Why Hard Work Is Not Enough to Succeed in America
Updated: Jan 17
[BLOCKED] Mandarin version/中文翻译 on WeChat
Growing up in a New Jersey suburb with a large Chinese American population, I was always taught that there is one key to success in America: hard work. The Chinese immigrants in my community were proof positive that the American Dream was real and that with hard work you could get anywhere. Many of them, including my parents, had come to the US with almost nothing. They struggled through graduate programs on scholarships or TA-ships or odd jobs, started from the bottom rungs of corporate ladders, furnished their own clinics and advertised their own private practices. With hard work, they graduated, received promotions, and amassed clients and patients. They told me these stories so I would remember how lucky I was to be growing up in a beautiful town with everything I could possibly want, and so I would remember that I, too, had a duty to work hard and carry their success forward.
These stories contained an unspoken threat: that those who didn’t work hard—those who were lazy—would not succeed in America. The homeless people bundled in layers of winter coats begging passersby for spare change in New York, the panhandlers wandering between lines of cars stalled in traffic on the George Washington Bridge, and the malingerers sitting on the stoops of run-down apartments in Newark lived in such dire straits because, so I was told, they had failed. They hadn’t worked hard enough to get a good education or good jobs or good housing. It was sad, yes, that their lives had turned out so badly, but they only had themselves to blame. Luckily, I didn’t have to end up like them if I didn’t want to. As long as I put in the work, I would succeed—just like my parents, and my friends’ parents, and my pediatrician, and the Chinese school teachers who taught us how to read and write and dance and draw.
I still believe the Chinese immigrants in my community worked incredibly hard to build the lives that they and their families have today. I am no less grateful to or in awe of my parents for surmounting inconceivable obstacles in the process of making a life for our family in America. And I certainly don’t know if I would have the courage or the determination to learn a different language and move to a different country with almost no money or family or support network, all to ensure that my future children would grow up with boundless opportunity. At the same time, I no longer believe that hard work is the only thing you need to succeed in America. In this essay, I want to explore why that is, and why it is so dangerous for the Chinese immigrant community to continue to believe in American meritocracy:
First, because, as college admissions demonstrate, America is far from meritocratic; second, because systemic racism affects much more than our college prospects; and third, and most importantly, because the forces that sustain systemic racism don’t just hurt Black Americans—they hurt Chinese Americans too, and as long as we remain unconscious of those forces, we remain complicit in our own subjugation.
Affirmative Action & the Myth of Meritocracy
College admissions offer a useful crucible through which to examine meritocracy in the US. As the Students for Fair Admissions case against Harvard has well publicized, Harvard—like many other elite universities—admits fewer Asian American applicants than applicants of other races, even though rejected Asian American applicants may have comparable, or even higher, grades and scores than admitted non–Asian American applicants. To many Chinese immigrants I know, this seems drastically unfair. Their children worked so hard in school. Their children earned perfect grades and excellent SATs without outside help, without leniency, without cheating. So aren’t they therefore deserving of admission—even more deserving of admission than other students?
Those who believe this to be true protest the students’ rejection as evidence of racial discrimination in college admissions against Asian Americans. Were America truly equal—truly meritocratic—students would be accepted or rejected on the basis of their demonstrated capabilities alone.
They’re not wrong: America isn’t meritocratic. In fact, college admissions typify both poles of the failure of meritocracy. The problem is that advocates for so-called “fair” admissions lump both positions together, rather than observing how they serve opposing interests. By examining them individually, we can see how these interests epitomize one of the central injustices in American society.
Consider two groups that, by the metric of score, are “unfairly” admitted at higher frequencies than Asian American students: legacy students and Black students. Legacy students, who are admitted to Harvard at over five times the overall acceptance rate, are predominantly white. A study conducted by the economists Peter Arcidiacono, John Kinsler, and Tyler Ransom, two of whom worked with Students for Fair Admissions, found that in the six admissions cycles between 2014 and 2019, forty-three percent of white students admitted to Harvard were legacies, recruited athletes, children of faculty or staff, or students on the Dean’s Interest List, compared to only sixteen percent of Asian American, African American, and Hispanic admits combined.
