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The American scheme

The master narrative of the American Dream must die. For too long, we’ve been fleeced by its distorting cloak.

America has long served as refuge for the “huddled masses” of immigrants, a nation committed to your piece of the economic pie as long as you hold up your end of the immigrant bargain: hard work, sacrifice and deferred gratification. Your lack of determination is the only barrier between you and upward mobility. If you follow this formula and avoid rocking the boat, then you shall achieve the coveted prize of assimilation into Americanness.

This narrative belies fundamental differences among American immigrant groups and obfuscates the debate about racial outcomes within the contemporary United States. Economic historian Masao Suzuki’s studies of INS data suggest that while 80 to 90 percent of Italian, Polish and Irish immigrants to the United States had been laborers and domestic servants between 1899 and 1914, 75 percent of Jewish immigrants during the same period were professionals, businessmen and skilled workers.

Indeed, we can witness this disparity in the historical stereotyping of the former as working-class groups. However, their common thread—notwithstanding initial differences in class and education—lies in America’s relatively quick acceptance of these immigrants into the grand construction of whiteness, a “whitening” which has over time come to be confused with the process of assimilation. Glossing over differences among European immigrants thus became an advantage, as these groups unwittingly benefited from being classified as white in America’s color hierarchy.

But what about those immigrants who lack phenotypic whiteness? Certainly these groups have suffered from the problems of American racism. Still, the selectivity of immigration plays an important role in assessing racial outcomes in the United States of today. In his 1966 New York Times Magazine essay, sociologist William Petersen constructed the stereotype of the “model minority” to describe the success story of Japanese immigrants in America, a narrative which pre-dated the influx of poorer immigrants from Southeast Asia to the United States.

According to Suzuki, Japanese immigrants in 1909 had significantly higher literacy rates than emigrants from throughout Europe. Japanese immigrants to the United States were also better educated than the general population of Japan.

Suzuki’s survey of pre-World War II emigrants shows almost two-thirds of the Japanese going to Brazil had only a primary school education and one-third had attended middle school or higher. These proportions, however, were reversed from the more highly educated immigrants to the United States, where almost two-thirds had middle school or higher levels of schooling.

It is therefore nonsensical to suggest that Japanese success in America (or East/South Asian success writ large) is the product of an inherent cultural endowment that is absent in other groups. In America, we have just received the cream of the world’s crop.

The overrepresentation of immigrant groups in institutions of higher learning is then not surprising. We take the best and brightest from there; they become the best and brightest at Duke, or elsewhere.

What uncritical stewards of the American Dream have not been careful to do is acknowledge how historical resource disparity—not cultural inclination—is the cause of this social phenomenon. As a result, non-immigrant groups like Native and African Americans suffer stigmatization.

William Darity, Jr., professor of public policy studies at Duke, agrees: “Altogether absent from the master narrative is the simple observation that voluntary immigrants inherently differ from non-immigrants by the selectivity associated with the willingness to take the risk of pulling up stakes and relocating.”

Thus, even among poor, discriminated or exiled immigrant groups, we cannot make fair comparisons between them and Native Americans or African Americans. Poor Asian, African, Caribbean and Latino immigrants can seemingly leapfrog over these two groups in the American hierarchy because they are a self-selected population, with at least the motivation to come to America. As the geographical barriers to U.S. immigration are higher for Asians and Africans, it is no wonder that they outperform Caribbeans and Latinos in educational and professional achievement. The self-selection process is more rigorous.

In my next column, I will take a closer look at how the institution of American slavery has been lost in our construction of this false master narrative. Coming to America has been entirely different for those brought in chains.

Philip Kurian is a Trinity senior. His column appears Mondays.


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