Commentary on Michael Paris’s “Radical Liberalism and School Desegregation”

Over sixty years ago, the Supreme Court, in Brown v. Board of Education (1954), determined that separating children into white and black schools was inherently unequal and that schools must integrate, “with all deliberate speed.” Despite the successes of the 1954 case, segregation based on race and class is on the rise, most especially for poor Latino students. Dr. Michael Paris, political scientist and professor of law at the College of Staten Island, presented on Thursday, October 19th at the Graduate Center, on the developments of his future book (working title), The Death and Life of School Desegregation: Racial Liberalism and American Constitutionalism. The book is based on his extensive research on the school desegregation case in Hartford, Connecticut: Sheff v. O’Neill (1996).

With the assistance of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund, the Sheff v. O’Neill case originated with 18 school aged children and their parents (black, Hispanic and white) in Hartford, Connecticut. In 1989, they filed a lawsuit against the state of Connecticut (including Governor William O’Neill), citing the state had violated students’ state constitutional positive right to an equal educational opportunity, due to racial isolation and concentrated poverty. Specifically, the case cited the state spent fewer resources on public schools with majority Black/Latino populations, compared to schools with majority White populations.

The trial took 35 trial days, with testimony from 58 witnesses and some 1,000 documents of evidence. In 1995, the judge ruled in favor of the State, stating that the plaintiffs did not provide enough evidence to show that the state helped cause school segregation.  One year later, in 1996, the Connecticut Supreme Court reversed the ruling and held that the state constitution “requires the legislature to take affirmative responsibility to remedy segregation, regardless of whether it has occurred de jure or de facto” (Paris, 2017). The court didn’t specify the particular remedies to be taken, but urged branches of state government to make de facto segregation a top priority. Due to the lack of specification, since 1996, the case has experienced five trips back to court, five consent decrees or agreements, several reform laws, approximately $2 billion in new expenditures and significant citywide school desegregation. The mechanism for desegregation has been voluntary for families and suburban districts, with the creation of inter-district magnet schools and a one-way urban to suburban transfer program. The result has been that by 2016, about 9,200 Hartford School District children or 45% total, attended desegregated schools, compared to 700 students or 3% in 1997. A desegregated school is defined as one in which the school population is 75% or less minority.

 Professor Paris’s analysis of why Hartford has been relatively successful at integrating schools where, in other cases, integration has failed so dramatically, starts with a critique of school desegregation efforts written by the legal scholar, Dr. Derrick Bell. Bell wrote his critique in 1976 in a Yale Law Journal article entitled “Serving Two Masters: Integration Ideals and Client Interests in School Desegregation Litigation.” Bell argued that these desegregation efforts were limited in several ways. The first is about the clients in cases like this, where Bell argues that these lawsuits claim to speak for the African American community as a whole, without actually establishing that the African American community shares the same goals as presented in the case. Paris believes that Sheff addressed this issue through community engagement, buy getting buy-in from the community, and having community members give vivid testimonies. Bell also believed that the focus of desegregation cases should be better education, not an ideological commitment to desegregation, per se. Sheff took this tact as well. Additionally, Bell made clear that previous desegregation efforts had been too legalistic and reliant on the courts, when the truth is that institutions and people don’t always follow the law in a way that is productive in meeting the goal of desegregation. Sheff made great efforts to have an educational and policy aspect to its work, thus avoiding the trap of relying too much on legalistic remedies. Lastly, Bell recognized the importance of focusing not on what courts say but instead what they actually do. Sheff took this into account through a framework of of moving from “needs to rights,” drawing on a previous court victory. Additionally, Paris argues that it was very important that Hartford built some excellent magnet schools in the central city, thus incentivizing suburban parents to bus their kids into the city for school.Despite the successes of the Sheff case and its attempts to uphold students’ rights to equal educational opportunities, Dr. Paris argues that schooling for students separated by race and class can never be equal. He cited the following social conditions: high rates of joblessness, crime & neighborhood violence, single parent households & family disruptions, recurrent evictions & housing relocations and frequent incidences of health problems, developmental disabilities and hunger. Additionally, schools where students are starkly separated by race and class, generally have less prepared teachers, high dropout rates, pre-packaged curriculum, high levels of student attrition, less parental involvement and fewer resources. Hence, Dr. Paris argues that housing policy is school policy. In order to achieve equal educational opportunities for all students, it is essential to re-create housing policy, the tax code for school funding and the distribution of social resources. What type of social movement is needed to achieve such legal changes? Who are the stakeholders that need to turnkey? What is the role of students and teachers in this movement? Where do we begin?

