“America By The Numbers” Explores Race and Demographics in U.S.

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There’s a series coming to PBS this fall that takes a rare, thought-provoking look at race and demographic shifts in the U.S.

“At a time when issues like immigration and health care are so hotly debated, this measured, smart series sheds refreshing light on communities and issues ranging from infant mortality rates among babies of color in New York to high school dropout rates among Cambodian youth in Long Beach,” said CAAM Executive Director Stephen Gong. America By The Numbers is funded by the Center for Asian American Media (CAAM) and our partners in the National Minority Consortia, which includes CAAM and Pacific Islanders in Communications, Latino Public Broadcasting, National Black Programming Consortium and Vision Maker Media.

Maria Hinojosa, host and producer of "America By The Numbers" on a production shoot in Long Beach, CA. The series airs on PBS and World Channel in October.

Maria Hinojosa, host and executive producer of “America By The Numbers” on a production shoot in Long Beach, CA. The series airs on PBS and World Channel in October.

The show is the brainchild of award-winning journalist Maria Hinojosa—the voice behind NPR’s popular radio show, Latino USA.

I tagged along on an America By The Numbers production trip to Long Beach, California with Hinojosa, the producers and crew members. This episode focuses on the “model minority myth”—that all Asian Americans perform well in school, go to college, become professionals and live middle or upper middle class lifestyles. This episode, one of eight half-hour stories in the series, is epic in many ways because it aims to debunk that myth.

As someone who has covered Asian American communities as a journalist for more than a decade, I can say that most of mainstream America tends to pay little attention to the nuances of “Asian Americans.” As more attention is being paid to Asian Americans due to our population growth spurt—these stories that America By The Numbers tell become even more important.

On a Monday, the crew followed a high school senior named Shameka. During the sit-down interview outside of a busy café, Shameka shed tears as she talked about the struggles of being first generation Cambodian American.

"America By The Numbers" Long Beach crew: Maria Hinojosa: Executive Producer and Host; Leslie Asako Gladsjo: Producer; Paul de Lumen: Director of Photography; Allen Ho, Ilja Maran: 2nd Camera; Canaan Triplett: Sound Recordist; Sue Ding: Associate Producer; Michelle Zenarosa: Casting Associate Producer; Rannie McCants: Intern.

“America By The Numbers” Long Beach crew: Maria Hinojosa: Executive Producer and Host; Leslie Asako Gladsjo: Producer; Paul de Lumen: Director of Photography; Allen Ho, Ilja Maran: 2nd Camera; Canaan Triplett: Sound Recordist; Sue Ding: Associate Producer; Michelle Zenarosa: Casting Associate Producer; Rannie McCants: Intern.

It’s easy to gloss over the story of Southeast Asian refugees, particularly those who came to the U.S. after the war in Vietnam and in Southeast Asia, and the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. To think of it as a thing of the past. Or we can simply look at stats—that Cambodians and Hmong have a dropout rate equal to, and in some cases, higher, than Latinos. But, as the tagline of the series states, “behind every number, there’s a story.”

Listening to Shameka speak—in many ways, just a regular American teenager—showed that the issues still persist and that lives are being affected by the history of war, trauma and the experience of coming to the U.S. as refugees. A baby-faced girl who recently turned 18, Shameka is the youngest of seven siblings. Shameka had been homeless, along with her single mom, for some time, bouncing from place to place—a situation that she said felt normal after a while.

Shameka was just days away from graduating. In order to do so, she has to pass all of her classes. Will she walk? (Watch the episode to find out!). Shameka also has other challenges and life changes ahead of her.

They later film at a Long Beach Unified School Board meeting, where youth from Khmer Girls in Action and other local organizations advocate for more resources to schools. High suspension and expulsion rate is also a common affair, according to youth advocates. As if to highlight the issue of being brushed aside, a Cambodian parent who spoke at the board meeting is cut off because she went over the time limit—because she was using an interpreter, which takes longer.

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Youth and youth advocates outside a Long Beach Unified School Board meeting.

The stories are rich, told through a skilled journalist who isn’t afraid to ask the tough questions. Hinojosa is friendly and warm. Everyone, from the sound recordist to the multiple camera people and producers, works hard to capture these stories that are rarely heard or seen on a national scale.

America By The Numbers premieres in primetime on Thursday, October 2 on WORLD Channel, a 24/7 digital multicast public media channel, and will broadcast on PBS beginning Saturday, October 4, 2014, following PBS NewsHour Weekend (check local listings). Stay tuned for an interview with Maria Hinojosa.

—Momo Chang

America By The Numbers Updated Episode Descriptions and Air Dates (check local listings):

MAINSTREAM, USA – Airdate on WORLD Channel: Thursday, 10/2/14. Airdate on PBS Weekend: Saturday, 10/4/14.
Welcome to Clarkston, Georgia—one of America’s most diverse square miles. Designated as a refugee resettlement site in the 1980s, Clarkston is home to people from over 40 different countries. Once a hub for the Ku Klux Klan, the city has gone from being 89% white to 82% non-white in just 30 years. We examine how Clarkston’s daily realities reflect wider demographic trends, and explore the collaborations and collisions that are occurring between the old and new South.