This should come as no surprise. Harvard and other elite universities have long been overwhelmingly white, so of course the students who benefit most from legacy admissions are overwhelmingly white as well. The Harvard class of 2020, who entered their first year of college in 2016, was the first since Harvard was founded in 1636 to be “majority minority,” which is to say that 48.6 percent—just barely under half—of the class still comprised white students. In fact, according to the sociologist Jerome Karabel, Harvard, Yale, and Princeton incorporated legacy considerations into their admissions policies during the early twentieth century in order to exclude Jewish students and ensure their student bodies would remain predominantly white. Legacy admissions, in other words, exemplify an effort by predominantly white institutions to preserve their own power at the expense of non-white students.
Furthermore, legacy admissions aid students who already have a significant lead on their peers: they have one or more relatives who not only attended and completed a college degree, but attended and completed a college degree at one of the most prestigious institutions in the US. Multiple studies have shown that students who have at least one parent with a degree are more likely to take challenging courses in high school and attend and graduate from college. Legacy admissions therefore compound and boost a cluster of preexisting advantages—all in order to affirm and cement the presence and power of white people in elite universities.
What about Black students? If legacy admissions represent an attempt to safeguard privilege, then affirmative action represents an attempt to account for a lack thereof. From preschool—at the ages of three or four—Black children are subject to harsher punishment from their teachers. A 2014 study by the US Department of Education found that “Black children represent eighteen percent of preschool enrollment, but forty-eight percent of preschool children receiving more than one out-of-school suspension; in comparison, white students represent forty-three percent of preschool enrollment but twenty-six percent of preschool children receiving more than one out of school suspension” (emphasis mine). These trends continue as students get older. Though Black students make up only sixteen percent of student enrollment, they comprise thirty-one percent of student arrests, and they are suspended and expelled three times more frequently than white students.
Why? The reason isn’t that Black students are more deserving of arrest, suspension, expulsion, or disciplinary action; rather, it’s because they are regularly perceived to be older and less innocent than white students of the same age from as early as ten. Teachers, guidance counselors, and other school officials consequently punish them more. Multiple studies have found that Black students tend not to be encouraged to take advanced classes or participate in extracurricular activities, that they are pushed into vocational programs instead of towards universities and professional careers, and that they frequently feel invalidated by their high school teachers and guidance counselors. And these disadvantages are generational: while legacy students enjoy the expertise and confidence of Ivy League–educated parents and relatives throughout their educational careers, many Black undergraduates are among the first in their families to attend college. According to a 2008 study by the National Center for Education Statistics, only seventeen percent of Black students between the ages of six and eighteen had mothers who held a bachelor’s degree or higher, compared to thirty-six percent of white students. Likewise, a 2017 report from the US Department of Education found that Black undergraduates made up fourteen percent of all first-generation students—whose parents hold a high school diploma or less—but only eleven percent of continuing generation students. (White students made up forty-nine percent of first-generation students and seventy percent of continuing generation students; Asian American students made up five and six percent, respectively.)
I attended public schools in my New Jersey suburb from kindergarten to twelfth grade. I enjoyed elementary and middle school and adored my teachers, who regularly encouraged me to challenge myself and gushed to my parents about how sweet and obedient I was in class. In high school, whenever it was time to pick the next year’s classes, no one batted an eye when I selected multiple Honors or Advanced Placement courses. And when I applied to college, no one raised an eyebrow when I decided I was interested in Yale. Though my parents had attended college in China and didn’t know much about the US application process, I could always count on my dad to make up extra physics problems for me to solve before a test or to explain a calculus problem I didn’t understand. Everyone around me not only believed in my ability to succeed; they expected me to succeed, and they treated me accordingly.
As lucky as I have been, school was in no way easy. But I cannot imagine how much harder it would have been—how much more insurmountable the goal of getting into a good college would have appeared—if my parents hadn’t been able to help me, if my teachers had refused to support me, if my guidance counselor had constantly been looking for reasons to report me for misconduct.
Affirmative action seeks to account for the fact that Black (and Latinx) students have to do much more than their homework in order to get accepted to college: they have to fight against forces of doubt, suspicion, and scorn coming from the very people who are supposed to be helping them learn. In other words, Black students already have to work harder than, and in very different ways from, white or Asian American students just to become viable candidates for admission to an elite university. Affirmative action therefore acts in direct opposition to the forces that keep white people in positions of power, such as legacy admissions. In fact, the economist Dennis Weisman has suggested that “legacy policies may exist in a kind of equilibrium with race-conscious admissions policies”—according to a model he constructed with his colleague Dong Li, the influence of legacy preferences could grow should admissions policies that account for race be axed. In a way, this makes sense: if affirmative action helps non-white people get into schools that have always been overwhelmingly white, then white people need a comparable method to defend their claim to power.