Written by: Rachel J. Chapman and Christopher Maggio

Paris, M. (2017). Racial Liberalism and School Desegregation: The Connecticut Case of Sheff v. O’Neill (1996). Presentation presented at the Advanced Research Collective, The Graduate Center, New York, NY.

Commentary on Cecelia Cutler’s “The Corpus of New York City English Outreach Project” by Kelsey Swift

While Cecelia Cutler has an impressive record of academic research and publication, her current project focuses on something a little different: community outreach.
This endeavor comes out of her work on the Corpus of New York City English (CoNYCE) Project, which focuses on collecting data on varieties of English spoken in the five boroughs and the surrounding areas and will ultimately comprise of an on-line, freely accessible, audio-aligned and grammatically annotated corpus. Through this work, Prof. Cutler and her colleagues have contributed to linguistic knowledge of non-mainstream varieties of English, documenting distinctive phonological features and patterns of dialect leveling.
Documentation work like this has radically altered the way that many academics view so-called ‘nonstandard dialects’, highlighting the systematic nature of underlying rules, but this sort of change is yet to happen on a larger scale. Outside of the community of linguists who do this sort of work, negative attitudes towards non-mainstream varieties, including New York City English, persist, and many speakers are plagued with linguistic insecurity.
Prof. Cutler hopes to address that disparity by sharing the findings of the corpus with the public. This is an opportunity to both give back to the communities that have contributed to the CoNYCE project and to challenge mainstream ideologies of language in pursuit of sociolinguistic justice.
Inspired by various existing initiatives, including the Language and Life Project at NC State, the Wisconsin Englishes Project, and the SKILLS (School Kids Investigating Language in Life and Society) program at UC Santa Barbara, Prof. Cutler is using the ARC fellowship as a starting point for this endeavor. Ultimately, she hopes to develop teaching resources, design an interactive website, and organize public events.
Drawing on her experience in teacher education at Lehman College, Prof. Cutler is currently developing specific ideas for activities that could be incorporated into social studies and English language arts curriculum. These include an investigation of the relationship between NYC’s immigrant past and language forms that have arisen as a result of multilingual contact, an exploration of common words with varying pronunciation, and translating rap texts into Standard American English.
Prof. Cutler ended on the importance of actively disseminating our work to a general audience because “if knowledge is worth having, it’s worth sharing”. If we are responsible researchers committed to a vision of justice, we cannot just assume that the message will ‘trickle down’ from academic journals; we have to do the work to make it happen. This is a valuable reminder for all of us engaged in scholarly work, regardless of our field.

Kelsey Swift

Commentary on Brian Nolan’s “Inequality and Prosperity” by Erin Cully

Income inequality has become the watchword of the current era. It is often used as a shorthand explanation for wealth concentration, economic stagnation, declining social mobility, various social ills ranging from the decline of civic engagement to the opioid crisis, and for the populist politics that have blossomed in the US and Europe. In his fascinating talk, Brian Nolan, Professor of Social Policy at the University of Oxford, took a hard look at the evidence for these purported consequences of inequality, and in most cases found it lacking or inconclusive. But does data have the final word?

Take Brexit, for example. Many have argued that rising British income inequality was responsible for driving populist feeling. But Prof. Nolan showed that while inequality spiked sharply during the Thatcher era, it remained stable thereafter, meaning that the level of inequality did not, in a strict sense, correlate with the rise of populism. Yet Prof. Nolan didn’t discount the possibility that the data might not be telling the whole story. He acknowledged that there may be lagging or indirect effects, and it is possible that the spurt of inequality in the 80s sowed the seeds for the present wave of populism in ways that sociologists are still studying. Certainly the fact that, as he cited, education and geography are the strongest predictors for how people voted suggests that labor market competitiveness and uneven regional economic development — which are manifestations of inequality — rallied support for the “Leave” campaign.

