Beyond black and white: race, class, and Chinese Americans in multiracial Chicago.

Author:Lan, Shanshan
Position:5J Paper
 
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In both the academic and popular imagination, Asian Americans have long been considered to occupy an in-between position in a Black and white racial framework. This bipolar view of U.S. race relations not only fails to describe the quickly changing U.S. racial landscape, but also reinforces an essentialized Asian American identity as homogeneous. Based on sustained ethnographic fieldwork in Chicago, this research examines how class differentiation among Chinese Americans mediates their understanding of racialized differences in a multiracial neighborhood in Chicago. In his study of racial knowledge in Cuba, Frank Guridy (1) conceptualizes race not merely as an identity or as a marker of social inequality, but as a form of social knowledge. He understands racial knowledge as a meaning system and an interpretive framework that is constructed out of interrelated social, economic, cultural, and political processes yet has been naturalized as a social fact. Following Guridy's efforts to denaturalize racial knowledge as a social fact, this article explores the unevenness in Chinese American's learning of racial knowledge in a multiracial urban center. By identifying class/social mobility as one of the major factors contributing to the differential racialization of distinct groups of Chinese Americans, I want to draw attention to the intersection of race and class in shaping the daily life experiences of Chinese Americans in a multiracial Chicago.

Bridgeport was, until recently, a white working-class neighborhood known for its history of resistance against housing desegregation and substantial anti-Black racial violence. (2) The neighborhood has been home to different waves of European immigrants: Irish, German, Lithuanian, Czechoslovakian, Polish, Ukrainian, and Italian. Today African Americans constitute only 1.05 percent of Bridgeport's population, but they play an important role in the neighborhood's racial imagination. For example, in 1997, a thirteen-year-old African American youth, Lenard Clark, was beaten into a coma by two white youths in a park near Bridgeport. The two offenders later bragged to their friends that they had kept Bridgeport white. (3) Starting from the 1980s and throughout the 1990s, an influx of immigrants from Asia and Latin America has transformed Bridgeport into a multiracial community. Currently, the population is 26 percent Asian American, 30 percent Latino, and 41 percent white. (4) Although the neighborhood is demographically multiracial, its political identity remains strongly white. Five of Chicago's mayors hailed from Bridgeport, including the current Mayor Richard Dailey. The expansion of Chinese Americans from Chinatown to Bridgeport is largely shaped by the intricate power relations in Bridgeport. Chinese Americans, mostly working-class immigrants from Hong Kong and Canton, are allowed to move in as a buffer group to prevent the integration of African Americans and to check the growing political power of Latinos. In reality, Chinese American immigrants are caught in a complicated network of overlapping racializations: they are often racialized together with Latinos as "foreigners" who are taking over the nation, (5) as people of color side by side with African Americans, and as the model minority in opposition to both Latinos and African Americans. (6)

In their study of residential patterns of immigrant minorities in the United States, Richard Alba and Nancy Denton note a discrepancy between the increasing heterogeneity of urban populations and the reification of racial differences, "At the broadest level, we argue that the trend for immigrants and for the racial hierarchy has been toward greater heterogeneity and toward a loosening of once more rigid structures, while for places of residence, despite greater diversity at the neighborhood level, there has been a hardening of the urban residential structure." (7) The same thing can be said of Bridgeport, where racial integration was achieved mainly in the physical and geographical sense. There are still gaps and ruptures in the neighborhood's daily life that point to the hierarchical power relations inscribed in its hidden racial landscape. In general, Chinese social life in Bridgeport is heavily confined to public places such as schools, parks, and libraries. There are many hardcore white ethnic spaces such as private social clubs, pubs, ethnic churches, and family parties that continue to exclude Chinese Americans. Many Chinese Americans in Bridgeport expressed feelings of alienation during my interviews with them. One Chinese American community activist told me, "I happen to live in a place called Bridgeport, but all my friends are in Chinatown."

In his study of New York's Chinatown in the 1970s and 1980s, Peter Kwong noted the polarization of Chinese American population by distinguishing between the "Uptown Chinese" and "Downtown Chinese." (8) The former are usually middle-class professionals with college degrees who live outside Chinatown, while the latter are mainly new, working-class immigrants who barely speak English and who are working at the lowest tier of the service industry in Chinatown. The same bifurcation exists in Chicago's Chinese American community today, and it takes on a new racial twist with the multiracial transformation of urban U.S. population. Besides the expansion of Chinese population from Chinatown to its neighboring Bridgeport, there is also a constant flow of Chinese Americans between the city and the suburbs. Some new immigrants live in Bridgeport but work in suburban restaurants (rides are provided by restaurant owners so that the workers do not need to learn how to drive). For this group of working-class Chinese immigrants, life is still very much focused on Chinatown, since they need the Chinese language infrastructure in the city to survive. However, there is another small group of Chinese Americans who live in the suburbs and own businesses in Bridgeport and Chinatown, such as law firms, real-estate companies, medical clinics, insurance companies, and so on, which target new immigrants as major clients. Mostly educated in the United States, these middle-class Chinese Americans also function as community leaders and cultural brokers between working-class immigrants and mainstream white society. In reality, there is often an exploitative relation between new Chinese immigrants and middle-class Chinese Americans due to the latter's monopoly of the ethnic market. New immigrants usually have to pay an exorbitant fee to get the service they need due to their inability to speak the English language and their unfamiliarity with the American system. It is not uncommon that certain ethnic businesses shield information from new immigrants in order to maximize profits. There is actually a vicious circle within the immigrant community: the more money new immigrants pay to ethnic brokers, the harder and longer they have to work in the lowest tier of the American economy. In this sense, some middle-class Chinese Americans virtually help in perpetuating and reproducing the cheap immigrant labor market much needed by postindustrial U.S. capital. Ironically, the economic wealth generated from new immigrants ends up facilitating middle-class Chinese Americans' differential racialization from working-class immigrants.

I first met Mr. Moy during my preliminary fieldwork in Chicago in the summer of 2003. Mr. Moy came to the United States in 1963 and got his college degree on the north side of Chicago. He speaks fluent English, Cantonese, and Mandarin. His real-estate company is one of the earliest ones that opened the Bridgeport housing market to new Chinese immigrants. As a shrewd businessman who knows the neighborhood well, Mr. Moy is very careful in his choice of words and his way of talking. When asked which part of the city is safe to live in, he replied promptly, "[T]hat's a police question. I think you should go to the police department for help." Mr. Moy then told me a story. Once a realtor's Chinese agent designed an advertisement, in which he mentioned that the place is located in a white neighborhood and is desirable in every way as a perfect residential area. Someone reported this to the police as racial discrimination. As a result, the realtor's license was suspended for six months. "It's a very sensitive topic," said Mr. Moy, "It's not even right to speak of German town, Italian town nowadays. Anything with ethnic...

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