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cpoindex
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243 posts
Fri Jul-28-00 11:28 AM

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"West Indians Vs. American Black Folk"


          

I wanted to here what you all have to sy about this. When I wast in college, almost all of the Black kids there were African or of West Indian Descent. There were very few Black People Like Myself, whose parents and Grand Parents were Born and Raised in the US. I was wondering why out of all the Black folk n this country, why isthere such a disportionate amount of West Indian or African Black People in Professional Schools. Some told me that it was because of the work ethic of West Indian folks. Others told me it was because as, Immigrants who put so much effort to get to the States, West Indian and African people in this country are more ambitious, optimistic and driven, unlike African-Americans who really just "happen to be" in this country. THe third explaination I heard that as descendent of slaves, African-Americans are a little more brow beaten and disenchanted with this counrty, as oppose to the Black Immigrants whose ancestors were less likely to be slaves. What do you all think?



********

"Lyrically Handsome"

  

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Topic Outline
Subject Author Message Date ID
interesting
Jul 28th 2000
1
RE: West Indians Vs. American Black Folk
Dulce478
Jul 28th 2000
2
Don't get me wrong
Jul 28th 2000
3
Don't get me wrong
Jul 28th 2000
4
RE: Don't get me wrong
Jul 29th 2000
5
RE: West Indians Vs. American Black Folk
Jul 31st 2000
9
make note that:
Jul 30th 2000
6
RE: make note that:
Jul 31st 2000
10
The Black "Jews"
Jul 31st 2000
7
Cultural Advantage
Jul 31st 2000
8
Real role models...
Jul 31st 2000
12
      There is only one way to be black?
Aug 01st 2000
13
           RE: There is only one way to be black?
Aug 03rd 2000
17
the Black Jews
Jul 31st 2000
11
RE: West Indians Vs. American Black Folk
Aug 01st 2000
14
Good post
Aug 01st 2000
15
important historical note...
Aug 01st 2000
16
West Indians are also the majority in their countries
Aug 03rd 2000
18
Here are all the answeres!
adamant
Aug 03rd 2000
19
Yup
Aug 03rd 2000
20

illosopher
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Fri Jul-28-00 12:15 PM

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1. "interesting"
In response to Reply # 0


          

I think several may play a part in this phenomenon. I think the immigrant thing is important, all immigrants who came to this country on their own accord have a certain work ethic. This is true of Italians, Koreans, Nigerians, etc. Secondly i don't agree with the idea of slavery, cuz, the West Indies were slave holding colonies as well. At the same time, ne can argue we showed our work ethic for over several centuries, a work ethic no ethnic i mean no ethnic could ever boast. Free labor for several hundred years in the building the strongest nation the world's ever known. We as African_Americans have had one of most peculiar ethnic histories in the world. So it isn't fair to compare our plight to anyone else even our West indian brethren who were enslaved (they held on many island that were majority Black and were able to keep many tradions that were lost to us in the states) i think there are many more issues that can be touched. Good Post!


  

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Dulce478

Fri Jul-28-00 02:26 PM

  
2. "RE: West Indians Vs. American Black Folk"
In response to Reply # 0


          

I am both West Indian and African, and I can tell you that they are, as you said, more ambitious, optimistic and driven people. All the explanations for the lack of American black folk in college have truth. But as far as black folk being "disenchanted" by slavery, I don't think that is so. Oppression, maybe, but not slavery. The plight of other countries is sometimes more than the trouble here. And as the daughter of immigrants, they see the sugar coated reality of the America(the matrix). They hear that it is the land of the free and are enchanted by it. My parents have told me that the lure of educational opportunity and personal luxury has great appeal among foreigners. They feel that they can accomplish more in the States, than in their own country.

~Dulce~

  

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cpoindex
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Fri Jul-28-00 06:23 PM

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3. "Don't get me wrong"
In response to Reply # 2


          


I am not saying American Black people don't have a work ethic. I am saying that Black Americans are less likely to believe in the American Dream and don't persue it through education the way west Indian and African folks do. A lot of Kids in the Hood Believe that the only opportuntiy to get out of the hood is threw athleetics, But did you know that more money is available in the form of Academic Scholarships than Athletic? I didn't know that til recently and I don't a lot of Black Folks know that.


********

"Lyrically Handsome"

  

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cpoindex
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Fri Jul-28-00 06:24 PM

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4. "Don't get me wrong"
In response to Reply # 2


          


I am not saying American Black people don't have a work ethic. I am saying that Black Americans are less likely to believe in the American Dream and don't persue it through education the way west Indian and African folks do. A lot of Kids in the Hood Believe that the only opportuntiy to get out of the hood is threw athleetics, But did you know that more money is available in the form of Academic Scholarships than Athletic? I didn't know that til recently and I don't a lot of Black Folks know that.