ISLAND OF WARRIORS – Airdate on WORLD Channel: Thursday, 10/9/14. Airdate on PBS Weekend: Saturday, 10/11/14.
Pacific Islanders serve in the U.S. military in disproportionally high numbers, and have suffered the highest casualty rates in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. We visit Guam, a U.S. territory in the Pacific, to speak to some of the island’s veterans. The men and women here are American citizens and serve in our country’s military at a rate three times higher than the rest of the country. We explore why Guam’s returning veterans say they can’t get the healthcare they need.

OUR PRIVATE IDAHO – Airdate on WORLD Channel: Thursday, 10/16/14. Airdate on PBS Weekend: Saturday, 10/18/14.
American suburbs are becoming more diverse, but the “exurbs” that surround them remain overwhelmingly white. In fact, while whites account for only 6% of total U.S. population growth, they make up 73% of growth in exurban areas. We visit Coeur d’Alene, Idaho—a town that successfully ousted the Aryan Nations in 2000, but remains overwhelmingly white. We explore both the allure and the complexity of living in a homogenous community.

NATIVE AMERICAN BOOMTOWN – Airdate on WORLD Channel: Thursday, 10/23/14. Airdate on PBS Weekend: Saturday, 10/25/14.
The Bakken Oil Boom is bringing billions of dollars and tens of thousands of jobs to North Dakota. But most people don’t know that a substantial part of the state’s oil production is concentrated on an Indian reservation. Fort Berthold Reservation’s 1,000-plus oil wells have brought in money and jobs for some. But the oil has also brought danger—organized crime, hard drugs, traffic fatalities—and other problems. We speak to tribal members about the benefits—and consequences—of the boom.

POLITICS OF THE NEW SOUTH – Airdate on WORLD Channel: Thursday, 10/30/14. Airdate on PBS Weekend: Saturday, 11/1/14.
We return to Clarkston, Georgia to follow unlikely candidates in the city’s 2013 local election, as three Mayoral and City Council candidates are former refugees who will be running for office—and voting—for the first time. These new American candidates were inspired to run for office after screening and participating in America By The Numbers with Maria Hinojosa: Mainstream, USA. Will they be able to bring new voters to the polls and make their voices heard? We document this remarkable moment in Clarkston’s history.

PASS OR FAIL IN CAMBODIA TOWN – Airdate on WORLD Channel: Thursday, 11/6/14. Airdate on PBS Weekend: Saturday, 11/8/14.
Asian Americans are the best-educated and highest-income ethnic group in the United States. They are often referred to as the “model minority,” suggesting that all Asians are successful in school and in life. But Southeast Asian Americans have some of the lowest high school completion rates in the nation. We visit Long Beach, California—the city with America’s largest Cambodian community—to find out why this educational crisis is happening and what people are doing about it.

SURVIVING YEAR ONE – Airdate on WORLD Channel: Thursday, 11/13/14. Airdate on PBS Weekend: Saturday, 11/15/14.
The U.S. spends more on healthcare than any other nation, and the biggest portion goes towards pregnancy and childbirth. Despite that, the nation ranks 56th lowest in the world for infant mortality. To find out more about this critical issue, we visit Rochester, New York—where babies are dying at a rate almost twice the national average, and where mothers of color are two times as likely as white mothers to lose their babies before their first birthday. As we search for answers, we also visit the programs that are working to reverse these dramatic disparities.

THE NEW MAD MEN – Airdate on WORLD Channel: Thursday, 11/20/14. Airdate on PBS Weekend: Saturday, 11/22/14.
With a collective purchasing power of $3 trillion, people of color are quickly becoming the nation’s most sought-after consumers. Iconic brands are re-examining their marketing strategies in order to stay competitive in the changing marketplace. Latinos, with a buying power of $1.2 trillion, are at the heart of this new consumer focus. We take an exclusive look inside LatinWorks, one of the most successful multicultural ad agencies in the country, and learn how they are speaking to the multicultural millennial market.

About America By The Numbers

Behind every number, there’s a story. America By The Numbers with Maria Hinojosa is a new PBS documentary series—the first to focus on the dramatic demographic shifts currently taking place in this country. As we explore underreported stories from every corner of the nation, we reveal the human face of the biggest population change in U.S. history. The new American mainstream—the growing number of Asians, Latinos, African Americans, mixed race, immigrants, women, youth, and LGBT—is influencing elections, culture, commerce, and every facet of contemporary life. We investigate these dynamic developments using infographics, statistical analysis, in-depth reporting, and compelling storytelling with anchor and executive producer Maria Hinojosa.

Produced by Futuro Media Group and presented by WGBH Boston, America By The Numbers premieres in primetime on Thursday, October 2 on WORLD Channel, the 24/7 digital multicast public media channel, and will broadcast on PBS beginning Saturday, October 4, 2014, following PBS NewsHour Weekend (check local listings).

America By The Numbers is produced by The Futuro Media Group in association with PBS and presented by WGBH Boston along with the members of the National Minority Consortia: The Center for Asian American Media, Pacific Islanders in Communications, Latino Public Broadcasting, National Black Programming Consortium, and Vision Maker Media.

Main image: Maria Hinojosa, host and executive producer of “America By The Numbers,” a new series about the changing race and demographic in the U.S., coming soon to PBS. Photo courtesy of Maria Hinojosa.