The Nail Salon Exposè Was Fascinating, But It Shouldn’t Be Surprising

If you haven’t read The Price of Nice Nails yet, you should. It’s a fascinating look at the exploitation and racism in the immigrant communities that revolve around us, touching our sphere when we need cheap services. The story is also a great look into the modern economy of New York City.

But one thing it wasn’t: surprising.

Particularly that part about racism. (Q: What was the biggest surprise in your reporting? A: by Sarah Nir, the reporter who wrote the story: The racism.)

I’m trying to wrap my mind around why the racism would be surprising. I mean, human history 101, okay:

  • 200,000 years ago the first homo sapiens appear. 130,000 years of small groups, relying on ingroup and fearing the outgroup because life depended on it.
  • 70,000 years ago cognitive revolution. emergence of fictive language allowed us to talk about non-concrete stuff and create non-concrete identities. so groups became a little larger. still, though, family and immediate community = protection.
  • 12,000 years ago agricultural revolution. settled down, larger communities, but still very dangerous, and a lot of fighting between larger groups for thousands of years.
  • 200 years ago industrial revolution, where markets replaced family and community. unprecedented stability and prosperity.

So for the vast majority of human history outgroup = bad (death) and ingroup = good. And still today, ethnic identity remains the strongest type of identity for people in most countries.

Against that background, people with histories who’ve hated each other and fought for hundreds of years (say, the Chinese and Japanese, or Koreans) come to New York City … and we’re shocked that they consider each other inferior races? It also doesn’t take being that close to some of these communities to hear a lot of skepticism and hate expressed about other races.

I’m wondering if another reason people find this surprising has something to do with the belief that reverse racism isn’t a thing, or at least that white people are the only people who can be racist. The way I understand this theory is that racism is structural: an act of violence against a white person by a community of Hispanics who do not like white people isn’t racism — it’s just plain old violence, because the system is on the side of the person they killed. (Is that right?)

Which, okay, fine, but if you’re going to try and strong-arm the dictionary to include something about structure under the definition for racism, you’re going to have to find another term for whatever-it-is when a Korean person calls a Chinese person a dirty dog and makes her eat separately at work without a place to sit.

Structures get really messy really soon, because as I understand them, they are largely historical. But history is really really messy and it’s not clear where the structure should be in that relationship. Within China, too, there is a hierarchy — for a great (but heartbreaking) read, look at Atticus Lish’s new novel Preparation for the Next Life about the first love of a girl from Xinjiang come to Flushing. It is remarkably accurate in its depiction of the city, and it isn’t pretty.  

There are other sad parts of the original piece in the New York Times, and the dirt wages are one of them. But still, they’re not new. They exist at restaurants and other places all across the city. Workers don’t complain because many of them don’t know they can, or they are illegal and they have zero political or other capital.

And even if they were legal, what would be the incentive to jeopardize a $60 a day job when there’s a chance you could be making nothing and be forced back to where you came from or worse? There is none.

I don’t think the situation of extremely low wages is going away any time soon. Hundreds of thousands of people in this city are willing to work for very little because they have no other options. No government organization (no, not even NYCs Dept of Labor) is powerful enough to stop it — they’d have to be laughably large to begin with, and even then, constant monitoring of every transaction between employer and employee is impossible. There are simply too many ways to get around the system and the incentives are too screwy.

Disclosure: I worked on the Times’ project for a few days before quitting; my Chinese wasn’t good enough, I’d just had a baby, and I was trying (but mostly failing) to do a master’s degree. 


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