********

"Lyrically Handsome"

  

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illosopher
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Sat Jul-29-00 05:09 AM

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5. "RE: Don't get me wrong"
In response to Reply # 4


          

You can argue we don't have no work ethic, how can you when your work ethic was exploited in the country you now reside in. We've worked harder for country then anyone i think we are all worked out as a people to an extent. I'm native and Black and i'm like Fuck a work ethic...

"...I call it reparations but you call it extortion!"-Talib Green

  

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eddydon
Member since Jan 20th 2003
0 posts
Mon Jul-31-00 08:06 PM

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9. "RE: West Indians Vs. American Black Folk"
In response to Reply # 2


          

definately agree. my folks mostly focused on getting an education. they see what America has to offer and take. they also can't figure out why the hell some african-americans won't or do not take advantage of these opportunities. i usually have to explain to them the racism in the country. but the funny thing is that they do know about the racism in this country. my folks don't want me majoring in Economics or Mechanical Engineering, they believe it is a white dominated field(this is where i get angry at them)they want me to become a doctor(yeah right).
why is it some immigrants even black people believe that certain areas are excluded to them and they will never succeed?
one


"I try to school these shorties under me/but they can't see from life to death/so know we're back to where we never left/the ghetto/It's a damn shame/knowing it's a man's game/shorty think it's time to make your plans change/all that running around trying to chase whats already here/been there/pops told me to knuckle up/No fear." - Nas

  

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DJ_scratch_N_sniff
Member since Jun 09th 2002
155 posts
Sun Jul-30-00 01:17 PM

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6. "make note that:"
In response to Reply # 0


          

Immigrants who come to the US from the third world are typically better off (economically) than most of their country.

*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~
giving you true posts since 1999 - effa charter member

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-George W Bush

  

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eddydon
Member since Jan 20th 2003
0 posts
Mon Jul-31-00 08:08 PM

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10. "RE: make note that:"
In response to Reply # 6


          

No disrespect but....who told you that?
one


"I try to school these shorties under me/but they can't see from life to death/so know we're back to where we never left/the ghetto/It's a damn shame/knowing it's a man's game/shorty think it's time to make your plans change/all that running around trying to chase whats already here/been there/pops told me to knuckle up/No fear." - Nas

  

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k_orr
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Mon Jul-31-00 03:07 AM

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7. "The Black "Jews""
In response to Reply # 0


  

          

>I wanted to here what you
>all have to sy about
>this. When I wast
>in college, almost all of
>the Black kids there were
>African or of West Indian
>Descent. There were
>very few Black People Like
>Myself, whose parents and Grand
>Parents were Born and Raised
>in the US. I
>was wondering why out of
>all the Black folk n
>this country, why isthere
>such a disportionate amount of
>West Indian or African Black
>People in Professional Schools.
>Some told me that it
>was because of the work
>ethic of West Indian folks.
> Others told
>me it was because as,
>Immigrants who put so much
>effort to get to the
>States, West Indian and African
>people in this country are
>more ambitious, optimistic and driven,
>unlike African-Americans who really just
>"happen to be" in this
>country. THe third explaination
>I heard that as descendent
>of slaves, African-Americans are a
>little more brow beaten and
>disenchanted with this counrty, as
>oppose to the Black Immigrants
>whose ancestors were less likely
>to be slaves. What
>do you all think?
>
>
>
>********
>
>"Lyrically Handsome"



http://breddanansi.tumblr.com/

  

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k_orr
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Mon Jul-31-00 03:58 AM

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8. "Cultural Advantage"
In response to Reply # 0


  

          


First, let me dispel the myth that Afrikan and Caribbean immigrants, and their children always do better than their Amerikkkan counterparts. It's not true. I've known plenty of cats from both sides of the atlantic and gulf of mexico that are not participating in the immigrant dream. My Uncle was deported. Even though his mother was a registered nurse and a land lord. My father was a hardcore rastafarai, but didn't do anything for years with his 2 degrees. His mother went back to college @ 50 and got her degree.

But there is a numerical disparity btw American Blacks and Non-American Blacks when it comes to education and business achievement.

Often NBA's come from educated families. There is a strong correlation between education of parents and children. When the parent's aren't formally educated they still have other resources that can propel their children. This is not always the case.

On the mental tip, NAB's come from environments with real role models. In their native country, the black man was the athlete, the singer, and the criminal. But the black man was also the engineer, the attorney, the doctor, the good for nothing politician. A good # of American Black children (even though 66% of Af-Am's are in the middle and upper class), do not see these things in their lives. I think it has a major effect. Even in suburban and upper middle class neighborhoods, the Black kids don't look to the black professionals and see that anything is possible. I will never understand how black folks from the burbs will identify more with ghetto struggles as opposed to the struggle of their parents to move into the burbs. Maybe I do understand it, but don't agree with it.

