Foster Heritage: Immigration and Race Relations

Foster Heritage. Immigration & Race Relations
[1] A general integration rule has long shaped the making of the United States as a country. This rule of integration evokes the acceptance of new comers to the United States. They give up their former identities to embrace the American dream, only to realize that the assimilation process often causes certain social views and values to get lost in the Melting Pot. As a result, newbies incur a mobility that may or may not be in alignment with the meaning of the American dream they had in mind. On the one hand, some receive an upgrade of their ethnic and racial identity. On the other hand, others feel that they incur a downgrade as they are automatically associated to the lower rung of the American society, a place where violations of key American values by one person stereotypically default to the collective violations by all (Lamont, 2000). And so, in the attempt to right the imbalances incurred immigrants take it upon themselves to retain their initial cultural and racial identities at the risk of being disliked by concerns of disrespecting the American long-established rule of integration.

There is an exception to this observation when we consider West Indian immigrants integration experience. They intentionally reject American cultural and identity influences in order to sustain their socioeconomic well-being; and yet, they are praised by American white workers on the basis of being hard-working, self-reliant, approachable, always aspiring to move up the ladder, and most importantly “better blacks” (Waters, 2001). Does the West Indian experience bring a new meaning to the nature of the American racial system? Cross-referencing sociologists Michèle Lamont’s The Dignity of Working Men: Morality and the Boundaries of Race, Class, and Immigration (2000) and Mary C. Waters’ Black Identities: West Indian Immigrant Dreams and American Realities (2001), I will argue that the success of West Indian immigrants’ inclusion, despite the trespass of long-established American values in search of an upward mobility, and despite the seemingly working connection with American white workers at the apparent expense of black Americans’ biased racial relations, comes as a result of a foster heritage, an olden adjacent relationship of West Indies with the United States in the time of the British colonial power, whose rulership extended upon both the White Settlers in America and the emancipated Africans in West Indies during the colonial era.

[2] Mary C. Water’s Black Identities provides interesting insights regarding the evolution of the impact of becoming an immigrant in America. Waters argues that the immigration integration experience has dramatically changed from what it used be. Before, you became assimilated into a progressive ethnic status, and then culminated to a successful ethnic American. Today, you become assimilated into a decoupled identity, culture, and economic success. Waters adds that “[s]ome immigrants and their children do better economically by maintaining a strong ethnic identity and culture and by resisting American cultural and identity influences” (Waters, 2001:5). Although agreed by several other authors, this “remaining immigrant- or ethnic-identified” model may not be an easy or consequence-free style to acquire because there is more to it than just branding one’s colors. When put against Michèle Lamont’s The Dignity of Working Men, we see that although white workers draw weaker boundaries than those they raise against blacks (Lamont, 2000:88), the immigrants still incur some moral and racial boundaries. Lamont argues that the attenuated boundaries in this case are mainly attributed to (a) the containment of immigration policies and sector under a ‘subsystem’, which is not fairly exposed to the public (Lamont, 2000:89); and (b) to the general positive attitudes of white workers towards immigrants, which is credited to the role of immigration in the “formation of the country” (Lamont, 2000:90). The caveat in the latter reason is that new comers have to respect the long-established process. They are expected to “give up a good part of their ethnic identity as they embrace the American dream” (Lamont, 2000:90). So, let’s take, for example, the case of Mexicans with the issue of the English language. When they attempt to ‘remain immigrant or ethnic-identified’ by not learning the English language, clearly showing a breach in the integration rule, and hoping for an upward mobility, moral and racial boundaries get raised by white workers. Breaking the integration rule is viewed as a violation of American values, which means the violators can be disliked by concerns of deteriorating American values, that in turn, includes the self-discipline in following established rules. Lamont stresses that “[t]he issue of language is sensitive because it symbolizes the downfall of the American nation” (Lamont, 2000:91). Does this mean that the “remaining immigrant- or ethnic-identified” model would never work consequence-free for any immigrant group? How can immigrants who unjustly incurred a downward mobility at the point of assimilation sustain their socioeconomic status in the new world?

[3] Our case with West Indian immigrants makes them eligible candidates of trying the “remaining immigrant- or ethnic-identified” model for the obvious reason that when they become assimilated, they turn into not just Americans but Black Americans (Waters, 2001:5). This means a downward mobility for the West Indian immigrant who, in his/her former culture holds a more fluid racial identity. The good news with West Indian immigrants is that they do fit the “remaining immigrant- or ethnic-identified” model and they have the legacy advantage as their history adjacently connects them to the United States as foster recipients of the British cultural influence during the colonial era, and make them collectively century-long experts in racial relations. In other words, they are capable of remaining ethnic-identified without upsetting the incumbent dominant groups policing for any breach of the integration rule by new comers.

