Beyond the Melting Pot
Immigration and Ethnic Diversity in the Empire City
by Nancy Foner
New York City has been dramatically transformed by a massive wave of immigration that has brought millions of newcomers, mainly from Latin America, the Caribbean, and Asia, to the city in the last few decades. More than one out of three New Yorkers is an immigrant – nearly three million people.
It is often said that virtually every country in the world is represented in New York City. What is remarkable is the large number from so many different countries. The top three groups -- Dominicans, Chinese, and Jamaicans -- are just under 30 percent of all the foreign-born. No other country accounts for more than five percent, and there are substantial numbers of many West Indian, Latin American, Asian, and European nationalities.
A major impact of the new immigration is the way it has been changing the racial and ethnic dynamics of the city. In 1963, when Nathan Glazer and Daniel Moynihan published their famous book, Beyond the Melting Pot, they divided New York into five groups: Jews, Italians, Irish, Negroes, and Puerto Ricans. Today, this sounds like ancient history. In political and street-level discourse, New Yorkers now think of a four-race framework of white, black, Hispanic, and Asian. The proportion of Asians and Hispanics is growing; the proportion of whites is on the decline. In 2000, whites were only 35 percent of the population, down from 63 percent in 1970; Asians went from 2 to 11 percent, Hispanics from 16 to 27 percent, blacks from 19 to 25 percent.
Gone are the days when Hispanic meant Puerto Rican; Puerto Ricans (who arrived in large numbers in the 1940s and 1950s) are now only about a third of the city’s Hispanic population, outnumbered by a combination of Dominicans, Mexicans, Ecuadorians, Colombians, and other Latin Americans. Asian no longer means Chinese but also Korean, Indian, and Filipino (to name the largest groups). The black population, which was virtually all African American five decades ago, is being Caribbeanized – and an increasing number of Africans is adding new diversity. Altogether, more than a quarter of the city’s 2.1 million blacks are foreign born.
Some contend that the growing number of Caribbean and African blacks are “tweaking” monolithic notions of blackness – making whites (and others) more sensitive to ethnic distinctions within the black population. Hispanic immigrants, for their part, often see themselves in terms of the relatively new Hispanic or Latino category – and are often identified as Hispanic or Latino by others -- even if most prefer to be known in terms of their group of national origin.
Asians have undergone a contemporary metamorphosis. Once stigmatized as the “yellow peril,” East Asians are now often viewed as the “model minority.” New York’s Asians rank just below non-Hispanic whites in the city’s ethnoracial hierarchy – and they generally meet with greater acceptance from middle-class white New Yorkers than other racial minorities.
There are also a substantial number of recent European immigrants who are adding new variety to the white population. Russia ranks tenth among the top sending countries to New York City, Poland is fifteenth, and altogether, about one out of four of the city’s non-Hispanic whites is foreign born. New York City’s white population is dominated by first, second, and third generation Catholics (Irish and Italian) and Jews, and white Protestants are practically invisible, although still economically and socially powerful.
The new racial and ethnic amalgam in New York City is not only changing perceptions of race and ethnicity but also creating new divisions, alliances, and relationships. On the negative side, tension and conflict between racial and ethnic groups persist, although in new forms and with the involvement of new groups. Residential segregation between whites and blacks continues at extraordinarily high levels, with serious implications for the hundreds of thousands of immigrants of African ancestry. Black New Yorkers, as well as other people of color, continue to confront prejudice and discrimination in a wide variety of settings.
To further complicate matters, black and Latino immigrants often engage in distancing strategies to set themselves apart from, and claim superiority to, African Americans and Puerto Ricans. For their part, African Americans and Puerto Ricans often resent what they see as numerical, residential, economic, or political encroachment by immigrants. In general, there is a tendency, out of preference but also owing to prejudice, for members of racial and ethnic groups to stick to their own kind in day-to-day interactions. In his study of a multiethnic Queens neighborhood with a mix of Latinos, Asians, African Americans, and whites, the political scientist Michael Jones-Correa writes of communities that overlap but do not touch. In the 1990s, the city witnessed several black boycotts of Korean-owned stories, and tensions have been reported in many neighborhoods between long-term residents and new arrivals – Flushing (in Queens) being one example, where old-time whites often resent the influx and increasing dominance of Asian groups.
Negative as this sounds, it is only a partial picture. There are many extremely positive developments that provide a more optimistic view. Indeed, former Mayor David Dinkins (the city’s first and only African American mayor) was onto something when he referred to the city, during his term in office in the 1990s, as a gorgeous mosaic. The fact is that, by and large, members of different racial and ethnic groups peacefully coexist in New York. Nor is it just a case of tolerance and accommodation; genuine cooperation and coalition building also often occur. Among other things, friendships develop in schools, colleges, playgrounds, and workplaces, and political alliances are formed on certain issues and in certain campaigns.
While New York has many distinct ethnic residential enclaves – Manhattan’s Chinatown is probably the most famous -- the increasing number of multi-ethnic neighborhoods provide the basis for the creation of interethnic ties. As Azadeh Khalili, the deputy commissioner of the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs, recently observed, “Where else do you have a Muslim family living next to a Hindu family living next to a Caribbean family living next to Hasidic Jewish family?”
Significant numbers of American-born Hispanics and Asians have non-Hispanic white spouses or partners; a growing number of marriages are taking place between Dominicans and Puerto Ricans; and unions between African Americans and West Indians or Africans are not unusual, especially among the children of immigrants. All over the city, countless examples exist of amicable relations developing among immigrants from different countries, as well as between immigrants and the native-born, in work, school, and neighborhood contexts.