So yes, the existence of affirmative action, as well as the existence of legacy admissions, affirms the failure of a meritocratic college admissions policy. But to group legacy students and the beneficiaries of affirmative action together is to enact a logical fallacy. Whereas policies that privilege legacy status aim to boost established advantages and protect the places of white people in elite institutions, affirmative action policies aim to make up for established disadvantages and elevate the places of non-white people traditionally excluded from elite institutions.
All that said, it may still seem unfair that Asian Americans are caught in the crossfire. After all, aren’t Asian Americans non-white people traditionally excluded from elite institutions too? Yes.
But is the solution to erase the existing college admissions system and impose a score-based—and therefore apparently “meritocratic”—admissions system in its place?
Is such a system really fair when, as we have just discussed, Black (and Latinx) students are subject to forces far beyond their control in their efforts to succeed?
Isn’t beginning on an even playing field a necessary precondition for meritocracy? Isn’t demanding meritocracy without an even playing field really just cheating?
Wouldn’t a better solution, then, be to ensure that all students start out with the same opportunities—so that hard work is a genuinely meaningful measure of, and path to, success?
In fact, the story I have just told about Black students’ experiences in the US school system is an incomplete one. Black students—and Black people living in America generally—are subject to a staggering array of forces that make their lives not only more difficult but more dangerous. Taken together, these forces are termed “systemic racism.” The most important aspect of systemic racism to understand is that it is at work even when no single person seems to be acting in a racist way. Rather, systemic racism is baked into the infrastructure of American society. It affects every level of existence. It improves the lives of some people at the expense of the lives of many others, and Chinese Americans sit on both sides of the equation. It is therefore crucial that, as people living in America—recent immigrants or not, citizens or not—we recognize how and where systemic racism exerts its influence over our lives and our beliefs.
It would be impossible for me to provide an exhaustive catalogue of the invisible ways in which systemic racism works in America: such a catalogue would be many books in length. Instead, I’d like to highlight just a few of those ways in order to suggest how extensive, debilitating, and unjust systemic racism is and how important it is that we both remain aware and, when we can, fight to dismantle it.
Let’s start with employment. As my parents have reminded me all my life, a stable, well-paying job is foundational to safety and happiness. You need a regular paycheck to afford food and housing, to save up for retirement, and to pay for your children’s upbringing. If you manage your money well, you might one day be able to afford a bigger house in a better neighborhood, which means you’ll have access to better municipal facilities and your children will be able to attend a better public school, priming them for greater higher educational opportunities and enabling them to begin their lives with greater flexibility and financial stability. Your children will thus be in a position to climb even higher than you—with bigger houses, private schools for your grandchildren, and the capacity to financially support you in your old age. A solid job is a crucial spoke on the wheel of social mobility.
Getting such a job, however, is significantly more difficult for Black Americans than it is for Americans of other races. A 2013 Pew Research Center study found that Black Americans have experienced double the rate of unemployment of white Americans over the past sixty years—no matter the state of the economy—meaning that generations of Black Americans have been affected by economic subjugation. A 2019 study published by the Economic Policy Institute corroborated the results. Education helps somewhat to close the gap: while Black Americans with a high school degree see an 8.2 percent rate of unemployment, compared to white non-Hispanic rates of 3.8 percent, a college degree decreases these rates to 3.5 percent and 2.2 percent, respectively, and an advanced degree to 2.1 percent and 1.9 percent. Even so, “black workers with a college or advanced degree are more likely than their white counterparts to be underemployed when it comes to their skill level—almost forty percent are in a job that typically does not require a college degree, compared with thirty-one percent of white college grads.”
Discriminatory hiring practices may have a hand in these disparities. In a 2003 National Bureau of Economic Research field experiment, researchers responded to help-wanted ads in Boston and Chicago newspapers with fictitious resumes assigned either “a very African American sounding name or a very White sounding name.” They found that applications with “White sounding names” received fifty percent more callbacks, even when the resumes were identical, even when employers marked themselves as “Equal Opportunity Employers.” The disparity exists even if resumes are improved. Although a higher quality resume with an additional year of experience, foreign language skills, and a certification degree elicits a thirty percent increase in callbacks for White names, it does not produce a statistically significant increase in callbacks for African American names—meaning that “the gap between White [sic] and African-Americans widens with resume quality. . . .Discrimination therefore appears to bite twice, making it harder not only for African Americans to find a job but also to improve their employability.” In other words, for Black people, acquiring the right degrees, work experiences, and skills is no guarantee for employment, much less employment that takes proper advantage of those degrees, experiences, and skills.