On Growth and Inequality

According to Prof. Nolan, the claim that rising inequality slows economic growth is not robustly substantiated by the evidence. In my view, this causal relationship is not only unsupported by data but might also be conceptually flawed. Let’s say inequality does slow down growth: we are still left to explain what forces are creating inequality in the first place. And the possible answers to that question — financialization, stagnant wages, etc. — are all markers of a sedate economy. Thus, our hypothesis would be that inequality is both driven by and driving slow growth, in which case the impact of inequality on growth is a feedback effect, and we ought to focus primarily on the puzzle of slowed economic growth.

This puzzle cuts to the heart of a debate in the field of economics about the theories used to understand the workings of the economy. As Prof. Nolan pointed out, policymakers at the IMF and the OECD now argue that inequality can be addressed through market correcting tweaks, and have therefore begun developing policies intended to foster “inclusive growth.” But is inequality a bug or a feature of our capitalist economy? It might be more likely that slowed growth, like income inequality, is inherent to capitalism. In that case, are redistribution and other such schemes the solution? If the gears of the capitalist economy are in a secular slowdown, they might not provide more than a short-term reprieve.

Erin Cully

Commentary on Jeffrey Reitz’s “Behind Immigration Debates” by Philip Johnson

What impact does public discourse about immigration have on the lives and experiences of immigrants? The expected answer to this question would be that a generally positive public discourse should have a positive overall consequence for immigrants. As Prof. Reitz demonstrates, however, there are a number of ways to problematize this expectation. On one hand, the positivity of public discourse is shaped by factors such as geography. On the other hand, variation in immigrant experience does not line up neatly with the benevolence of public discourse.

Prof. Reitz examines these varying effects by examining discourse and immigrant experience in France and Canada, with Quebec providing a third case, that fits somewhere between the other two. He probes the expected answer through a broad sweep of measures, from likelihood of reporting discrimination, to labor force participation. Overall, once the differences in immigrant demographics are taken into account, public discourse does not appear to decisively shape experience. Other factors, such as generational effects, exert more consistent influences across cases.

Of particular interest (at least to me) is Prof. Reitz’s close attention to the content of public discourse. While Canadian discourse might be generally characterized as very positive, with French discourse appearing far more negative – or at least, negating – about immigration, there is far more to the respective conceptions of immigration than just a positive/negative divide. Prof. Reitz sketches out the profile of the typical (according to public discourse) immigrant each country – the educated South Asian immigrant to Canada contrasting to the uneducated, poor North African immigrant to France – and notes the importance of history, geography, and other large, structuring factors in shaping these images. He also notes the shift after 9/11, with various immigrant identities suddenly congealing into a stark Muslim/non-Muslim divide.

As is so often the difficulty in social science, some of Prof. Reitz’s theorized mechanisms left me wondering about alternative explanations. In using reported discrimination as a measure of immigrant experience, is the discrimination, or the willingness and ability to report this more important? And if each of these might have a different effect, what overall effect can they be expected to have when bundled together into one variable? Should we even expect any one, overall effect?


September 28, 2017

Philip Johnson

Commentary on Miri Song’s “How Do Multiracial Parents Identify Their Children? And Why It Matters” by Dae Shin Ju

Miri Song is the Professor of Sociology at the University of Kent in England. Dr. Song has extensive publications including Helping Out: Children’s Labor in Ethnic Businesses (1999), Choosing Ethnic Identity (2003) and Mixed Race Identities (2013). She has recently finished a book, Multiracial Parents: Mixed Families, Generational Change, and the Future of Race, which is coming out this fall. On September 14th, Dr. Song shared some of her findings from her upcoming book with the ARC fellows and students.


Interracial unions are growing in both the UK and the US. There has been a substantial rise in interest on the multiracial population and “mixing” not only in academia but also in popular culture. Responding to this demographic trend, the British census introduced the “mixed” category as a part of racial identification in 2001. Since its introduction, the “mixed” category has generated many theoretical and methodological questions: what does it capture? How do people report and what can we learn from their reporting?


