|Ethnicity and Power in the Contemporary World (UNU, 1996, 298 pages)|
|13. Ethnic and racial groups in the USA: Conflict and cooperation|
The growth in the size of the non-white voluntary immigrant population since 1965 challenges the dichotomy which once explained different patterns of American inclusion and assimilation: the ethnic pattern of assimilation of immigrants from Europe and their children and the racial pattern of exclusion of America's non-white peoples.1 The new wave of immigrants includes people who, though still defined "racially," have migrated voluntarily, and often under an immigrant legal preference system which selects for people with job skills and education that puts them well above their "co-ethnics" in the United States economy. Though generally defined as members of minority racial groups in the United States, these new immigrants do not necessarily share the racial and minority identities imposed on them when they arrive. Black immigrants to New York City from the Caribbean nation states - the subject of my current research - provide an example of a group that challenges these theoretical distinctions. They are voluntary migrants from societies in which blacks are the majority to a society in which blacks are a stigmatized minority (Waters and Mittelberg, 1992).
These immigrants have a degree of ethnic identity along with their racial identity as black. Thus individual immigrants can identify themselves as Jamaican or Haitian as well as black. While some aspects of racial oppression are no doubt the same throughout the world,2 the fact remains that these immigrants are entering a society in which they are assigned immediately to membership in a group which has its own history of oppression and minority status. For instance, these immigrants are defined as black for purposes of affirmative action accounting for employment and for voting rights enforcement statistics.
These Caribbean immigrants have a complicated relationship with their new identities. Most of them try to distance themselves from American blacks. They emphasize their own cultural and ethnic identity which distinguishes them from American blacks. They declare that Jamaicans and American blacks are different groups with different values, customs, traditional foods, dialects, and so on (Bryce-Laporte, 1972; Buchanan, 1979; Dominguez, 1975; Foner, 1985, 1987; Justus, 1976; Sutton, 1973; Sutton and Makiesky, 1973; Bonnett, 1990; Waters, 1991b; Apollon and Waters, 1990). They also point to the different reactions and relations with whites foreign-born blacks and American blacks have.
West Indians generally do not expect racism and racist reactions from whites to the same extent as American blacks. West Indians tend to be more open to whites and more oblivious to racial slights. They have grown up in societies where the majority of people are blacks: as a result they have had less personal experience with racism of the kind that American blacks have encountered all their lives. Thus they expect less racism and interpret most interactions with whites as owing to their own individual characteristics rather than to their racial characteristics. They describe the American blacks as hypersensitive to issues of race, while the American blacks describe the foreign-born blacks as naive in their acceptance of whites.
American society in general and whites in particular have tended not to recognize these distinctions. They have generally defined American blacks and foreign-born blacks as similar in their identities as blacks, thus equating racial and ethnic identities under the umbrella of a single racial identity (Waters, 1991; Woldemikael, 1989; Bryce-Laporte, 1972; Kasinitz, 1992). This lack of recognition by outsiders of ethnic differences within the racially identified group tends to promote a common racial identity. The factors uniting African Americans and Caribbean-Americans are a common racial identity based on skin colour, their historical roots in Africa, and the shared aspects of their histories as victims of racism in European colonialism and slavery.
Thus, the distinction between groups defined by race and those defined by ethnicity which has characterized American society throughout its history is challenged by the increase in non-European immigrants since 1965. These include large numbers of people who, though members of a racial group, blacks, are being incorporated into American society as voluntary immigrants trying to maintain an ethnic identity which recognizes their non-American roots. The distinctions developed by the anthropologist John Ogbu to explain education performance in different societies is a starting point for understanding the positions of these immigrants in the United States.