NAB's also have their own cultural economy. A black man will try BBQ from the other side of the tracks. A Jamaican can only get curry goat or callaloo from a Jamaican Store. There is a lot of long time customers at Afrikan and Caribbean culture shops. You don't see the same kind of loyalty for AB's businesses. In this case, the white man's ice isn't colder, in fact it will never be. This is very much like other Ethnic groups and their own economies (the Jews, the Chinese, the Russians)

NAB's are treated differently by both black and whites. Jamaican's have patois, which is percieved as cool and different. AB's have African American Vernacular English, a system that has its own rules and grammar. AAVE is considered dumb and shameful by the others and ourselves. How many of you can switch between the King's English and how your family talks at the drop of a dime?

The question I wonder, is how long does this generational affect last as immigrants become more Americanized? Some cultures have strong barriers, like language, to slow the progress. Others do not.

peace,
k. orr

http://breddanansi.tumblr.com/

  

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eddydon
Member since Jan 20th 2003
0 posts
Mon Jul-31-00 08:18 PM

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12. "Real role models..."
In response to Reply # 8


          

i feel you k_orr said about role models. especially musically like Bounty Killer in Jamaica with his songs like "Fed Up", "Anytime", "can't Beleive My Eyes", or Fela in Nigeria. These people are role models to me as an African-American. Why aren't there any role models besides entertainers in U.S.A.?
why doesn't Dr. Ben Carson get much love just as Jay-Z?
one
"I try to school these shorties under me/but they can't see from life to death/so know we're back to where we never left/the ghetto/It's a damn shame/knowing it's a man's game/shorty think it's time to make your plans change/all that running around trying to chase whats already here/been there/pops told me to knuckle up/No fear." - Nas

  

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k_orr
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Tue Aug-01-00 03:54 AM

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13. "There is only one way to be black?"
In response to Reply # 12


  

          

>Why
>aren't there any role models
>besides entertainers in U.S.A.?

At least that is what we've been told in popular culture for a long time. And when I say pop-culture, I'm not talking about what is jamming on urban radio, but rather the word on the street pop culture.

Even when black folks do things other than entertain, they are still entertaining. Johnny Cochran is a perfect example. He's a dope attorney, but he's known for his flash and not his skills as a jurist. The current Mayor of DC doesn't get a lot of attention because he is the opposite of what Black folks are supposed to be. He's quiet, he's calculating, and he's straight business. And he's not given a whole lot of attention, in light of his predecessor.

Can you be black and not be cool?

peace,
k. orr
house of phat beats

http://breddanansi.tumblr.com/

  

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eddydon
Member since Jan 20th 2003
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Thu Aug-03-00 01:27 AM

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17. "RE: There is only one way to be black?"
In response to Reply # 13


          

Yeah you can be black and not be cool. but those type of role models aren't "cool." they have to have some type of charisma....pop-culture likes the type of person to have some type of charisma/personality that is interesting. is it may be they are dull and boring or can they make you laugh? some "white" people like blacks who make them laugh and entertain. always smiling, always cracking a joke....people(even black people) aren't ready for a serious African-American or person of color to be serious then they become a threat or fit the stereotypical view.....'pac was right when he said "we ain't ready to have a black president."(if you get my message)
one




"I try to school these shorties under me/but they can't see from life to death/so know we're back to where we never left/the ghetto/It's a damn shame/knowing it's a man's game/shorty think it's time to make your plans change/all that running around trying to chase whats already here/been there/pops told me to knuckle up/No fear." - Nas

  

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mikaela_h
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Mon Jul-31-00 08:08 PM

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11. "the Black Jews"
In response to Reply # 0


          

I honestly don't know how it is now..but I think that all of your explanations apply...when West Indians leave home to go abroad there is the expectation that they will make something of themselves..become successful, and in many cases if they go back and haven't achieved anything, there is a great sense of shame...there are more professional opportunities abroad than at home, and so when they leave they usually leave to take advantage of those opportunities...some go abroad soley for the purpose of studying, then they take their degree back home...I also think in a way they are forced into that situation even if only for the fact that they get less assistance as immigrants than their american born counterparts...

I think American born blacks, even Canadian born blacks take for granted what is there, it's not as if they all just overlooks what's there and settle, some do take advantage of the opportunities..but being in university I can see the difference in the numbers...it is disproportionate....

good observation

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************* **************

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Darbw
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Tue Aug-01-00 04:24 AM

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14. "RE: West Indians Vs. American Black Folk"
In response to Reply # 0


          

Makes sense for sure. MY friends who are of West Indian descent I find to be a little more free spirited too, which is great, cause the have endless energy.


