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New Scholarship in Race and Ethnicity—"Rethinking Race, Religion, and Ethnicity in the United States: The Case of Asian Americans"

September 15, 2008 // 3:00pm5:00pm

Western European immigrants who arrived in the United States tended to identify themselves on the basis of ethnicity. They were English, Irish, Italian, and so on. As they integrated into American life, they became "white," and that characterization was adopted by their children as a crucial element in their identity.

Integration patterns are different for the children of Asian immigrants, however, according to Prof. Carolyn Chen. Speaking in the 23rd program in the Division of United States Studies' series on New Scholarship in Race and Ethnicity, Prof. Chen argued that religion is the primary source of identity for second generation Asian Americans. "Asian Americans experience a crisis of authenticity," she asserted. Only 20 percent of them speak their parents' native language. Coming from diverse countries, they lack the kind of collective narrative possessed by African Americans. They find themselves feeling that they are not "real" Asians, and neither black nor white. While they have experienced few structural barriers in the United States, they are nonetheless uncertain about their identity and how they fit into this country. Many therefore turn to religion, which "fulfills a deep ethnic need for belonging, identity and authenticity in Asian Americans who are otherwise racially and ethnically dislocated in the United States."

Asian Americans have become the majority in evangelical student organizations at elite colleges, and they continue to turn to the church after they graduate. Asian American evangelicals tend to worship in ethnically separate congregations. Religion influences their career and lifestyle choices – they may marry non-Asians, but only non-Asians of the same religion. They consciously adopt a "pure" and "authentic" Christianity against what they perceive as the "hypocritical" ethnically-tainted Christianity of their immigrant parents

This pattern is similar to that of many second generation Muslim Americans. Emphasizing religion over ethnicity, they follow what they see as a "pure" Islam rather than their parents' culturally influenced Islam. In the post-9/11 world, they perceive themselves as an "oppressed religious minority" that has had a racial category imposed upon them by the larger society. As Prof. Rudy Busto commented, the attitude of both evangelical Christian and Muslim Asian Americans is, "If I'm an outsider, I might as well act like one." Busto suggested, however, that discrimination against Muslim Americans may be based on race rather than religion. Prof. Wallace Best noted that while academic disciplines now recognize race, gender, class and ethnicity as phenomena for study, they have barely begun grappling with the significance of religion and religious identity. Prof. Chen's study is therefore an important contribution to the understanding of religion as a key factor in the lives of a growing sector of the American population.

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