As you might imagine, the consequences of such long-term employment discrimination are devastating. Underemployment and unemployment make it difficult for Black Americans to amass savings at the same rate as other Americans. Low or no savings likewise make even small improvements in material quality of life difficult and prevent Black Americans from leaving financially meaningful assets (like inheritances—which are lightly taxed compared to income—and property) to their heirs, thereby trapping them in generational cycles of poverty.
The distribution of household wealth in the US—the total resources available to a household at a point in time, which includes income as well as savings and inheritances—serves as a useful measure of the compounded effects of these realities. According to a report by the nonpartisan Brookings Institute, the net worth of a typical white family in 2016 was $171,000—nearly ten times greater than the net worth of a typical Black family, $17,150. Disaggregating the data by age, the report finds that although “the typical young adult (18–34 years old) of either race has little wealth,” the wealth gap swells dramatically as people get older and, presumably, accumulate (or struggle to accumulate) earnings and assets: white people in the 65–74 age group could expect a median wealth of $302,500, whereas Black people in the same group could expect only $46,890. Disaggregating the data by income percentile, the report finds that the wealth gap exists “in every income group except the bottom quintile” (in which both white and Black households have a median net worth of zero). In fact, the gap expands as you climb the brackets—the median net worth of the top ten percent of Black families in 2016, $343,160, was only a fifth of the median net worth of the top ten percent of white families, $1,789,300.
The racial wealth gap has always existed. But these figures also reflect the toll of the 2008 subprime mortgage crisis, which widened the gap by hitting Black households harder than it hit white households. Between 2007 and 2013, Black families saw their median net worth decline by 44.3 percent, as opposed to the median decline of 26.1 percent experienced by white families. Why? One reason may be because Black people are disproportionately targeted by predatory lending practices.
This point requires a bit of historical backstory. As a Department of Housing and Urban Development study confirmed in 2004, homeownership has long offered a relatively secure route to wealth accumulation for low-income families in the US; indeed, housing equity may be a low-income family’s main or even only source of wealth. In 1934, in the thick of the Great Depression, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the National Housing Act in an attempt to bolster the housing industry and improve the economy by helping more Americans become homeowners. The act created the Federal Housing Administration (FHA), an agency within the Department of Housing and Urban Development that was meant to “insure home mortgage loans made by banks and other private lenders, thereby encouraging them to make more loans to prospective home buyers”:
Prior to the FHA, balloon mortgages (home loans with large payments due at the end of the loan period) were the norm, and prospective home buyers were required to put down 30 to 50 percent of the cost of a house in order to secure a loan. However, FHA-secured loans introduced the low-down-payment home mortgage, which reduced the amount of money needed up front to as low as 10 percent. The agency also extended the repayment period of home mortgages from 5–10 years to 20–30 years. The resulting reductions in monthly mortgage payments helped to prevent foreclosures, often made buying a home cheaper than renting, and allowed families with stable but modest incomes to qualify for a home mortgage. In addition, because government-backed loans involved less risk for lenders, interest rates on mortgages went down.
Rather than benefiting all Americans, however, these policies codified racial segregation with the express aim of [“[containing]. . . African Americans in designated residential neighborhoods as part of a broader effort to establish stable, homogenous communities of white homeowners.”](http://www.jstor.com/stable/20108708) To help financial institutions decide where to invest, the FHA developed a property valuation system. Neighborhoods were assigned a grade from “A” (most desirable) to “D” (definite rejection) on the basis of residential demographics. Those that received a “D” contained larger numbers of “relief families,” “foreign-born” people (including Chinese and other immigrants), and “Negroes.” In many cities, Chinatowns were among those neighborhoods that received “D” grades. The FHA refused to insure mortgages in and near these neighborhoods, thus tacitly dissuading banks and other lending organizations from investing in them. At the same time, the agency subsidized the construction of subdivisions intended exclusively for white families on the condition that “occupancy of properties except by the race for which they are intended” was prohibited, believing that if Black or other non-white people purchased homes in these areas, property values throughout the rest of the subdivision would fall.