"Jazz is not dead...it just smells funny.."-Frank Zappa


"Escuchela la ciudad respirando"
"So much on my mind I just can't recline
Blastin holes in the night til she bled sunshine. Breathe in, inhale vapors from bright stars that shine. Breathe out, weed smoke retrace the skyline.Yo don't the bass ride out like an ancient mating call.I can't take it y'all, I can feel the city breathin.Chest heavin, against the flesh of the evening.Sigh before we die like the last train leaving."--Black Star "Respiration"




  

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GirlChild
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Tue Aug-01-00 04:59 AM

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15. "Good post"
In response to Reply # 0


  

          

as a west indian, I must agree with you that it definately has to do with our work ethics. I mean, the islands are still considered 3rd world countries to some. We work hard for what we have because we don't have that much. I can remember my father telling me that his father didn't even want them going to school. he wanted them to work because they grew up very poor. For him, going to school was a luxury. He pushes me to do well in school because he never wants me to experience what he did.

also, the schools in the islands are a british based curiculm.They learn at a faster pace than American students. Also the fact the they must take a test to actually pass to the next form (grade) may have something to do with the fact of them trying to excell. I don't know, these are just rambling thoughts and it's still early in the morning and this may not make much sense.
_____________________
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spirit
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Tue Aug-01-00 05:58 AM

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16. "important historical note..."
In response to Reply # 0


  

          

> THe third explaination
>I heard that as descendent
>of slaves, African-Americans are a
>little more brow beaten and
>disenchanted with this counrty, as
>oppose to the Black Immigrants
>whose ancestors were less likely
>to be slaves.

There was slavery in the Caribbean, as well as the U.S. So, it is quite likely that anyone (of color) you meet of West Indian descent is a descendant of slaves.

I think what you might have meant to say was, West Indians lack of experiencing historic discrimination in the States (Jim Crow era) may lead them to be more optimistic about their chances of advancing in the U.S. (whereas black folks with generations of fam on U.S. soil know that back in the day, whites occasionally used to kill and rob us when we became successful, thus possibly dimming the urge to achieve amongst many of our people, even if only subconsciously).

hope that wasn't too wordy...

Spread love,

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nahymsa
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Thu Aug-03-00 03:52 AM

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18. "West Indians are also the majority in their countries"
In response to Reply # 16


          

As opposed to our situation in the US.

That makes a profound difference.

  

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adamant

Thu Aug-03-00 10:47 AM

  
19. "Here are all the answeres!"
In response to Reply # 0


          

http://www.gladwell.com/1996_04_29_a_black.htm

this guy, Malcolm Gladwell, writes for the New Yorker and he effin rocks! (warning - print this out to read - otherwise it'll hurt your eyes)

April 29, 1996
PERSONAL HISTORY
Black Like Them
Through the lens of his own family's experience, the author explores why
West Indians and American blacks are perceived differently.


My cousin Rosie and her husband, Noel, live in a two-bedroom bungalow
on Argyle Avenue, in Uniondale, on the west end of Long Island. When they
came to America, twelve years ago, they lived in a basement apartment a
dozen or so blocks away, next to their church. At the time, they were both
taking classes at the New York Institute of Technology, which was right
nearby. But after they graduated, and Rosie got a job managing a fast-food
place and Noel got a job in asbestos removal, they managed to save a little
money and bought the house on Argyle Avenue.

From the outside, their home looks fairly plain. It's in a part of
Uniondale that has a lot of tract housing from just after the war, and most of
the houses are alike--squat and square, with aluminum siding, maybe a
dormer window in the attic, and a small patch of lawn out front. But there is a
beautiful park down the street, the public schools are supposed to be good,
and Rosie and Noel have built a new garage and renovated the basement.
Now that Noel has started his own business, as an environmental engineer,
he has his office down there--Suite 2B, it says on his stationery--and every
morning he puts on his tie and goes down the stairs to make calls and work
on the computer. If Noel's business takes off, Rosie says, she would like to
move to a bigger house, in Garden City, which is one town over. She says this
even though Garden City is mostly white. In fact, when she told one of her
girlfriends, a black American, about this idea, her friend said that she was
crazy--that Garden City was no place for a black person. But that is just the
point. Rosie and Noel are from Jamaica. They don't consider themselves black
at all.

This doesn't mean that my cousins haven't sometimes been lumped
together with American blacks. Noel had a job once removing asbestos at
Kennedy Airport, and his boss there called him "nigger" and cut his hours. But
Noel didn't take it personally. That boss, he says, didn't like women or Jews,
either, or people with college degrees--or even himself, for that matter.
Another time, Noel found out that a white guy working next to him in the
same job and with the same qualifications was making ten thousand dollars a
year more than he was. He quit the next day. Noel knows that racism is out
there. It's just that he doesn't quite understand--or accept--the categories on
which it depends.

