

    That race remains a serious obstacle in the job market for African-Americans, even those with degrees from respected colleges, may seem to some people a jarring contrast to decades of progress by blacks, culminating in President Obama’s election.

    But there is ample evidence that racial inequities remain when it comes to employment. Black joblessness has long far outstripped that of whites. And strikingly, the disparity for the first 10 months of this year, as the recession has dragged on, has been even more pronounced for those with college degrees, compared with those without. Education, it seems, does not level the playing field — in fact, it appears to have made it more uneven.

    College-educated black men, especially, have struggled relative to their white counterparts in this downturn, according to figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The unemployment rate for black male college graduates 25 and older in 2009 has been nearly twice that of white male college graduates — 8.4 percent compared with 4.4 percent.

    Various academic studies have confirmed that black job seekers have a harder time than whites. A study published several years ago in The American Economic Review titled “Are Emily and Greg More Employable than Lakisha and Jamal?” found that applicants with black-sounding names received 50 percent fewer callbacks than those with white-sounding names.

    A more recent study, published this year in The Journal of Labor Economics found white, Asian and Hispanic managers tended to hire more whites and fewer blacks than black managers did.

    The discrimination is rarely overt, according to interviews with more than two dozen college-educated black job seekers around the country, many of them out of work for months. Instead, those interviewed told subtler stories, referring to surprised looks and offhand comments, interviews that fell apart almost as soon as they began, and the sudden loss of interest from companies after meetings.

    Whether or not each case actually involved bias, the possibility has furnished an additional agonizing layer of second-guessing for many as their job searches have dragged on.

    “It does weigh on you in the search because you’re wondering, how much is race playing a factor in whether I’m even getting a first call, or whether I’m even getting an in-person interview once they hear my voice and they know I’m probably African-American?” said Terelle Hairston, 25, a graduate of Yale University who has been looking for work since the summer while also trying to get a marketing consulting start-up off the ground. “You even worry that the hiring manager may not be as interested in diversity as the H.R. manager or upper management.”

    Mr. Williams recently applied to a Dallas money management firm that had posted a position with top business schools. The hiring manager had seemed ecstatic to hear from him, telling him they had trouble getting people from prestigious business schools to move to the area. Mr. Williams had left New York and moved back in with his parents in Dallas to save money.

    But when Mr. Williams later met two men from the firm for lunch, he said they appeared stunned when he strolled up to introduce himself.

    “Their eyes kind of hit the ceiling a bit,” he said. “It was kind of quiet for about 45 seconds.”

    The company’s interest in him quickly cooled, setting off the inevitable questions in his mind.

    Discrimination in many cases may not even be intentional, some job seekers pointed out, but simply a matter of people gravitating toward similar people, casting about for the right “cultural fit,” a buzzword often heard in corporate circles.

    There is also the matter of how many jobs, especially higher-level ones, are never even posted and depend on word-of-mouth and informal networks, in many cases leaving blacks at a disadvantage. A recent study published in the academic journal Social Problems found that white males receive substantially more job leads for high-level supervisory positions than women and members of minorities.

    Many interviewed, however, wrestled with “pulling the race card,” groping between their cynicism and desire to avoid the stigma that blacks are too quick to claim victimhood. After all, many had gone to good schools and had accomplished résumés. Some had grown up in well-to-do settings, with parents who had raised them never to doubt how high they could climb. Moreover, there is President Obama, perhaps the ultimate embodiment of that belief.

    Certainly, they conceded, there are times when their race can be beneficial, particularly with companies that have diversity programs. But many said they sensed that such opportunities had been cut back over the years and even more during the downturn. Others speculated there was now more of a tendency to deem diversity unnecessary after Mr. Obama’s triumph.

    In fact, whether Mr. Obama’s election has been good or bad for their job prospects is hotly debated. Several interviewed went so far as to say that they believed there was only so much progress that many in the country could take, and that there was now a backlash against blacks.

    “There is resentment toward his presidency among some because of his race,” said Edward Verner, a Morehouse alumnus from New Jersey who was laid off as a regional sales manager and has been able to find only part-time work. “This has affected well-educated, African-American job seekers.”

    It is difficult to overstate the degree that they say race permeates nearly every aspect of their job searches, from how early they show up to interviews to the kinds of anecdotes they try to come up with.

    “You want to be a nonthreatening, professional black guy,” said Winston Bell, 40, of Cleveland, who has been looking for a job in business development.

    He drew an analogy to several prominent black sports broadcasters. “You don’t want to be Stephen A. Smith. You want to be Bryant Gumbel. You don’t even want to be Stuart Scott. You don’t want to be, ‘Booyah.’ ”

    Nearly all said they agonized over job applications that asked them whether they would like to identify their race. Most said they usually did not.

  2. 2 Robox 8 December 2009 at 08:10

    Re: “[Yaacob Ibrahim’s] despair is almost palpable as he described how these tragedies are symptomatic of a deeper sociological problem and spells out the dangers of ignoring this long-standing problem of broken homes in the Malay community, saying it will lead to an underclass.”

    Why is Yaacob Ibrahim so worried about sociological problems, whether in the Malay community or beyond?

    The cabinet of the government he serves has already found the PERFECT solution – the death penalty – when sociological problems result in individuals running afoul of the law.

    Yong Vui Kong comes from a disadvantaged background, and that background is directly linked to his run-in with the law. Yaacob Ibrahim’s advise to he President was to kill him.

    Yet Yaacob Ibrahim condemned him to death.

    So why the pretense of concern for the underclass now?

    Just because they are Malay?

    This is the Minister of MUSLIM Affairs, a cabinet position that we are duped into believing is to promote the well being of Muslims, and ultimately their religious life.

    Does Islam teach that the lives of a non-Muslim are worth less to God than those of Muslims?

    I would hope that MORALITY is part the religious life of Muslims he is promoting. Specifically, I want to know if the Minister of Muslim Affairs that he has the moral right to take the life of someone he had no part in bringing to Earth.

    Are we sure he is a mere cabinet minister of a dimunitive country of no importance to the rest of the world?

    Because he seems to be playing God here?

  3. 3 yawningbread 9 December 2009 at 03:30

    I don’t think Yaacob Ibrahim had anything to do with the case of Yong Vui Kong.

  4. 4 Robox 9 December 2009 at 04:02

    Sorry Alex, but I understand that the President rejected clemency on advise from the cabinet.

    If true, then Yaacob Ibrahim is both personally and collectively responsible for the decision.

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