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New Scholarship in Race and Ethnicity - Black Immigrants in the New Urban Landscape: The Case of Haitians in Boston

May 23, 2005 // 12:00am

"There are more Haitians in Boston than Cap Hatien," the second largest city in Haiti, stated Regine Jackson in the eighth program in the Division of U.S. Studies' series on New Scholarship in Race and Ethnicity. Haitians have settled primarily in urban centers, once home to earlier immigrant communities of European descent, and one might logically assume that their incorporation into cities such as Boston will follow the path of the immigrants who preceded them. Haitian assimilation, however, is complicated by the social and political position of black immigrants in relation to African Americans.

Paradoxically, while Boston has been home to many immigrant communities, it was once the most segregated city in the United States and continues to be extremely segregated. For African Americans, integration is a persistent challenge. Dr. Jackson found that for Boston to be fully integrated, 70.4 percent of the black population would have to move into predominantly white neighborhoods. Even the civil rights movement brought little political power for Massachusetts' African Americans; only seven of the 200 state legislators are black. Nevertheless, the city reached minority-majority status in the 2000 census because of the large numbers of immigrants who had arrived since the 1960s. West Indians comprise 25 percent of Boston's new immigrant communities, and Haitians constitute more than 50 percent of the West Indian population. The influx of black immigrants would seem to suggest a potential source of political power for African Americans but for the most part, Boston's black immigrants have aligned themselves politically along ethnic lines rather than according to race.

Haitians entered Boston in what Dr. Jackson categorized as four major waves: the skilled professional Pathfinders (pre-1965), the Core (1965-1979), the Boom (1980-1991) and the Newcomers (1992-present). While the last three groups were progressively less educated, less skilled, and in possession of fewer resources than the first group, the repeated waves enabled the community to create a high number of voluntary and other community service organizations. Boston's Haitians have adopted a model of incorporation that follows the path forged by European immigrants: coalescing around their ethnic ties, emphasizing hard work and upward mobility, and identifying politically with their immigrant status. By positioning themselves within the larger immigrant narrative, Haitians have actively distanced themselves from African Americans and racial politics. According to Dr. Jackson, this has afforded them a greater social status than African Americans, but their avoidance of racial politics has left the white-dominated power structure of Boston unchallenged.

"The United States has more immigrants in absolute numbers than any time in its history," Prof. Alex Stepick told the audience, and that raises the question of how the predominantly Asian, Latino, African and Caribbean immigrants will be integrated within the larger U.S. fabric. The idealized hypothesis is that, following the path of European immigrants, these groups will assimilate into the mainstream through education, hard work, and inter-marriage. However, Stepick argued, the hypothesis fails to take into account that the newer groups are entering a less expansive American economy with little monetary or educational resources to bolster their success. In addition, their distinct non-European appearance presents a greater challenge to their assimilation. He commented that Dr. Jackson's work on Boston's Haitian population lends credence to the belief that following the immigrant paradigm has not been a miscalculation. Prof. Stepick wondered nonetheless whether Haitians in Boston will be able to maintain their immigrant allegiance or will eventually be forced to adopt a political identity based on race.

As Prof. Milton Vickerman noted, the passage of the 1965 Immigration Act, which opened the possibility of immigration to people from all over the world, brought greater racial diversity and the disruption of the U.S. black/white paradigm. Haitian integration has further complicated this paradigm. Dr. Jackson's study found that Haitians have been able to "leapfrog" over African Americans by avoiding racial politics, but Prof. Vickerman cautioned that upward mobility cannot necessarily be equated with social integration or access to political power. Segregation between Haitians and whites is still at 73.2 percent. Dr. Jackson reported that when Haitians are discriminated against, they perceive the discrimination as being based on the fact that they are Haitians rather than on the fact that they are considered black. Prof. Vickerman nonetheless questioned the Haitians' emphasis on immigrant status, which comes at the expense of seeking racial equality, expressing doubt that the immigrant paradigm will enable them to surmount all the barriers attached to being perceived as black in the United States.



To read Dr. Jackson's paper, please click here.



Drafted by Acacia Reed
Philippa Strum, Director, Division of U.S. Studies 202-691-4147

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