To a West Indian, black is a literal description: you are black if your skin
is black. Noel's father, for example, is black. But his mother had a white
father, and she herself was fair-skinned and could pass. As for Rosie, her
mother and my mother, who are twins, thought of themselves while they
were growing up as "middle-class brown," which is to say that they are about
the same shade as Colin Powell. That's because our maternal grandfather was
part Jewish, in addition to all kinds of other things, and Grandma, though she
was a good deal darker than he was, had enough Scottish blood in her to
have been born with straight hair. Rosie's mother married another brown
Jamaican, and that makes Rosie a light chocolate. As for my mother, she
married an Englishman, making everything that much more complicated,
since by the racial categories of my own heritage I am one thing and by the
racial categories of America I am another. Once, when Rosie and Noel came
to visit me while I was living in Washington, D.C., Noel asked me to show him
"where the black people lived," and I was confused for a moment until I
realized that he was using "black" in the American sense, and so was asking
in the same way that someone visiting Manhattan might ask where Chinatown
was. That the people he wanted to see were in many cases racially
indistinguishable from him didn't matter. The facts of his genealogy, of his
nationality, of his status as an immigrant made him, in his own eyes,
different.

This question of who West Indians are and how they define themselves
may seem trivial, like racial hairsplitting. But it is not trivial. In the past
twenty years, the number of West Indians in America has exploded. There are
now half a million in the New York area alone and, despite their recent arrival,
they make substantially more money than American blacks. They live in
better neighborhoods. Their families are stronger. In the New York area, in
fact, West Indians fare about as well as Chinese and Korean immigrants. That
is why the Caribbean invasion and the issue of West Indian identity have
become such controversial issues. What does it say about the nature of
racism that another group of blacks, who have the same legacy of slavery as
their American counterparts and are physically indistinguishable from them,
can come here and succeed as well as the Chinese and the Koreans do? Is
overcoming racism as simple as doing what Noel does, which is to dismiss it,
to hold himself above it, to brave it and move on?

These are difficult questions, not merely for what they imply about
American blacks but for the ways in which they appear to contradict
conventional views of what prejudice is. Racism, after all, is supposed to be
indiscriminate. For example, sociologists have observed that the more blacks
there are in a community the more negative the whites' attitudes will be.
Blacks in Denver have a far easier time than blacks in, say, Cleveland.
Lynchings in the South at the turn of this century, to give another example,
were far more common in counties where there was a large black population
than in areas where whites were in the majority. Prejudice is the crudest of
weapons, a reaction against blacks in the aggregate that grows as the
perception of black threat grows. If that is the case, however, the addition of
hundreds of thousands of new black immigrants to the New York area should
have made things worse for people like Rosie and Noel, not better. And, if
racism is so indiscriminate in its application, why is one group of blacks
flourishing and the other not?

The implication of West Indian success is that racism does not really
exist at all--at least, not in the form that we have assumed it does. The
implication is that the key factor in understanding racial prejudice is not the
behavior and attitudes of whites but the behavior and attitudes of blacks--not
white discrimination but black culture. It implies that when the conservatives
in Congress say the responsibility for ending urban poverty lies not with
collective action but with the poor themselves they are right.

I think of this sometimes when I go with Rosie and Noel to their church,
which is in Hempstead, just a mile away. It was once a white church, but in
the past decade or so it has been taken over by immigrants from the
Caribbean. They have so swelled its membership that the church has bought
much of the surrounding property and is about to add a hundred seats to its
sanctuary. The pastor, though, is white, and when the band up front is
playing and the congregation is in full West Indian form the pastor sometimes
seems out of place, as if he cannot move in time with the music. I always
wonder how long the white minister at Rosie and Noel's church will
last--whether there won't be some kind of groundswell among the
congregation to replace him with one of their own. But Noel tells me the issue
has never really come up. Noel says, in fact, that he's happier with a white
minister, for the same reasons that he's happy with his neighborhood, where
the people across the way are Polish and another neighbor is Hispanic and
still another is a black American. He doesn't want to be shut off from
everyone else, isolated within the narrow confines of his race. He wants to be
part of the world, and when he says these things it is awfully tempting to
credit that attitude with what he and Rosie have accomplished.

Is this confidence, this optimism, this equanimity all that separates the
poorest of American blacks from a house on Argyle Avenue?

2.

In 1994, Philip Kasinitz, a sociologist at Manhattan's Hunter College, and
Jan Rosenberg, who teaches at Long Island University, conducted a study of
the Red Hook area of Brooklyn, a neighborhood of around thirteen or fourteen
thousand which lies between the waterfront and the Gowanus Expressway.
Red Hook has a large public-housing project at its center, and around the
project, in the streets that line the waterfront, are several hundred thriving
blue-collar businesses--warehouses, shipping companies, small
manufacturers, and contractors. The object of the study was to resolve what
Kasinitz and Rosenberg saw as the paradox of Red Hook: despite Red Hook's
seemingly fortuitous conjunction of unskilled labor and blue-collar jobs, very
few of the Puerto Ricans and African-Americans from the neighborhood ever
found work in the bustling economy of their own back yard.