Despite the growth in size and diversity of multiracial population, existing studies have largely focused on Black and White mixed people and their racial identification. Dr. Song argues that there is a need to broaden the research on the multiracial population since there has been a significant increase in interracial partnering among Asians and Latinos. Also, researchers should develop a generational framework that examines beyond the first-generation of mixed people (who have two monoracially distinct parents). Studying the experiences of later generations is crucial to understanding how identities are passed down through generations and how racial boundaries and meanings shift.


Dr. Song’s research addresses the gaps in the literature by exploring the following questions: how do multiracial parents make decisions about racial identification of their children? Do they identify their children as White, “Mixed” or a Monoracial Minority? What factors come into play during the decision-making process? To find answers to these questions, she conducted interviews with 62 multiracial parents. Her interviewees were mostly first-generation multiracial parents in England aged 25 to 50 years old. She recruited three groups of multiracial parents: Black/White, South Asian/White, and East Asian/White. She supplemented her interviews with online surveys where participants were recruited based on their reported multiracial ancestry.


The majority of her interviewees identified their children on official forms as “Mixed” (40 out of 62), followed by White. None of the parents reported identifying their children as a Monoracial Minority. Many parents expressed ambivalence and uncertainty toward racial identification of their children since there are no clear conventions as to who belongs to the “Mixed” category. The parents, therefore, developed their own criteria and justifications. Some of the factors that emerged during the interviews were: the racial mix of the parents, the physical appearance of the children, the multiracial parent’s own upbringing and identification, their partner’s ethnicity and the generational distance from minority ancestors.


Dr. Song also discovered that the meaning parents gave to the White and “Mixed” categories widely varied. Her finding challenges the assumption that many survey-based studies make, which is that selecting White as a racial category reflects one’s desire to be White. The interviews with the parents revealed that there is no one reason for choosing White. Some parents identified their children as White due to their own personal lack of contact with their minority parent. Some chose white due to the generational distance from their minority ancestor. On the other hand, some parents identified their children as mixed even when they looked white. The meaning of “Mixed” was also complicated. Some viewed it as a way to express their genealogical connections to their children while others thought of it as a way of breaking the boundaries of race.


The key takeaway from Dr. Song’s research is that the choices that multiracial people make on official forms such as the census do not speak for themselves. Therefore, we should be cautious with the assumptions we make about those choices and not take them at face value. In that regard, Dr. Song’s research provides important insights into what the “Mixed” category is capturing through careful examination of the ways in which multiracial parents make sense of their children’s racial identification and pass it down to their children. Her findings indicate that there are no unitary experiences among multiracial populations because they are lumped into the “Mixed” category. Moreover, her findings strongly suggest the need to revisit the traditional notions of assimilation, particularly the meaning of interracial marriage and its implications on racial boundaries.


Dae Shin “Hayden” Ju.

Commentary on Chad Alan Goldberg’s “Modernity and the Jews in Western Social Thoughts” by Ola Galal & Kelsey Chatlosh


What place are minority groups accorded within sociological theory and what insights could be gained by historically analyzing the representation of Jews in Western European theoretical reflections on the conditions of modernity? These are some of the questions that Dr. Chad Alan Goldberg addresses in his recently published book, Modernity and the Jews in Western Social Thought (2017).


Dr. Goldberg is a professor of sociology affiliated with the Center for German and European Studies, the George L. Mosse/Laurence A. Weinstein Center for Jewish Studies, and the George L. Mosse Program in History at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. He is also a proud alumnus of the CUNY Graduate Center’s Advanced Research Collaborative, where he was previously a Distinguished Visiting Fellow while developing his most recent publication. On September 7th, 2017, the Graduate Center’s Advanced Research Collaborative and Sociology Department welcomed Dr. Goldberg to launch his new book.


Dr. Goldberg argues that in the 19th and 20th centuries Jews emerged as a touchstone for defining modernity in the work of influential social theorists of France, Germany and the United States: Emile Durkheim, Karl Marx, Max Weber, and Thomas Park, amongst others. That is, each of these authors, working within distinct national traditions, would take a synecdoche of modernity—one aspect that represents the whole—and analyze the extent to which Jews embodied or embraced each of these aspects.


