Speaker series addresses historical intersections of race and class

Allison Markman and Ariella Frommer

Guest Speakers Dr. George Sánchez and Dr. Ellen Wu discussed issues of race, class, and their intersections with civic engagement, gentrification, and socioeconomic divisions in the third installment of the Upper Division (UD) speaker series: “Intersectionality: Exploring Race, Ethnicity, and Class” yesterday evening. History teachers Melissa Morales and Dr. Steven Fabian moderated the event along with student moderators Emily Sun (11) and Scarlett Goldberg (11).

This year, the speaker series focuses on ways in which race and ethnicity intersect with other forms of identity, with this installment focusing on class, Fabian said. “Both Professor Wu an and Sánchez use class as a way to understand how different racial groups have behaved in the past.” Wu studies how class distinguishes between different groups of Asian-American, while Sánchez studies how a shared economic background unites those in a multiracial community, Boyle’s Heights, he said. 

Sánchez is a professor of American Studies & Ethnicity and History at the University of Southern California. His studies focus on the experiences of immigrants and ethnic minorities in the United States, specifically how their identities have shaped their experiences. Sánchez explores how immigrants integrate into the US in Boyle’s Heights, CA in his study, “Becoming Mexican American: Ethnicity, Culture, and Identity in Chicano Los Angeles, 1900-1945,” his book “Boyle Heights: How a Los Angeles Neighborhood Became the Future of American Democracy,” and establishing the Boyle Heights Museum. In 2010, the American Association of Hispanics in Higher Education honored him with the Outstanding Latino/a Faculty in Higher Education Award, according to the speaker series website. 

Wu is an associate professor in the Department of History at Indiana University Bloomington (IU), teaching courses on migration. Her work centers on the intersection between race, migration, and belonging for Asian Americans in the United States. From 2015 to 2020, she directed IU’s Asian American Studies Program (AAST) with a focus on intersectional and interdisciplinary approaches towards social justice, according to the speaker series website.

In her book, “The Color of Success: Asian Americans and the Origins of the Model Minority,” she focuses on how the view of Asian-Americans has changed over time. It won the First Book Award and Honorable Mention for the Theodore Saloutos Book Award from the Immigration and Ethnic History Society in 2015, as well as the Association for Asian American Studies History Book Prize in 2016. Dr. Wu has also served on the board of the Immigration and Ethnic History Society, which hosts awards, academic conferences, and the “Journal of American Ethnic History.” 

Fabian looks at similar themes as Sánchez in his own research about community building in East Africa, he said. “We do spend a lot of time in history talking about what drives people apart, but I hope Professor Sánchez will remind us that there are things that bring people together.”

In response to a question about what we miss when viewing race as a fixed category, Wu discussed how this understanding ignores the social and geopolitical features of race and ethnicity. “I try to think in my work about race as a process and when we don’t put the dynamism of race as a process in the forefront, what we miss in a lot of ways is accountability; the agency of individuals and institutions who do the work of producing and reproducing racial categories,” she said.

Additionally, Wu discussed the problems and opportunities of categorizing people of Asian descent. “The problem is that 23 million people of so many different backgrounds and classes are viewed as the same, but sometimes this can lead to productive outcomes because people can be forced to recognize that they have something in common,” Wu said. 

Malcolm Furman (11) was particularly struck by this question because it was a new perspective that he had not considered previously.

Sánchez discussed his work with the Boyle Heights community in California and its transformation throughout history. “Boyle heights is constantly changing,” he said. “It goes from a multiracial community made up mostly working class people and immigrants from all over the world in the early part of the 20th century, to after World War Two an increasingly Mexican Latino neighborhood as other groups, particularly their white ethnic groups leave Boyle Heights move into the suburbs in Los Angeles. 

Goldberg found this part of the discussion particularly engaging. “I thought his work on Boyle Heights, a specific neighborhood in Los Angeles, was really interesting because it addressed kind of a mix of different communities and how Mexican immigrants as well as Jewish people are kind of integrated to American culture as the effect on democracy,” she said.

The speakers were also selected for the event due to their ability to combine the intersectionality between socioeconomic status in their respective fields of study, Morales said. “His most recent work looks at moments in which people of different racial backgrounds can organize themselves collectively around class issues, and then moments when that doesn’t happen,” she said. “Professor Wu does something interesting with Asian Americans, particularly her work studies Chinatown in San Francisco, and she looks at the way that people within this community try to demonstrate middle class values as a way of showing their worth of assimilation.”

Prior to the event, Braden Queen (11) read an op-ed written by Dr. Sánchez and a video featuring Dr. Wu in his history class. He learned from Dr. Wu about the idea of a “Model Minority” and why that stereotype is problematic. “There’s a lot of diversity among different Asians, for example, there’s certain Asian subgroups where there’s not very high college enrollment, there’s others where it’s high,” he said. “Asian subgroups are not monolithic and we can’t always generalize.” 

Morales hopes students get a better understanding of intersectionality and the way different identities interact with each other. “We hope that people will understand not just the complexities in terms of various experiences of people within racial or ethnic groups, but also the way that those can be complicated by other identifying factors, like gender or sexuality or class or religion,” she said. I hope that people understand that issues around race and ethnicity are much more complex than we often think at first.”