After dozens of interviews with local employers, the two researchers
uncovered a persistent pattern of what they call positive discrimination. It
was not that the employers did not like blacks and Hispanics. It was that they
had developed an elaborate mechanism for distinguishing between those they
felt were "good" blacks and those they felt were "bad" blacks, between those
they judged to be "good" Hispanics and those they considered "bad"
Hispanics. "Good" meant that you came from outside the neighborhood,
because employers identified locals with the crime and dissipation they saw
on the streets around them. "Good" also meant that you were an immigrant,
because employers felt that being an immigrant implied a loyalty and a
willingness to work and learn not found among the native-born. In Red Hook,
the good Hispanics are Mexican and South American, not Puerto Rican. And
the good blacks are West Indian.

The Harvard sociologist Mary C. Waters conducted a similar study, in
1993, which looked at a food-service company in Manhattan where West
Indian workers have steadily displaced African-Americans in the past few
years. The transcripts of her interviews with the company managers make
fascinating reading, providing an intimate view of the perceptions that govern
the urban workplace. Listen to one forty-year-old white male manager on the
subject of West Indians:

They tend more to shy away from doing all of the illegal things because
they have such strict rules down in their countries and jails. And they're
nothing like here. So like, they're like really paranoid to do something
wrong. They seem to be very, very self-conscious of it. No matter what
they have to do, if they have to try and work three jobs, they do. They
won't go into drugs or anything like that.

Or listen to this, from a fifty-three-year-old white female manager:

I work closely with this one girl who's from Trinidad. And she told me
when she first came here to live with her sister and cousin, she had two
children. And she said I'm here four years and we've reached our goals.
And what was your goal? For her two children to each have their own
bedroom. Now she has a three bedroom apartment and she said that's
one of the goals she was shooting for. . . . If that was an American,
they would say, I reached my goal. I bought a Cadillac.

This idea of the West Indian as a kind of superior black is not a new
one. When the first wave of Caribbean immigrants came to New York and
Boston, in the early nineteen-hundreds, other blacks dubbed them
Jewmaicans, in derisive reference to the emphasis they placed on hard work
and education. In the nineteen-eighties, the economist Thomas Sowell gave
the idea a serious intellectual imprimatur by arguing that the West Indian
advantage was a historical legacy of Caribbean slave culture. According to
Sowell, in the American South slaveowners tended to hire managers who
were married, in order to limit the problems created by sexual relations
between overseers and slave women. But the West Indies were a hardship
post, without a large and settled white population. There the overseers
tended to be bachelors, and, with white women scarce, there was far more
commingling of the races. The resulting large group of coloreds soon formed a
kind of proto-middle class, performing various kinds of skilled and
sophisticated tasks that there were not enough whites around to do, as there
were in the American South. They were carpenters, masons, plumbers, and
small businessmen, many years in advance of their American counterparts,
developing skills that required education and initiative.

My mother and Rosie's mother came from this colored class. Their
parents were schoolteachers in a tiny village buried in the hills of central
Jamaica. My grandmother's and grandfather's salaries combined put them, at
best, on the lower rungs of the middle class. But their expectations went well
beyond that. In my grandfather's library were Dickens and Maupassant. My
mother and her sister were pushed to win scholarships to a proper English-
style boarding school at the other end of the island; and later, when my
mother graduated, it was taken for granted that she would attend university
in England, even though the cost of tuition and passage meant that my
grandmother had to borrow a small fortune from the Chinese grocer down the
road.

My grandparents had ambitions for their children, but it was a special
kind of ambition, born of a certainty that American blacks did not have--that
their values were the same as those of society as a whole, and that hard work
and talent could actually be rewarded. In my mother's first year at boarding
school, she looked up "Negro" in the eleventh edition of the Encyclopędia
Britannica. "In certain . . . characteristics . . . the negro would appear to
stand on a lower evolutionary plane than the white man," she read. And the
entry continued:

The mental constitution of the negro is very similar to that of a child,
normally good-natured and cheerful, but subject to sudden fits of emotion
and passion during which he is capable of performing acts of singular
atrocity, impressionable, vain, but often exhibiting in the capacity of
servant a dog-like fidelity which has stood the supreme test.

All black people of my mother's generation--and of generations before
and since--have necessarily faced a moment like this, when they are
confronted for the first time with the allegation of their inferiority. But, at
least in my mother's case, her school was integrated, and that meant she
knew black girls who were more intelligent than white girls, and she knew
how she measured against the world around her. At least she lived in a
country that had blacks and browns in every position of authority, so her
personal experience gave the lie to what she read in the encyclopedia. This, I
think, is what Noel means when he says that he cannot quite appreciate what
it is that weighs black Americans down, because he encountered the
debilitating effects of racism late, when he was much stronger. He came of
age in a country where he belonged to the majority.