Perhaps the most encouraging signs of interethnic cooperation are found among the children of immigrants, who move in a world where being from somewhere else is the norm. Because established minority and second generation young people in New York dominate their age cohort – 63 percent of New Yorkers under age eighteen are second-generation immigrants, born in New York, or 1.5 generation immigrants, who arrived as small children -- they have a great deal of contact with each other in their neighborhoods and many city institutions. I see this in my own classes at the City University of New York, a mammoth public institution with nearly 200,000 undergraduates in seventeen colleges in which about 40 percent of the incoming first-year students were born outside the U.S. mainland. Students from places all over the world interact in class, become more comfortable with those of different national backgrounds, and come to take for granted the incredible ethnic mix in their classes, on the subway, in stores, and on the streets.
As they mix and mingle, members of the second generation are creating cultural hybrids with a distinct New York flavor. Sociologists describe new forms of music, street slang, and dance emerging out of the interactions of a remarkable number of groups -- Asians, Latin Americans, Caribbeans, and Africans from many countries as well as native-born African Americans and Puerto Ricans. New varieties of music fuse Asian and African-American forms – Filipino and Indian hip-hop, for example – and the street slang among black youth in central Brooklyn mixes elements from Kingston (Jamaica) and Port-of-Spain (Trinidad) as well as the American South.
Whether we are talking about immigrants or their children, what is clear is that New York is a city that feels comfortable with an immigrant presence and ethnic diversity. Each ethnoracial group – white, black, Hispanic, and Asian – includes a substantial proportion of recent immigrants which has helped create an inclusive immigrant identity. The city also has a long history of immigration – it is America’s classic immigrant gateway. New Yorkers are used to immigration, and most New Yorkers have a close immigrant connection. If they are not an immigrant, they have a parent, grandparent or grandparent who is. A remarkable 60 percent of New Yorkers – or almost 5 million people – are immigrants or children of immigrants. Many of the nearly one million Jewish New Yorkers – and hundreds of thousands of Italian-Americans -- have grandparents or great-grandparents who came from Europe in the last great wave of immigration a hundred years ago. New York’s Irish Americans often trace their immigrant roots further back, to the mid-nineteenth century. Many black New Yorkers are descended from immigrants who arrived in the early twentieth century from what was then the British Caribbean.
In general, ethnic diversity is the expectation in New York – a fact of life, as it were. St. Patrick’s Cathedral, the seat of the Catholic archdiocese of New York on Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue, holds a mass every Sunday afternoon in Spanish. Citibank’s cash machines, found all over the city, offer eleven language options, including Chinese, Korean, and Spanish. Even something as mundane as parking rules reflect a public recognition of ethnic diversity; alternate side parking regulations are suspended on 34 legal and religious holidays, including the Asian Lunar New Year, Purim and Passover, the Feast of the Assumption, the Muslim holiday of Id-al-Adha, and the Hindu celebration of Diwali.
Ethnic diversity is often celebrated in public settings. Officials and social service agencies actively promote events to foster ethnic pride and glorify the city’s multiethnic character and history. Practically every ethnic group has its own festival or parade, the largest being the West Indian American Day Parade on Brooklyn’s Eastern Parkway which draws crowds of one to two million people every Labor Day in early September. Exhibits in museums and libraries highlight the cultural background of diverse immigrant groups, and the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs sponsors an annual Immigration History Week, with several dozen events in the five boroughs celebrating immigrants’ contributions to the city.
Ethnic politics is the lifeblood of New York City politics, with roots deep in the city’s immigrant history. In the 1950s and 1960s aspiring leaders visited the three “Is” – Israel, Italy, and Ireland – the touchstones of many Jewish and Catholic voters. By 2003, after two years in office, Mayor Michael Bloomberg had already visited the Dominican Republic three times; in May 2005, when he was up for re-election, the first of his television campaign spots was in Spanish. Following the lead of his recent predecessors, Bloomberg has gone out of his way to praise immigrants for revitalizing the city’s economy and communities.
It important, of course, not to get too carried away with an image of New York as a perfect model of ethnic inclusion. New Yorkers may boast that their city celebrates all cultures and welcomes everyone, but, as I have noted, it remains a remarkably segregated place and immigrant and native-born racial minorities often feel the bitter sting of disadvantage and discrimination. At the same time, there are optimistic signs of creative interaction among ethnic and racial groups. Owing to its history and contemporary features, New York has an unusual openness to immigrants and ethnic diversity. Ethnic succession is seen as a normal state of affairs. The sociologist Philip Kasinitz and his colleagues put it well when they observe that if Italians are yesterday’s newcomers and today’s establishment, then maybe Colombians (or other ethnic groups) “are the new Italians and, potentially, tomorrow’s establishment. New Yorkers, old and new, are happy to tell themselves this story. It may not be completely true, but the fact that they tell it, and believe it, is significant and may help them make it come true.”
Nancy Foner is Distinguished Professor of Sociology at Hunter College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. She is a leading expert on immigration to New York and the author of many books on the subject, including In a New Land: A Comparative View of Immigration, From Ellis Island to JFK: New York’s Two Great Waves of Immigration, and New Immigrants in New York.
Population of New York City by Race and Hispanic Origin, 1970-2000
|Top Ten Source Countries of the Foreign-born, New York City (2000)|
|Country of Birth||Number||Percent|