New Scholarship in Race and Ethnicity
Black Ethnic Options: Afro-Caribbean Immigrants and the Politics of Incorporation
The current wave of immigrants to the United States has outpaced the high numbers achieved during the European immigrant wave of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Unlike their European predecessors, the new immigrants come primarily from Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean. They have increased and diversified the population of the United States and expanded the meaning of the term "minority." The question of how these newcomers will be incorporated into the American mainstream was addressed by Reuel Rogers in the ninth program of the Division of U.S. Studies' series on New Scholarship in Race and Ethnicity. Drawing upon his research on Afro-Caribbean immigrants in New York City, Prof. Rogers asked whether the pluralistic model of immigrant incorporation – the model some theorists utilize to describe the pattern of European immigrants' integration and upward mobility – or the minority group model – the description of uneven socio-economic mobility that has typified African Americans as a group because of racial discrimination – is most useful in analyzing the experience of Afro-Caribbeans.
While racial discrimination in the United States is in decline, as Prof. Rogers noted, barriers do still exist, particularly for those who are perceived as black. The European immigrant model of integration through hard work and ethnic solidarity will therefore be of limited usefulness for Afro-Caribbean immigrants faced with racial barriers. The minority group model would suggest that Afro-Caribbeans are more likely to choose the "radical reformist" agenda of African Americans, demanding not only the end of barriers to social, political, and economic inclusion but a more radical redistribution policy. Prof. Rogers, however, suggested that Afro-Caribbean immigrants shy away from the African-American model and are carving out a third way of incorporation.
African Americans learned to engage the U.S. political system through both traditional and non-traditional means. They have combined conventional modes of political activity, such as voting, with non-conventional modes such as demonstrations. Both forms are designed to influence governmental policies. Afro-Caribbeans, however, do not have a history of attaining redress for their grievances through direct solicitation of their governments. Moreover, unlike African Americans, they retain the option, however infrequently exercised, to return to their home countries. They focus largely on symbolic recognition and access to governmental power, seeking some seats at the policy-making table for Afro-Caribbeans but eschewing the more radical demands for reform and redistribution of their African-American colleagues. Their lower-keyed reaction to racism is governed by their home country experiences and their status as immigrants. Prof. Rogers noted that after the brutalization of Abner Louima by New York City police, it was African Americans rather than Afro-Caribbeans who led street demonstrations. Rogers' Afro-Caribbean interviewees reported that they neither viewed demonstrations as "their" style of behavior nor viewed themselves as the group most vulnerable to police brutality. In other words, Rogers asserted, the difference in home country socialization and the resulting perceptual lenses leads Afro-Caribbeans to interpret their experiences, including experiences of racism, quite differently than do African Americans. He wondered, however, whether the continued existence of racial inequality in the United States will eventually force Afro-Caribbeans to adopt the radical reformist agenda.
Rogers Smith praised Prof. Rogers for questioning both the pluralist and model minority theories of incorporation and for suggesting a different approach – one that Prof. Smith called a "racial immigrants" model. Prof. Smith posited that there are two racial orders in the United States: a supremacist, anti-transformative order that currently controls all three branches of the federal government, and an egalitarian, transformative one that includes groups such as labor unions, civil rights organizations, and African-American political leaders. The question is where the new immigrants will throw their weight. While Rogers' work suggests a third way, Smith sees the new immigrants as ultimately having to choose and, given the racial and economic inequality in this country, ending up on the transformative side of the equation.
Reuel Rogers' study, Andrea Simpson noted, shows the extent to which context matters in the Afro- Caribbean response to racial discrimination. Afro-Caribbeans tend to attribute lack of success in this country not to racism but to a poor work ethic. Because distinctions of class rather than race are the primary challenges to success in their home countries, they are not inclined to turn to government for assistance. She noted that if minority groups in this country maintain different agendas, the result is likely to be white political dominance, even where whites no longer constitute a majority of voters.
The lively discussion that followed the presentations raised a number of questions, including the issue of what path the second generation of Afro-Caribbeans, with quite different socialization experiences and a lesser inclination for regarding itself as having the same "exit option," is likely to follow.
Damon J. Keith Law Collection of African-American Legal History.
To read Reuel Rogers' paper, please click here.
Drafted by Acacia Reed
Philippa Strum, Division of U.S. Studies 202-691-4129