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  • Punjabi American Taxi DriversThe new white working class?
  • Diditi Mitra (bio)

Introduction

Although the punjabi american taxi drivers in this study differ from the white working class on account of their assigned race in the social hierarchy, these two groups share certain commonalities due to the specific races into which they are categorized. Firstly, like the white working class, the Punjabi Americans are classified into a racial group with positive meanings associated with it, namely, Asian American. Secondly, similar to the white working class, racialization into a race imbued with positive meanings creates the possibility for Punjabi Americans to use their race to elevate their position in the stratification order. Unlike the white working class that uses race to improve their class location, however, the Punjabi Americans have used their race to negotiate their class and race position because they are subjugated by both of those factors. Nonetheless, like the white working class, Punjabi Americans were aware of their lower position in society and invoked their race to gain in social status. The question is how.

Thus far, most of the scholarly work on race and status has focused on how members of the white working class have used whiteness, and thus participated in white supremacy, to improve their position in the stratification order.1 Scholarship has shown that access to whiteness as a symbol of freedom has been a very important resource for the white working class. It has given them a sense of security in a society where they [End Page 303] occupy a lower position due to their social class. Further, scholars have maintained that superiority of whiteness may not have always translated into greater economic gains for the white working class, but whiteness has provided those who can claim it with at least a "psychological wage" that can be used as a way out of their class subordination.2 Undoubtedly, this scholarship has been instrumental in advancing knowledge on the racial identity formation of the white working class as well as the ways in which race confers status and, therefore, has shown the salience of race in the American social order.

However, the extant research on race and status is one-dimensional because it has remained within the confines of a black-white racial imagination that has shaped a race narrative focused on the advantage of whites and the disadvantage of blacks.3 Because this analysis has already assumed that the "real" racial division is between blacks and whites, it has overlooked the specific racialization of the different non-white groups, their racial identity formation, and their contribution to the existing racial order. In this article, I address this gap in the literature by showing how a group of Punjabi American taxi drivers, though belonging to a racial minority group of lower socioeconomic background, used their race to improve their social status. I extend the analysis of the white working class use of whiteness to this racial minority group to show that nonwhiteness can be a source of higher position because of the specific racialization of nonwhite groups. Additionally, this study advances knowledge on Asian Americans, particularly those of lower socioeconomic status. Most research on Asian Americans has analyzed the middle-class segment of this racial group.4 This body of scholarly work has emphasized the problematic characterization of Asian Americans as the "model minority." It has also shown the ways in which middle-class Asian Americans themselves have employed the stereotype to overcome racial subordination as well as the dominant racial group's use of the stereotype as a means of maintaining the status quo. But, few studies have examined the racial identity formation of Asian Americans of lower socioeconomic background and its significance in the American racial order.

The case of this group of Punjabi Americans allows us to gain insight into that process. They are particularly interesting due to their classification [End Page 304] into a racial category (Asian American) with positive valuations that are based on the middle classes of the group, while they, in fact, occupy a lower social class position. Thus, this research contributes to the following areas in the study of race and ethnicity: a) the social location...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1096-8598
Print ISSN
1097-2129
Pages
pp. 303-336
Launched on MUSE
2008-11-01
Open Access
No
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