When I was growing up, my mother sometimes read to my brothers and
me from the work of Louise Bennett, the great Jamaican poet of my mother's
generation. The poem I remember best is about two women--one black and
one white--in a hair salon, the black woman getting her hair straightened
and, next to her, the white woman getting her hair curled:

same time me mind start 'tink
'bout me and de white woman
how me tek out me natural perm
and she put in false one

There is no anger or resentment here, only irony and playfulness--the
two races captured in a shared moment of absurdity. Then comes the twist.
The black woman is paying less to look white than the white woman is to look
black:

de two a we da tek a risk
what rain or shine will bring
but fe har risk is t're poun'
fi me onle five shillin'

In the nineteen-twenties, the garment trade in New York was first
integrated by West Indian women, because, the legend goes, they would see
the sign on the door saying "No blacks need apply" and simply walk on in.
When I look back on Bennett's poem, I think I understand how they found the
courage to do that.

3.

It is tempting to use the West Indian story as evidence that
discrimination doesn't really exist--as proof that the only thing inner-city
African-Americans have to do to be welcomed as warmly as West Indians in
places like Red Hook is to make the necessary cultural adjustments. If West
Indians are different, as they clearly are, then it is easy to imagine that those
differences are the reason for their success--that their refusal to be bowed is
what lets them walk on by the signs that prohibit them or move to
neighborhoods that black Americans would shy away from. It also seems hard
to see how the West Indian story is in any way consistent with the idea of
racism as an indiscriminate, pernicious threat aimed at all black people.

But here is where things become more difficult, and where what seems
obvious about West Indian achievement turns out not to be obvious at all.
One of the striking things in the Red Hook study, for example, is the
emphasis that the employers appeared to place on hiring outsiders--Irish or
Russian or Mexican or West Indian immigrants from places far from Red Hook.
The reason for this was not, the researchers argue, that the employers had
any great familiarity with the cultures of those immigrants. They had none,
and that was the point. They were drawn to the unfamiliar because what was
familiar to them--the projects of Red Hook--was anathema. The Columbia
University anthropologist Katherine Newman makes the same observation in a
recent study of two fast-food restaurants in Harlem. She compared the
hundreds of people who applied for jobs at those restaurants with the few
people who were actually hired, and found, among other things, that how far
an applicant lived from the job site made a huge difference. Of those
applicants who lived less than two miles from the restaurant, ten per cent
were hired. Of those who lived more than two miles from the restaurant,
nearly forty per cent were hired. As Newman puts it, employers preferred the
ghetto they didn't know to the ghetto they did.

Neither study describes a workplace where individual attitudes make a
big difference, or where the clunky and impersonal prejudices that
characterize traditional racism have been discarded. They sound like places
where old-style racism and appreciation of immigrant values are somehow
bound up together. Listen to another white manager who was interviewed by
Mary Waters:

Island blacks who come over, they're immigrant. They may not have
such a good life where they are so they gonna try to strive to better
themselves and I think there's a lot of American blacks out there who feel we
owe them. And enough is enough already. You know, this is something that
happened to their ancestors, not now. I mean, we've done so much for the
black people in America now that it's time that they got off their butts.

Here, then, are the two competing ideas about racism side by side: the
manager issues a blanket condemnation of American blacks even as he holds
West Indians up as a cultural ideal. The example of West Indians as "good"
blacks makes the old blanket prejudice against American blacks all the easier
to express. The manager can tell black Americans to get off their butts
without fear of sounding, in his own ears, like a racist, because he has
simultaneously celebrated island blacks for their work ethic. The success of
West Indians is not proof that discrimination against American blacks does not
exist. Rather, it is the means by which discrimination against American blacks
is given one last, vicious twist: I am not so shallow as to despise you for the
color of your skin, because I have found people your color that I like. Now I
can despise you for who you are.

This is racism's newest mutation--multicultural racism, where one
ethnic group can be played off against another. But it is wrong to call West
Indians the victors in this competition, in anything but the narrowest sense.
In American history, immigrants have always profited from assimilation: as
they have adopted the language and customs of this country, they have sped
their passage into the mainstream. The new racism means that West Indians
are the first group of people for whom that has not been true. Their
advantage depends on their remaining outsiders, on remaining unfamiliar, on
being distinct by custom, culture, and language from the American blacks
they would otherwise resemble. There is already some evidence that the
considerable economic and social advantages that West Indians hold over
American blacks begin to dissipate by the second generation, when the island
accent has faded, and those in positions of power who draw distinctions
between good blacks and bad blacks begin to lump West Indians with
everyone else. For West Indians, assimilation is tantamount to suicide. This is
a cruel fate for any immigrant group, but it is especially so for West Indians,
whose history and literature are already redolent with the themes of
dispossession and loss, with the long search for identity and belonging. In the
nineteen-twenties, Marcus Garvey sought community in the idea of Africa.
Bob Marley, the Jamaican reggae singer, yearned for Zion. In "Rites of
Passage" the Barbadian poet Edward Kamau Brathwaite writes:

Where, then, is the nigger's
home?
In Paris Brixton Kingston
Rome?
Here?
Or in Heaven?

