Ford and My Family

Ford Motor Company headquarters building in Dearborn, Michigan.
Ford Motor Company Headquarters in Dearborn, Michigan. Source: Wikipedia

By Katherine In-Young Lee

Katherine In-Young Lee is associate professor of ethnomusicology at the University of California, Los Angeles. In the essay “Ford and My Family,” available for download at the button below, Lee begins with a moment from her childhood in Canton, Michigan, where she grew up in an environment marked by “a special brand of racism that was directed toward Asians and Asian Americans in 1980s metropolitan Detroit.” With Japanese auto companies threatening Detroit’s biggest industry, Michigan workers targeted drivers of those vehicles: “Tires might be slashed, doors could be keyed, or windows smashed.” On June 19, 1982, autoworkers Ronald Ebens and Michael Nitz turned their vitriol on Vincent Chin, not caring that Chin was Chinese American or that he in fact worked for a Detroit-based auto supplier. Ebens and Nitz beat Chin to death, a tragic story recounted in the documentary Who Killed Vincent Chin?

Lee’s father spent three decades as a Ford employee, and the family purchased a succession of the company’s products. Having survived the uncertainty of the Korean War and immigration to the United States, her parents enjoyed the stability offered by Ford employment. The scarcity of a Korean community in Southeast Michigan was a trade-off, “run-of-the-mill anti-Asian racism” an occasional reminder of their outsider status. Their cars signified that the family belonged. “By buying and driving only Ford vehicles,” she writes, “we were making a pointed statement: we have invested in America.”

Lee’s father accepted a buyout from Ford in 2005 (and is currently recovering from a serious stroke), but her family’s loyalty to the brand remains. The company again faces an uncertain future, with restructuring and layoffs echoing the tough times of the 1980s:

This is an all too familiar cycle unfolding in the state of Michigan. It makes me wonder how this latest blow will reverberate in Detroit, a city that declared bankruptcy in 2013. Will the blame be placed on the robots who obviate the need for human labor (and salaries with benefits)? Or will the blame be placed on other companies currently outperforming Ford in the energy-efficient vehicle market? If that is the case, will a company like Tesla receive any shade since it’s at the top of the electric vehicle market? Or will there somehow be a new way to spin anti-Asian rhetoric in this car-conscious city as the COVID-19 pandemic persists?

Lee’s reflections on family history, identity, and community come together in this essay, which we are pleased to share with #AsiaNow readers.

“Ford and My Family,” © Katherine In-Young Lee, originally published May 2023 in CUNY FORUM 10:1 and reposted here with permission.