To be clear, none of these assumptions was backed by statistical evidence. The FHA designated neighborhoods with large numbers of Black and non-white residents as high-risk investments not on the basis of empirical proof that Black and non-white people were more likely to default on their mortgages or damage nearby property values, but exclusively through the construction of “blackness into a unique financial class” whose potential integration into white society was itself constitutive of risk and instability. As the lawyer John Kimble explained in a 2007 essay, the conflation of race and risk “allowed the FHA to steer the current of credit, vital for the health and growth of any community, exclusively into middle- and upper-class white neighborhoods. It also ensured that integrated neighborhoods and neighborhoods of color would have virtually no access to mainstream sources of financial capital and the attendant benefits such resources could produce.” These policies—known as “redlining”—denied Black and other non-white people access to loans for homeownership, home maintenance, and mortgage refinancing, thereby promoting urban disinvestment, driving out grocery stores, restaurants, and other businesses, and causing local property values to drop.
The Fair Housing Act of 1968 made race-based lending practices illegal. But many analysts today agree that the US has yet to account for the enormous costs of redlining, which the real estate brokerage Redfin has tallied amounts to a loss of over $212,000 in the personal wealth of redlined residents based on comparative property value increases in “greenlighted,” or higher-graded, neighborhoods alone. And no calculation can quantify the opportunities robbed of children growing up in once-redlined areas. Since public schools derive most of their funding from property taxes, falling property values have consistently siphoned funding away from predominantly Black districts, further compounding the educational difficulties I outlined earlier in this essay.
Most importantly, race-based lending in America never disappeared: it simply evolved. Here we return to the 2008 financial crisis. The political economist Jackie Wang argues that in the years prior, lending institutions began billing expanded access to credit as a “‘market solution” to the racial wealth gap. Beginning in 1989, banks and private lenders used FICO credit scores to determine the types of loans you were eligible to receive: the lower your credit score, the riskier your loan. Because FICO does not factor race, gender, religion, marital status, or other kinds of potentially discriminatory demographic information into its score calculations, creditworthiness has been heralded as a fair and objective way to measure the risk you pose to a bank for its investment in your future. Much like race-blind “meritocratic” college admissions, however, these calculations fail to account for the consequences of systemic racism. A 2020 study found that even “never-incarcerated blacks, despite having more assets and less debt, have average FICO credit scores that are similar to whites who have ever been incarcerated.” As Wang puts it, “Having a bad credit score is seen as a moral failing rather than merely an index of structural inequality.” The use of credit to assess loan suitability thus enables lending institutions to saddle already-struggling Black people with greater amounts of risk and debt under the guise of objectivity and equal opportunity. Bad credit, in other words, marks a holder as deserving of future expropriation (dispossession), rather than one who has already been victimized and expropriated in the past.
In the years leading up to the 2008 crisis, banks and private lenders disproportionately offered Black and other minority borrowers subprime loans in the form of risk-adjusted mortgage rate pricing. Wang notes that these mortgages “were designed such that they would almost inevitably fail”: with “free-floating interest rates that would balloon as soon as the ‘hook’ rate expired,” lenders could be guaranteed large returns on their investments and the eventual foreclosure and dispossession of the properties borrowers were attempting to purchase, a boon since the housing market was growing at such a rapid pace that properties were guaranteed to resell for higher values. Since borrowers with bad credit had previously been denied access to housing loans, mortgages were still considered a historically safe investment—hence why investors continued to buy up mortgage-backed securities (MBSs) and collateralized debt obligations (CDOs) as the housing market bubble grew. But because “the mortgages that formed the foundation of this financial meta-structure were designed to maximize revenue by tracking so-called ‘risky’ borrowers” into subprime loans, the entire structure collapsed as these borrowers began to default.
Pundits and economists blamed Black and other non-white people for their failure to pay back loans that gouged them of tens of thousands of dollars more in interest payments than conventional loans would have, rather than recognizing that these borrowers’ “risky” status was the measure lending institutions used to target them precisely in anticipation of their inability to pay. Meanwhile, these borrowers bore the brunt of the economic damage inflicted by the crisis while lending institutions enjoyed mass bailouts from the federal government. The tautological nature of the interaction between media narrative and material reality fueled the cycle of socioeconomic entrapment while enforcing widespread perceptions of Black people as lazy, financially inept, and irresponsible, priming them for further predation and dispossession. In this way, systemic racism not only governs the substantive circumstances of our lives—it seeps into our thoughts and dictates our prejudices.