For example, taking urbanization as an index of modernity in the United States, Thomas Park examined patterns of and tensions around Jewish immigrants’ experiences in the burgeoning urban metropole of New York City. During the era of the French Revolution, Emile Durkheim attempted to challenge anti-Semitic depictions of Jews as either agents of revolutionary subversion or counter-revolutionary reactionaries, situating Jews as either premodern or anti-modern. In the German context, Karl Marx and Max Weber reproduced cultural assumptions about Jews from Christian theology, situating them as “backwards,” but in secularized terms. As such, Dr. Goldberg asserts, Jews played a significant role as intermediaries for European self-reflection at a time of major social, political and economic transformations.


The methodological approach of Dr. Goldberg’s project draws on Pierre Bourdieu’s notion of “reflexive history,” which “takes itself as its own object” (quoting Bourdieu). Specifically, Dr. Goldberg seeks to historicize the emergence of oppositional categories, i.e. Jewish vs. not Jewish, that shape our understandings of modernity. By doing so, he seeks to denaturalize such dualisms and the social out-groups they construct, which continue to shape the meaning of modernity today.


In introducing the book, Dr. Goldberg recounted how the idea for the manuscript originated at an international conference on anti-Semitism and the emergence of sociological theory at the University of Manchester and then expanded n into a longer-term project. His book promises to hold valuable insights for scholars in Jewish studies and the history of European and American thought. More broadly, however, it is equally helpful for scholars thinking about the politics of the representation of social minorities, processes of “Othering,” and theories of European and capitalist modernity. It would be interesting to see how Dr. Goldberg’s analysis of the Jews as an object of study within modern social theory could also be understood in relation to shifting racial formations and discourses of whiteness within and across the contexts of France, Germany and the United States.


Ola Galal & Kelsey Chatlosh

Call for Applications for Distinguished Fellowships

The Advanced Research Collaborative (ARC) of the Graduate Center invites applicants for Distinguished Fellowships for the 2018 – 2019 academic year. Applicants should have outstanding records of published research and scholarship. In addition to academic distinction, preference will be given to scholars whose interests strengthen the research priorities of ARC in the following areas: Inequality, Immigration, Multilingualism, or Global Cities. Distinguished Fellows are provided with an office, a computer, and access to the Graduate Center’s academic infrastructure.

Depending on their category of membership (see below), they will also receive either a Salary or teaching release. In return, they are expected to carry out their work regularly at the Graduate Center, which is located in New York City at 365 Fifth Avenue, and to participate in the intellectual and academic community of ARC and the Graduate Center. In practice, this means using their office on a regular basis, attending ARC events, giving presentations to a seminar and/or a public audience, sharing work-in-progress with doctoral students and mentoring them in a research praxis seminar and individual sessions organized for this purpose. Fellowships are tenable for one or two semesters during the 2018 – 2019 academic year. Distinguished Fellowships fall into two categories:

    • Distinguished Visiting Fellows: for scholars and researchers who are not employed by the City University of New York. A Distinguished Visiting Fellow will receive a Salary of up to $72,000 for the full academic year or up to $36,000 for a single semester.*


  • Distinguished CUNY Fellows: for tenured faculty at one of the campuses of the City University of New York. A Distinguished CUNY Fellow will receive three course releases per semester for a maximum of two semesters.

*All salaries are subject to Federal, State and City statutory deductions.

You can access to the application form here:


Commentary on Christopher Bonastia’s “The Southern Attack on Northern Hypocrisy in Education” by ARC Student Fellows Deshonay Dozier and Rakhee Kewada

Christopher Bonastia urges that integration, as a strategy for unearthing the unequal foundations of United States institutions such as education, is not expendable. In his presentation, “The Southern Attack on Northern Hypocrisy in Education,” Bonastia however sheds light on some of the contradictions of progressivism as part of his broader critique and historical analysis of Northern education intergrationist movements in the 1970s. Bonastia challenges conventional narratives of the Civil Rights Movement, asserting the movement’s longer history and continuation into the 1970s as well as the movement’s fight for integration as a tactic to achieve great equality rather than a moral good or good unto itself.