[4] Waters describes West Indian immigrants as having the advantage of language and skills, and most importantly better understanding of the racial relations (Waters, 2001:7). The high turn-over rate of colonial powers ruling over their islands is also another indication of their being well-versed in diversity, change management, and inter-continental service relations. When West Indians come to the U.S., they are prepared to be immigrants in a multicultural society (Waters, 2001:23). In their culture, race, and ethnicity are taken separately for one does not know of which class a black West Indian, for example, may belong to. Moreover, their classification of race is more salient and carries little emphasis than what they experience when they arrive in the United States. They have dealt with colonial powers assuming high-level roles in running their respective islands without close supervision of the imperial rule. West Indian blacks enjoyed a level of self-government and control that blacks in America never got to enjoy (Waters, 2001:26); not only are they different from African Americans in identity and culture, they are also different from European immigrants (Waters, 2001:6-7). Their unfortunate dilemma is to constantly having to make the plausible claim of differentiation due to people always defaulting to phenotypic criteria. In America, race and ethnicity are interchangeable for black Americans. It is, unfortunately, the “master status defining the person to others” (Waters, 2001:5); Hence, the need for West Indians to keep their former ethnicity to show that they are different. So, what do we say of claims by black Americans who think that West Indians are too naïve and that given time, their safe passage of inclusion in the white workers’ world will end? Let’s address the dynamics that claim West Indian immigrants are getting a “break” from white workers because they seem to exude a better performance and are ready to accept low-paying wages for what they’re actually worth, act of which may seem to portray some sort of naïveté from West Indian immigrants.

[5] The dilemma that West Indian immigrants face is not having challenges in working with white workers. In fact, they are seen as “hard-working in implicit or even explicit contrast to American blacks who do not last long on the job,” Waters reports (Waters, 2001:138). It is normal to grow wary when facing numerous accounts of racial inequalities; nevertheless, the final report by Waters claims that “the overall ways in which West Indian blacks and American whites interact generally produce better outcomes for West Indians than black Americans. Whites expect West Indians to be ‘better blacks’; they find common ground in the West Indians’ immigrant experiences” (Waters, 2001:190). Here again, we see another confirmation that the foster heritage bestowed unto these two groups, centuries ago, by the British colonial influence brings them together and help them overcome racial clash. The claim made by these white workers shows that there is hope to further attenuate the moral and racial boundaries in America.

[6] Lamont reports interesting insights in the evolution and dynamics of race. She claims that the last twenty years have generated a new form of racism, which is often called “symbolic racism”, “subtle racism”, “aversive racism” or “modern racism” (Lamont, 2000:71). It simply means: X values Y as key values of X’s and Z’s world. But X believes that Z violates Y. Thus, X dislikes Z by a concern of Y values. These Y values are more universalistic and include individualism, self-reliance, work ethic, obedience, and discipline. The problem we continue to see is that the use of universalistic principles by some white workers leverage against racial groups (especially blacks) solely based on a collective gauge is a major contributor of the formation of racial inequality (Lamont, 2000: 68). The key opportunity is to stop gauging all violations as a collective perpetration. These violations should be gauged in the measure they empirically posit themselves. In the instance of dealing with West Indian immigrants, the fact that they ensure they have distanced themselves from black Americans or any other black immigrants such as African’s Nigerians or South Africans who also like them speak English, by remaining ethnic-identified gives West Indian immigrants to minimize the application of a collective judgment as done with black Americans. Removing the apparent defaulting phenotypic criteria allows white workers to adjust the size and criteria qualifications, which in turn will leave them to use moral gauge as opposed to an automatic racial gauge resulting in a much better critique of West Indian immigrants. So, instead of looking for ways to internally dissociate white workers’ intertwined views of moral and racial boundaries, perhaps following the West Indian immigrants model will help attenuate racial boundaries and allow moral boundaries to be used so that each group is fairly treated without incurring an automatic downward social mobility. Clearly, we could learn something constructive from the West Indian immigrants’ foster heritage and help improve racial relations skills of those groups in need.

- First Published as Academic Paper in Anthropology Studies: Race in the Americas (Course taught by Prof. James Herron, Harvard University) on Mar 6, 2011. Re-Edited for broad publication.
. Lamont, Michèle. 2000. The Dignity of Working Men: Morality and the Boundaries of Race, Class, and Immigration. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
. Waters, C. Mary. 2001. Black identities: West Indian immigrant dreams and American realities. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.