Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site


Two of the most impressive individual American success stories against the background of the ferment in US society since the 1960s are those of Ieoh Ming Pei and An Wang.

The one is perhaps more easily identifiable as I. M. Pei, among the most successful and sought-after architects in the United States, the other as the computer-genius founder of Wang Laboratories at Lowell, Mass., which (according to Time magazine) "dominates the market for so-called information systems." To Time, Mr. Wang is the "guru of gizmos."

About these ads

Mr. Pei and Mr. Wang are Chinese-born Americans. Both have become giants in their respective fields in the US, enjoying acceptance and respect. Most Americans take this for granted. But the success and acceptance of these two men is remarkable if one recalls that "Orientals" were until comparatively recently among the most discriminated against of ethnic groups in the US. (Something current to set alongside this recollection is the fact that by the late 1970s Asia as a region had become the prime origin of immigrants into the US, ahead of both Latin America and Europe.)

The earliest Chinese immigrants were brought into the Western US to supply cheap "coolie labor" in the mid-1800s. But in 1882 the chinese Exclusion Act -- not repealed till 1943 -- stopped the immigration of Chinese laborers into the US altogether. As for Japanese laborers, their immigration was virtually stopped by the gentleman's agreement of 1907 between the US and Japanese governments. The forced internment of American-born Japanese during World War II is a reminder of how long prejudice lingered against them in the US as an ethnic group.

Yet less than half a century later, East Asians -- led by Chinese- and Japanese-Americans -- are making their way impressively into the US mainstream. Close to the Japanese and Chinese in speed of upward mobility are the Koreans and the Vietnamese, with Filipinos in the same top bracket.

While the Vietnamese, many of them "boat people," have not always found adjustment easy, their already detectable upward thrust is striking, given their recent arrival. Anybody doubting this needs only to look in the telephone directory in the most booming big city in the Sunbelt, Houston, to see how many listings there are under the name "Tran" -- roughly the Vietnamese equivalent of "Smith."

Barry Chiswick, professor of economics at the University of Illinois at Chicago Circle, who has made a study of the economic progress of immigrants, says East Asians as a whole are following in the path of another ethnic group in American society once the victim of blanket discrimination and exclusion but which has found a way to break out (or perhaps more accurately, in) and then speedily up. This is the Jews.

Contributing to the success of all of them, he speculates, was that Jews and East Asians both originally came from societies where learning or hard work was traditionally important. The result: In today's US the speed with which Chinese , Japanese, and Jews reach the top at least in economic terms, is above average.

Professor Chiswick says there are two ways for victims to react to walls of discrimination erected against them. One is to withdraw. The other is to seek out cracks in the walls and squeeze through. It is the second course that the East Asians and Jews have followed -- with impressive success.

About these ads

Even at the turn of the century, when the going was tough, Japanese found that there was a crack they could use -- as gardeners. The Chinese used laundries and restaurants. In recent decades, the Koreans have established a commanding foothold in the fresh vegetables and fruit business. For the second step upward, the Chinese and Japanese in particular discovered that the sciences were preferable to the humanities, because the former were a field within which there was less racial discrimination and less language difficulty than within the latter.

As for Jews, Daniel Elazar and Murray Friedmann, writing on ethnic succession for the American Jewish Committee, make the point that many arrived in the US "with a highly developed mercantile tradition but discrimination denied them entry into many areas of economic life."

Consequently, the two writers continue, "Jews gravitated to occupations where they could advance on the basis of individual merit. Jewish peddlers went into small retail businesses, a few of which evolved into enormous department stores like Gimbel's and Macy's. They entered into government service and public school positions, independent businesses and professional fields of law and medicine and, most recently, into college and university teaching."

If the speed with which the Chinese, Japanese, and Jews have advanced in society has been above average, who is in the "average" category? By and large the non- Jewish, predominantly Roman Catholic Europeans. Prominent among them are the Irish (starting as manual workers), the Italians (by way of ditch-digging, railroad work, coal mines, and barbershops), the Greeks (Orthodox , not Catholic, and often starting upward with family- owned and run diners) and the Slavs (lagging behind till recently and slower to get into politics than the others).