After the Supreme Court’s historic Brown v. Board of Education decision (1954) banning intentional segregation in schools, most of the white South spent the next decade evading the mandate to create desegregated school systems. New York City and many of its purportedly liberal Northern counterparts denied that they intentionally fostered school segregation and vowed to redouble their efforts to increase integration. Yet, their deeds fell fall short of their rhetoric. Infuriated by sanctimonious Northern criticism of segregation and racism in the South, Southern white newspaper editors, anti-integration activists and politicians sought to expose Northern hypocrisy via scathing editorials, publicity stunts such as the “Reverse Freedom Rides” and the introduction of legislation to compel school desegregation nationwide. Bonastia presents a wealth of original archival data detailing these efforts to expose Northern hypocrisy all the while asking: Did white Southerners have a point?

For example, while Northern liberal newspapers at the time did not report on race tensions in the North, through their critiques of Northern hypocrisy, Southern newspapers such as the Montgomery Alabama Advertiser revealed that there was fierce resistance to school desegregation in the North in places where there was a large black population. The “Reverse Freedom Rides” where the White Citizens Council – informally known as “the gentlemen’s klan” – offered to pay one-way fares for Southern black people to travel North presented an attempt to force liberals in the North to take on welfare rolls and provide employment. And, when a Southern senator attempted to introduce a bill to amend the desegregation school bill so that it would be applied uniformly nation-wide, a Northern liberal senator effectively resisted the bill. Thus, Bonastia reveals the ways in which the politics and rhetorical gestures of both Southern conservatives and Northern liberals maintain inequality.

Bonastia’s interrogation of the hypocrisy of the liberal North is still relevant today as the pendulum of United States politics continues to swing between conservatism and progressivism while inequality remains rooted in institutions such as education. Indeed, Bonastia asks whether school integration in a place like New York City was ever possible opening up a fruitful discussion with the audience where questions around the scale of the New York City school system, “white flight” and the role of private schools arose.

We are very excited about the possibilities of Bonastia’s study to uncover the parallels between liberal and conservative approaches to institutional change. We are interested in how both of these reformist approaches repeatedly fail, as Bonastia outlines, and the possibilities for non-reformist reforms (See Golden Gulag by Ruth Wilson Gilmore) that can enable us to move effectively towards freedom and democracy.

A professor of sociology and public intellectual we are confident that Bonastia’s accessible research on U.S. politics will not disappoint as it will make an invaluable contribution to a wide-range of students and scholars.

~Deshonay Dozier and Rakhee Kewada



Commentary on Alexandre Duchene’s “The Multilingual Division of Contemporary Labor: Selection, Inequalities and Exploitation” by Student Fellow Luke Elliott-Negri


Alexandre Duchene studies the sociology of language and chairs the Department of Multilingualism studies at the University of Fribourg. His current research uses ethnographic methods to gather data from new economy workplaces in Europe. The empirical focus of his ARC talk was the experience of three types of service workers in a Zurich airport.

Dr. Duchene argues that theories of the “division of labor” are as relevant as ever to understanding how value is produced in 21st century capitalism. He argues that while Marxist, feminist and post-colonial critiques of and contributions to the division of labor concept are vital, they tend to underplay the role of language. Dr. Duchene suggests that language is an independent axis along which which to evaluate and critique theories of the division of labor and the way contemporary divisions fuel inequality.

Dr. Duchene’s empirical work in the Zurich airport is fascinating. He focuses on three types of new economy employees all of whom work for “Airport Logistics Company” (ALC):

  1. Service agents, who are mostly female, white, Swiss and who often have secondary degrees. Some have permanent jobs and others do not.
  2. Special assistants, who are mostly female. Swiss special assistants have less schooling than their service agent counterparts, but many are from eastern countries, Asia & Latin America. They are hourly and non-permanent.
  3. Luggage handlers, who are mostly mail and are from Southern & Eastern Europe, North Africa & South America. There are no Swiss luggage handlers to speak of, and they have a heterogeneous school profile.

It is not possible to understand the experience of these workers in the new economy without also understanding the role of language. Service agents are audible and visible to all passengers, and hence must be able to display a capacity for French. Special assistants only interact with marginalized – old and otherly-abled – passengers, and must be able to use English and German, but not French. Finally, luggage handlers must simply be able to function in German.