I will stop here, though systemic racism affects many, many more sectors of society in the US than I have described, from health care to policing to incarceration. Nevertheless, I hope this brief portrait suggests just how multilayered and entrenched systemic racism is, and how many compounding factors are at work in the oppression of Black people. Each example I have given feeds into every other: redlining affects education, which affects employment, which affects wealth, which affects homeownership, which affects credit, which affects employment and education and wealth and homeownership in turn again. The point here is not that individual Black people have not surmounted these difficulties—as people across the political spectrum like to point out, a Black man did become president in 2008—but rather that the US is not the land of opportunity it bills itself to be; nor is the only condition of social mobility hard work. As Stokely Carmichael (also known as Kwame Ture) and Charles V. Hamilton wrote in Black Power as early as 1967:
In the face of such realities, it becomes ludicrous to condemn black people for “not showing more initiative.” Black people are not in a depressed condition because of some defect in their character. The colonial power structure clamped a boot of oppression on the neck of the black people and then, ironically, said “they are not ready for freedom.” Left solely to the good will of the oppressor, the oppressed will never be ready.
At the Intersection of Labor & Capital
There are two remaining questions I would like to address in brief. First: why, in the first place, does systemic racism exist? And second: what does all this have to do with the Chinese immigrant community? I touch on these points in order to explore why antiblack beliefs are harmful not only to Black people but to Asian Americans as well.
The short answer to these questions is that racist ideology ebbs and flows in conjunction with economic and political circumstance. That is, racist beliefs proliferate when they serve incentive structures that depend on the marginalization of certain groups of people. Racist beliefs can dwindle for similar reasons: when their diminishment (or mutation, rather) better serves certain incentive structures than their reinforcement. As the historical transformation of attitudes towards Chinese immigrants—including the recent spate of COVID-related attacks on Chinese and other East Asian people in the US—has demonstrated, movement in neither direction represents an eradication of racism. The objective of anti-racist practice should therefore be to eradicate racism, not to produce or submit to incentive structures that lead to its temporary diminishment without affecting its potential for return.
Over the course of American history, one incentive structure both antiblack and anti-Chinese racism have been co-opted to serve in different ways is capitalism. (I borrow here from arguments made by, among many others, political economist Jackie Wang, the literary scholar Iyko Day, the prison abolitionist Angela Y. Davis, and the historian Andrew B. Liu—in, ironically, an essay critiquing pieces addressed to previous generations of Chinese immigrants such as this one). Scholars disagree whether racism preceded capitalism or vice versa, but for our purposes the distinction is unimportant. The point is that racist ideology helps to maintain the existence of two classes of people necessary for capitalism to continue to function and expand: a class to be exploited as labor, and a class to be expropriated to facilitate growth.
Let us consider antiblackness first. Black people in the US have faced both exploitation and expropriation, beginning with their enslavement in the colonial era. The purpose of slavery, as the historian Barbara Fields has argued, was not “to produce white supremacy,” but “to produce cotton or sugar or rice or tobacco”: enslavement created a class of people who, dispossessed of freedom, property, and rights, were forced to provide the labor necessary to get colonial economic enterprises such as cash crop agriculture off the ground. Even better, because slave labor was unpaid and lifelong, white planters could realize far greater profits than they could with a waged or temporary workforce comprising, say, indentured servants. Racist beliefs that Africans were “naturally” or “biologically” inferior and deserved to be enslaved because they were incapable of surviving otherwise helped to narratively reinforce enslaved Africans’ lived status as a dispossessed labor class. Racist beliefs also soothed the cognitive dissonance between, on the one hand, burgeoning philosophies of social equality and the boundless opportunity of the free market, and, on the other, the necessarily unequal distinction between labor and capital.
