Race, class, model minority

Class and its Others: the model minority and the American Dream

4 minutes to read
Column
Christian Chun
27/03/2018

Class is a slippery slope, it seems. At least the way it is perceived, embodied, and practiced in the U.S., where I was born and spent most of my life. 

The American Dream

I grew up hearing and learning about the ‘American Dream’ in the 1960s. This was the narrative that anyone could pull themselves up by the bootstraps if they really wanted to ‘make it’ in America: a good job, eventually a nice house in the suburbs with two cars in the driveway, and enough money in the bank for a vacation at least once a year. 

As an elementary school student, I was taught several historical exemplary models who realized the American Dream, and perhaps none typified this more than the life of Abraham Lincoln, the 16th President of the U.S. during the American Civil War, 1861-1865. Born in a one-room log cabin with the Bible as the only book in the house, Lincoln learned how to read largely on his own, taught himself law, and worked his way up the social ladder with a number of jobs before eventually running for political office, culminating in his Presidency.

The lesson was clear to many of us back then in school. Those who made it like President Lincoln had done so by grit and hard work. The implication of course was that those who had not made it in society simply did not work hard enough because they did not want to succeed badly enough. As a kid, the exhortation ‘get a job!’ was something I heard people tell others all the time on the streets of New York City. In those days, there seemed to be no excuse not to be able to make it in American society, for who had it worse than growing up in a one-room log cabin?

Race and Class

In his recent book, Class, race, and Marxism, David Roediger argued against the notion maintained by some Marxists such as David Harvey that race lies outside the logic of capital. Instead, Roediger has pointed out from numerous historical examples and his own research that race has indeed functioned as an integral main component of how capitalism has developed in the U.S. Perhaps my own family’s history is an apt illustration of this racial dynamic as it helps organize how capitalism maintains class-based social differentials.

In the 1930s, my father arrived in the U.S. as an eight year-old with only his father, leaving his mother and five sisters behind in China, as the immigration laws in the U.S. then prohibited married men from China bringing their spouses unless they had a certain amount of money. The government clearly wanted the surplus labor power of Chinese males, minus their sexually reproductive power. Because of this mandated law, my father was not to see his mother and sisters again for another 32 years. 

Within a few years, his father passed away from tuberculosis, which has been linked to conditions of poverty; namely malnutrition and living in overcrowded slums and ghettos. Dad was left on his own as a 12 year-old in New York City, and with a mountain of gambling debt incurred by his father. Even though he was a mere child, the local ‘wiseguys’ as they were known back then, came to collect their money from Dad. He had to start working in one of the few workplaces available to Chinese immigrants in the 1930s: a laundry store. He worked every day after school and on the weekends to pay off his father’s gambling debts and it took him over five years to do so.

So yes, my father achieved the ‘American Dream’, but only because society allocated that particular classed and racialized social space to him.

After my father finished his service in the U.S. Army, he held a number of jobs including tending bar in a Chinese restaurant on Long Island for many years. Eventually, he left that job and along with a few of his co-workers who became close friends, they opened up a Chinese restaurant of their own in 1968, which was named the China Sunn. Located in Bayshore, Long Island, New York, it soon became a popular spot with people coming from miles away to eat what was thought then to be ‘authentic’ Chinese food. Customers included several celebrities such as the actors Marlon Brando and Telly Savalas, and the author of “The Godfather”, Mario Puzo, who gave my father an autographed copy of the book. 

Needless to say, my father finally prospered and did in fact achieve the American Dream by buying the house in the suburbs with the two cars (albeit one was over ten years old) in the driveway. And he made sure to put me to work when I turned 14 years-old by giving me a job in his own restaurant, where I worked summers during high school as a busboy and bringing the takeout food from the kitchen to the front cash register at the bar.

The model minority 

My father worked his ass off, 12 hours a day, 6 days a week with only a week’s vacation once a year, and was able to provide for me and my sisters. This is something I heard growing up as well – he made it because he worked for it. And yet, as I got older, I saw firsthand many, many people working hard but never getting anywhere. In an alternate reality, had my father been Black, would he have been as successful given his same circumstances as a youth with no parents and needing to pay off gambling debts? Doubtful. 

Why? If my father’s restaurant was a soul food place instead, would the same celebrities and customers have frequented it to the same extent they did with the China Sunn restaurant? Most likely not. First, soul food restaurants were only ‘permitted’ in Black neighborhoods, which White people usually don’t go to. And, so-called ‘Chinese’ food then was seen as ‘exotic’ in the 1950s to the 1970s, so Whites flocked to such places to show their ‘sophistication’. There was, and is no similar dynamic with soul food places. 

So yes, my father achieved the ‘American Dream’, but only because society allocated that particular classed and racialized social space to people like him back then, which allowed him to prosper. In turn, because of this space, the offspring like myself had the financial resources to go on to university and 'get that job'. Thus, the so-called ‘model minority’ was conveniently constructed through these very classed and racialized spatial practices.

References

Roediger, D. R. (2017). Class, race, and Marxism. London: Verso.