4.26.2007

one ragin' asian analyzes another ragin' asian

i can't tell if that title is in bad taste....anyways, you know, i always find it better to wait for a couple of weeks before commenting on any issues. this gives you time to see how people react and in my mind, that's where the real good stuff for analysis comes from. so while this may seem untimely, i assure you, my opinion is better informed than any of those that came out the day after the virginia tech massacre.

before i give you my two cents on the virginia tech thing, i'd like to share a little bit about a presentation that i attended yesterday at school. this is gonna take a while, but it will make sense once i get into my point about the shootings.

troy duster, a well known sociologist came to ucsb and gave a talk on his research on the relationship between science and race. it was really good. no i mean it was really really good. he started off by talking about race-based strategies for dealing with some diseases. for example, it is common knowledge that african americans are at higher risk for a number of diseases such as sickle cell, diabetes, and heart disease. in 2005, the FDA approved the first race-targeted drug, bidil, a drug that has been shown to reduce heart disease in african americans. he said that this is indicative of an orientation towards the cause of the problem being inside the body. that is, there is something about the genetic makeup of african-americans that supposedly makes them for susceptible to heart disease, therefore, the answer is to correct what is inside. to him this sounded suspiciously like other rationales for racism, the idea that there is something inherently different about people of different races that causes them to act the way they do. so he did some digging, and found that drug companies are pouring a lot of money is being poured into research for a race specific drug for diabetes. he then found that of all the industrial nations, that germany has the highest incidence rate of diabetes and nigeria has the lowest rate. as duster nicely summed up, "i rest my case."

for those of you who are slow, he was basically saying that race-based orientation towards curing some diseases is a bunch of hooey. if race was the key factor in the incidence of this disease, then germany, which has one of the most ethnically homogeneous populations in the world would have no diabetes, and nigeria, where there are tons of people with much similar genetic makeup to african americans, would be teeming with diabetics. he went on to show how another study showed that within individual countries, the rural or traditional areas had almost no incidence of diabetes while urban areas always had rates of at least ten percent. yet science ignores all of this evidence and proceeds merrily along its more profitable way.

his overall point, was, why, when basically all evidence we have point to external factors in the rates of almost any disease, do we sink so much money into internal cures? specifically ones that target race, when any good scientist would say that the genetic makeup of different races has not been demonstrated to affect probability of getting a disease. think of all the money we have sunk into medical research with almost no real tangible results. heart disease, cancer, diabetes, AIDS...we're no closer to curing them then we were twenty years ago. meanwhile, we have pinpointed all of the social factors that go into causing these diseases. and still very little money goes into ameliorating the environmental and social causes of these disease. what makes this even goofier is that we actually have much more control over things like the environment and social conditions, yet we still look to a decidedly unobjective and decidedly more expensive science to solve our problems (for an especially good account of these issues play out in the world of cancer research, i will refer you to an article by barbara ehrenriech about her research on and experiences with breast cancer treatment). of course, this all is due to the fact that the internal research is more closely to what we define as "science", and the external is not. which obviously means that reliance on science to cure social problems and medical problems is a risky proposition, even by science's own standards.

anyways, there's been a lot of interesting takes on the fact that the shooter at virginia tech was korean. i.e. pop licks has keyed on to the fact that the press seemed keep calling cho a "korean national" despite the fact that he was basically raised an american. however, what i've sen the most of is pieces written by asians or koreans worrying about the coming backlash towards them. i.e. this editorial in the LA times by Ed Chang, professor of ethnic studies at UC-Riverside. i've also received several email forwards on the subject. but what really put it all together for me was reading an article in the crappy UCSB student newspaper, the daily nexus. again, it was a story on the fear of backlash towards the asian student population, and a quote from this story actually sums up all of these types of responses well:
The reactions Asians are having toward the shootings is that Cho was mentally ill, but non-Asians might bring into account Cho’s nationality.
and another quote
Altough Cho had a long history of mental illness when he commited his crime, members of the Asian-American community fear that the focus on his nationality - rather then his mental illness - will cause a public backlash against Asian Americans.
so after all that buildup, here is my point. i think that it is ok to spend a good amount of discussion about how his race and ethnicity played into cho's decision to kill these people. i liken the attempt by some asian groups to shift the focus to mental illness to the overall focus on solving medical problems on internal causes. was cho probably a little chemically imbalanced? of course he was, but there are plenty of chemically unbalanced kids in colleges and none of them went apeshit with guns. where i see race coming into play is cho's extreme sense of alienation. and from my own experience and the experience of many other asian males, and many other asian females, and many other people of color, i can say with great confidence that race plays a big factor in this alienation. and with that in mind, my question is why has it taken this long for something like this to happen?

so the external conditions, him being an alienated asian kid, combined with an internal condition, he being cuckoo, along with a host of other factors, i.e. he had a gun, he had a video camera, etc. all resulted in the single worst shooting spree in US history. which brings up another point that duster brought up. even within science, research for complex interactions are not well funded. what people want out of science are simple answers. this even carries over into my own training as a quantitative social scientist. in statistics, the goal is always the most parsimonious model (the model with the fewest variables). granted, the mainstream news media and their type of dumbed down/made to fit between commercials type of analysis only exacerbates the problem. but it seems clear to me at least, that the virginia tech massacre is the result of an extremely complex interaction between social, biological, and historical factors.

obviously, i agree with most of the asian critics who say we should not attribute this to race. to say that he did this because koreans are crazy is abundantly racist and stupid. and i understand that the threat of backlash towards the korean and the asian community is a real one.

however, to call for people not to talk about race, as if talking about race only involves racist talk, is the color blind discourse, which as i've gone over before, is racist itself. we can talk about race, and how racism may have contributed to cho's sense of isolation, can't we? to pretend that he wasn't korean, and that his experience as a korean american did not somehow play a role, is to bury one's head in the sand. i, and many others believe that in this country race plays a profound role in both determining and generating who you are. so i don't think it is at all inappropriate to bring up the question of race. while i understand where most of these asians that i have been reading are coming, i think that they are overreacting to say that people should not focus on race. because most likely, race probably played an important role.

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