The abolition of slavery under the Thirteenth Amendment in 1865 created several problems for the capitalist class. Planters lost their main source of labor, and freedmen became a potential source of competition for land ownership. Luckily for the capitalist class, the Thirteenth Amendment hadn’t imposed a universal ban on slavery: it remained permissible “as a punishment for crime whereof the party have been duly convicted.” Former slave states began to replace Slave Codes with Black Codes criminalizing everything from drunkenness to “careless” handling of money. Once overwhelmingly white, prison populations now became overwhelmingly Black, and many states developed convict lease systems that forced prisoners to labor for free—reinstituting a schema of unpaid labor that helped the South industrialize while reducing competition for land and resources. At the same time, Blackness became associated with criminality to such a degree that white people sometimes painted themselves black before breaking the law. This association comprised (and, in fact, continues to comprise) the circular logic that both explained the increasing numbers of convicted and incarcerated Black people and helped those numbers multiply.
I will not gloss the entirety of American history in this way, but I hope these two drastically simplified summaries offer an inkling of insight into how antiblackness serves the needs of capital by reifying Black people’s status as a labor class and generating the rationale for their continued expropriation. Without a subjugated class, US capitalism would no longer be able to function or to grow. It is therefore in the interests of capitalists and corporations, whether they realize it or not, to restrict the material opportunities available to Black people; antiblack rhetoric is a crucial component of this crusade. We can see these same associations at work in modern-day iterations of systemic antiblack racism. Take the example of predatory loan policies I provided in the previous section. What purpose does a population of indebted people serve? Not only does debt beget debt under our current credit system; it also prevents people from amassing the capital to move into better neighborhoods, send their kids to better schools, or acquire the skills to get better jobs. An indebted population, in other words, forms a class from which labor and assets can be extracted ad infinitum, thereby fueling (in this particular case) the growth of financial capital—the virtual realm into which capitalists have poured their greatest expansionary efforts of late.
Chinese immigrants have occupied related but different positions vis-à-vis US capitalism, with the crucial distinction that anti-Chinese racism has mutated over time in reaction to foreign policy objectives and transnational tensions as well as strictly domestic conditions. As Iyko Day has observed, Asian Americans have been racialized in their (our) capacity as both labor and scapegoat: when the perceived threat they or their home countries pose exceeds their usefulness as laborers, their entry can be restricted and their immutable foreignness foregrounded and weaponized against even those who have become legal citizens. The point here is not that Asian Americans should therefore seek to shed their foreignness by ingratiating themselves with people in power. Rather, Asian Americans are widely read as foreign because their otherness better serves the interests of capital than their potential assimilation. These positions remain immiscible no matter the number of individual Asian Americans who manage to gain wealth, fame, or success.
Consider the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 as one early, and prominent, example of this phenomenon. Chinese laborers began to trickle into the US beginning in the 1830s as the structure of legal slavery started to deteriorate. Many settled on the West Coast, especially during the California Gold Rush of 1848, and took on jobs white laborers disdained, such as farming, cooking, and constructing the Central Pacific Railroad, often working for lower wages and in worse conditions than white laborers would accept. At first, their willingness to fill these niches was welcomed; some even wondered whether Chinese laborers could replace enslaved Africans on US plantations as they had done in Cuba. But as the Gold Rush petered out and the country faced a series of economic downturns in 1873 and 1877, public sentiment shifted. White laborers accused Chinese laborers of “conspiring” with white capitalists to take away their jobs and their wages. When Congress passed the Exclusion Act banning further immigration of Chinese laborers and prohibiting their naturalization as citizens, it was in explicit endorsement of these concerns.
Before we move on I would like to highlight a few contradictions in the logic of this narrative that, I think, usefully reveal the contours of anti-Chinese racism. First, white laborers chose to conflate Chinese laborers—who were often poorer than they were—with the white capitalist class, rather than to recognize their shared status as laborers. Second, to appease the demands of white laborers, who were effectively railing against both Chinese laborers and white capitalists, the US government punished the Chinese. Marked as irredeemably foreign and therefore “inassimilable, inferior, and immoral,” Chinese immigrants took the fall so that the economic structure of capitalism could remain intact.