Professor Chiswick has made some interesting findings applicable to virtually all immigrant groups. These findings show that: within 11 to 15 years, immigrants have achieved parity in earnings with the comparable native-born segment of the population; the children of immigrants earn from 5 to 10 percnet more than the children of native-born parents; and, consequently, being in the US first or longest is no guarantee of maintaining financial primacy. What this boils down to is that even today trying to fulfill the American dream persists as an incentive to the newly arrived and their immediate offspring.

From the "above average" and "average" to the "below average" in upward mobility. Who are they? Blacks and nonwhite Hispanics.

The distinction between white and nonwhite Hispanics has to be made because of the difference in the situations of Cubans -- mostly white -- on the one hand , and of Mexicans and Puerto Ricans on the other. With the latter two Spanish-speaking groups, incidentally, must be classified the even more physically distinctive and more impoverished black, French-speaking Haitians. They are struggling to come across the Caribbean to the US in ever-increasing numbers.

Most evidence points to Cubans -- apart from the residual human flotsam from the past summer's mass exodus across the Straits of Florida -- being successful in making it relatively speedily into the economic mainstream. The Cuban success stems from their starting with an advantage (other than their physical appearance) denied the majority of blacks and nonwhite Hispanics: education and therefore job opportunity.

Blacks, incidentally, did find some very narrow cracks in the wall of discrimination before the civil rights movement of the 1960s. But the cracks were in the restricted fields of sports and entertainment, which offered opportunities to only a handful.

To revert to the shared disadvantage of blacks and Hispanics (particularly Mexican-Americans, or Chicanos), Harold Fleming, president of the Potomac Institute in Washington, D.C., makes the point that they are unwittingly a burden on the American conscience. This, he explains, is because their very presence in US society is a silent reproach to other Americans: Blacks and Chicanos have been either victims or villians in US history, either as slaves or as the dispossessed in the pursuit of "manifest destiny."

Stephen Aiello, President Carter's special assistant for ethnic affairs, adds an interesting reservation. He says that white ethnics of slavery or dispossession in US history fell less guilt about them than do other whites.

With basically underprivileged nonwhite Hispanics (and Mexicans in particular) likely to overtake still basically underprivileged blacks as the biggest single minority in the US before the end of the century, the potential for social strife is self-evident. Such strife could be in either of two directions: between a coalition of the two groups and the rest of US society, perceived by them as privileged; or between blacks and Hispanics for a bigger share of whatever may be available in jobs or subventions from the rest of US society.

Lorenzo Morris, senior fellow at the Howard University Institute for the Study of Educational Policy in Washington, D.C., referring to relations between blacks and Hispanics, says the arrival of any new immigrant group makes the existing minority group in a society feel insecure. The presence of a new third group (Hispanics), when perceived, can sharpen the feelings of the second group (blacks) toward both the first group (whites) and the incoming third group.

This was seen last May in Florida, when the rest of society's preoccupation with Cuban immigrants produced a black explosion in the mainly black Liberty City section of Miami against whites and Hispanics.

Yet, Dr. Morris says, he expects economic constraints will eventually exert enough pressure to force blacks and Hispanics to get together. As the two most distinctly discriminated-against major groups in American society, they will perceive their joint interest in making common cause -- as blacks and Jews did early in the struggle for civil rights.

As for that earlier black-Jewish coalition, Irving Levine of the American Jewish Committee says the 1960s saw blacks drawing away from it -- partly because in the last resort blacks identify Jews with other whites. Mr. Levine says the 1970s saw Jews in turn drawing away from the coalition. He gives three reasons: They intensified their effort to assert Jewish identify -- alongside parallel efforts by other groups; they perceived that for Jews, Israel was and is the single issue; and they tended to concentrate on the plight of Jews in the Soviet Union.

Many Jews claim that anti-Semitism is growing not only among blacks, but across the board both inside and outside the US. Whether or not that is an accurate assessment, Dr. Morris, who is black, comments: "There are still fewer anti-Semitic blacks than there are anti-Semitic Anglo-Saxons."

Mr. Levine says tersely: "Remove Jews from the social justice game in the US -- and you have a vacuum."

Next: The obstacles for blacks and Hispanics

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.