Academic journal article Chinese America: History and Perspectives

Beyond Black and White: Race, Class, and Chinese Americans in Multiracial Chicago

Academic journal article Chinese America: History and Perspectives

Beyond Black and White: Race, Class, and Chinese Americans in Multiracial Chicago

Article excerpt

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. …

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