Of course, Chinese Americans have not always been subjected to the degree of violence or xenophobia those early waves of laborers faced. But even the apparent integration of Chinese immigrants into the upper echelons of American society has happened in concert with broader economic and political objectives. The historian Madeline Y. Hsu has argued that Cold War geopolitics helped incentivize friendlier domestic attitudes towards Chinese immigrants. Such attitudes first took hold after the Communist victory in the Chinese Civil War stranded approximately five thousand “highly skilled, well-connected” students, technical trainees, diplomats, and military personnel in the US, where they had been sent for further education in 1942. Hsu writes that “a surge of sympathy, but also pragmatic concerns about letting such useful individuals fall into enemy [i.e., Communist] hands, led Congress to allocate a total of about ten million dollars to help the Chinese intellectuals and students complete their studies, many to the level of PhD degrees, and then move relatively smoothly into white-collar or professional employment and suburban homes” (emphasis mine). Using stopgap refugee admissions policies, the US let in a stream of Chinese intellectuals throughout the 1950s and 1960s, prioritizing “those able to contribute economically, in complete family units, thereby facilitating their integration into the American middle classes”:
In pointed contrast to the segregationist practices of the Exclusion Era, Chinese Cold War refugees were to demonstrate that America did not discriminate racially by acquiring suburban homes, middle-class and professional employment, and citizenship in the US. By becoming Americans, they illustrated both US benevolence in East Asia and its functioning multiracial democracy, all while easing conservative fears that lifting racial bars on immigration would upend domestic racial hierarchies. The success of their “disappearance” [into the American middle class] helped set the stage for the liberalized terms of the 1965 Immigration Act.
In other words, Chinese immigrants (or more accurately in this period, refugees) found upward mobility and welcome in midcentury America because their integration was both economically useful (as highly educated and highly skilled professionals, rather than the working-class laborers of the nineteenth century) and politically expedient (as a demonstration of US capitalist and liberal democratic superiority over China and other Communist countries). The press, in turn, mobilized these refugees’ apparently self-directed, self-made success to further emphasize the inferiority of Black people: deeming Asian Americans a “model minority,” numerous articles used Chinese professionals’ socioeconomic progress as evidence that any racial minority could make it in the US as long as they worked hard enough. Black Americans’ lack of mobility was therefore no one’s fault but their own.
We’ve returned to the starting point of this essay, but I hope it is now clear why narratives that emphasize the equality of opportunity in America are patently false, and why calls for meritocracy in America as we know it are not only ill-conceived but rooted in injustice. Again, I am not trying to claim that individual Chinese immigrants did not work hard or did not deserve their success, or that, as individuals, we should not or do not need to continue to work hard or strive for success. I merely wish to demonstrate that the upward mobility of these mid century Chinese immigrants was facilitated by political and economic incentives outside of their control as well as their own courage, discipline, and resolve. Since the passage of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, these incentives have continued to change with respect to developments in the domestic and world economies and in US–China relations and, in turn, have continued to affect the way Chinese immigrants are treated in the US today. For this same reason, Chinese immigrants’ success can also be taken away when it becomes politically and/or economically advantageous to do so. In fact, we are, right now, experiencing precisely such a rollback of rights. Consider the attacks individual Chinese and other East Asian Americans have experienced throughout the coronavirus pandemic. Consider Donald Trump’s insistence that the coronavirus is a “Chinese virus,” or the fact that his advisors have repeatedly instructed him to deflect responsibility for the incredible US infection rate and death toll by blaming China for failing to contain the spread. Consider the Chinese graduate students and researchers whose visas the federal government began to cancel, the many, many Chinese international students who would not have been allowed to complete their degrees because their universities moved teaching online in the fall, or the numerous Chinese scientists who are being accused of stealing data or research for the Chinese government.
These incidents are not isolated. They are not historically unprecedented. And most of all, they are not unrelated to efforts to claim Black lives. The same forces that profit off of the continued subjugation of Black people—the same forces that teach us that Black people are uneducated, unfeeling, and criminal—profit off the perception that Chinese immigrants are obedient, hard-working, and alien. The same forces that teach us to look down on Black people for their inability to succeed in America exploit Chinese immigrants for their silent labor. The same forces that disproportionately murder Black people alternately welcome and reject Chinese immigrants according to geopolitical and economic convenience.
Systemic racism robs us of the ability to determine the trajectories of our own lives. Its continued existence is neither accidental nor meaningless. It is a tool that has helped the people in power stay in power century after century, and for that reason it is impossible to dismiss or ignore or work around—because whether or not we choose to pay attention, whether or not we choose to care, systemic racism continues to shape our thoughts, direct our actions, and influence everything from the extent to which we are allowed to succeed and the frequency with which we die. This knowledge should horrify us, but it should also galvanize us. Because the fight against systemic racism is the fight for equal opportunity: it is the fight for justice.