But these distinctions along language lines are not always permanent. Some service agents are “dedicated” to an airline, and wear their uniforms. Many are “all around” workers, and wear generic ALC uniforms. The former situation – dedicated employment – is higher in status and offers more predictable schedules and often better salaries. Dr. Duchene tells the story of a Spanish woman who was happy to be employed directly by a Spanish airline. Her language skills were an asset that she did not expect when she arrived in Switzerland. However, 10 months later, the airline broke the contract with ALC and she became an “all around” worker. Her advantage disappeared.

There was far more in Dr. Duchene’s talk than can be covered in this brief review, and undoubtedly far more in his research than could be covered in his talk. He successfully conveyed key points however – namely that language matters for understanding and critiquing the division of labor and the inequalities it produces, and that language distinctions, while powerful, are also non-permanent. We must track these distinctions incessantly, if we want to understand the empirical world around us.

~Luke Elliott-Negri






Commentary on Margaret Chin’s “The Hidden Rules of Work for Second Generation Asian Americans” by ARC Student Fellow Sarah Molinari

Margaret Chin is an Associate Professor of Sociology at Hunter College and the Graduate Center, CUNY and a Faculty Associate at Hunter College’s Roosevelt House Public Policy Institute. Her research broadly focuses on immigration policy, race, families, work, and Asian Americans. Dr. Chin is the author of Sewing Women: Immigrants and the New York City Garment Industry (Columbia University Press, 2005). On March 23, ARC welcomed Dr. Chin to discuss her new book project on second-generation Asian American professionals and corporate culture.

Dr. Chin’s research focuses on why Asian Americans do comprise a larger portion of employees or executive roles in big companies in the U.S. Despite stereotypes of being the “successful immigrant group,” she argues that Asian Americans indeed encounter a “glass ceiling” and are underrepresented in professional industries. Dr. Chin’s work promises to make a number of scholarly contributions. There is a lack of research specifically on Asian Americans within the literature on second-generation immigrants and work, and one major explanation for the “glass ceiling” is that “it’s only a matter of time” before Asian Americans attain more executive roles. Dr. Chin, however, argues that this explanation is too reductive and instead demonstrates the complex factors intervening in professional attainment processes and the uneven rewards employees receive for certain “cultural strategies.”

Dr. Chin employed ethnographic methods for her research, which included interviewing 103 second-generation Asian Americans between 28 and 57-years-old and observing corporate panels and professional events. Her interviewee sample is elite, but with a paradox: all make over $90,000 per year and 46% attended ivy league colleges and graduated between the 1980s and 2000s, but very few had achieved positions high up on the “corporate ladder.”

Informants obtained professional jobs directly through college recruitment at elite universities, or through college fairs and foundations’ affirmative action-like programs. Dr. Chin argues that during recruitment, companies seek a certain “cultural fit” to reproduce a corporate elite among a small group of people. Dr. Chin’s informants often spoke about “success” in terms of what their parents wanted and could easily explain their school successes, but had difficulty explaining work successes or seeing structural explanations like discrimination as a cause for not attaining executive roles. While “soft skills” are important to both school and professional success, Dr. Chin demonstrates that factors such as “polish and trust”—getting to know and being trusted by others in the company—are even more necessary to achieving executive roles.

Despite the diverse skill sets that second-generation Asian Americans bring to the corporate workplace, Dr. Chin’s research shows that Asian American employees are often pigeonholed into more “quantitative-type” jobs in line with stereotypes that circulate in the workplace. Micro-aggressions in the workplace also impact whether or not they get promoted. For example, Dr. Chin’s informants were often asked, “where are you from?” or told, “your English is very good.”

Dr. Chin explains that two factors made a difference for the few informants who attained executive roles: the employee learning and reproducing the company’s “cultural knowledge” and practices, as well as the particular company’s investment in minority groups. It would be interesting to compare Dr. Chin’s research findings with other second-generation immigrant groups or underrepresented populations to determine how the particular Asian-American experience might reflect broader trends in corporate culture.

~ Sarah Molinari