America might have been home. But it is not: not Red Hook, anyway;
not Harlem; not even Argyle Avenue.

There is also no small measure of guilt here, for West Indians cannot
escape the fact that their success has come, to some extent, at the expense
of American blacks, and that as they have noisily differentiated themselves
from African-Americans--promoting the stereotype of themselves as the good
blacks--they have made it easier for whites to join in. It does not help
matters that the same kinds of distinctions between good and bad blacks
which govern the immigrant experience here have always lurked just below
the surface of life in the West Indies as well. It was the infusion of white
blood that gave the colored class its status in the Caribbean, and the
members of this class have never forgotten that, nor have they failed, in a
thousand subtle ways, to distance themselves from those around them who
experienced a darker and less privileged past.

In my mother's house, in Harewood, the family often passed around a
pencilled drawing of two of my great-grandparents; she was part Jewish, and
he was part Scottish. The other side--the African side--was never mentioned.
My grandmother was the ringleader in this. She prized my grandfather's light
skin, but she also suffered as a result of this standard. "She's nice, you know,
but she's too dark," her mother-in-law would say of her. The most telling
story of all, though, is the story of one of my mother's relatives, whom I'll call
Aunt Joan, who was as fair as my great-grandmother was. Aunt Joan married
what in Jamaica is called an Injun--a man with a dark complexion that is
redeemed from pure Africanness by straight, fine black hair. She had two
daughters by him--handsome girls with dark complexions. But he died young,
and one day, while she was travelling on a train to visit her daughter, she
met and took an interest in a light-skinned man in the same railway car.
What happened next is something that Aunt Joan told only my mother, years
later, with the greatest of shame. When she got off the train, she walked right
by her daughter, disowning her own flesh and blood, because she did not
want a man so light-skinned and desirable to know that she had borne a
daughter so dark.

My mother, in the nineteen-sixties, wrote a book about her experiences.
It was entitled "Brown Face, Big Master," the brown face referring to her and
the big master, in the Jamaican dialect, referring to God. Sons, of course, are
hardly objective on the achievements of their mothers, but there is one
passage in the book that I find unforgettable, because it is such an eloquent
testimony to the moral precariousness of the Jamaican colored class--to the
mixture of confusion and guilt that attends its position as beneficiary of
racism's distinctions. The passage describes a time just after my mother and
father were married, when they were living in London and my eldest brother
was still a baby. They were looking for an apartment, and after a long search
my father found one in a London suburb. On the day after they moved in,
however, the landlady ordered them out. "You didn't tell me your wife was
colored," she told my father, in a rage.

In her book my mother describes her long struggle to make sense of
this humiliation, to reconcile her experience with her faith. In the end, she
was forced to acknowledge that anger was not an option--that as a Jamaican
"middle-class brown," and a descendant of Aunt Joan, she could hardly
reproach another for the impulse to divide good black from bad black:

I complained to God in so many words: "Here I was, the wounded
representative of the negro race in our struggle to be accounted free and
equal with the dominating whites!" And God was amused; my prayer did not
ring true with Him. I would try again. And then God said, "Have you not
done the same thing? Remember this one and that one, people whom you have
slighted or avoided or treated less considerately than others because they
were different superficially, and you were ashamed to be identified with
them. Have you not been glad that you are not more colored than you are?
Grateful that you are not black?" My anger and hate against the landlady
melted. I was no better than she was, nor worse for that matter. . . . We
were both guilty of the sin of self-regard, the pride and the exclusiveness
by which we cut some people off from ourselves.

4.

I grew up in Canada, in a little farming town an hour and a half outside
of Toronto. My father teaches mathematics at a nearby university, and my
mother is a therapist. For many years, she was the only black person in town,
but I cannot remember wondering or worrying, or even thinking, about this
fact. Back then, color meant only good things. It meant my cousins in
Jamaica. It meant the graduate students from Africa and India my father
would bring home from the university. My own color was not something I ever
thought much about, either, because it seemed such a stray fact. Blacks knew
what I was. They could discern the hint of Africa beneath my fair skin. But it
was a kind of secret--something that they would ask me about quietly when
no one else was around. ("Where you from?" an older black man once asked
me. "Ontario," I said, not thinking. "No," he replied. "Where you from?" And
then I understood and told him, and he nodded as if he had already known.
"We was speculatin' about your heritage," he said.) But whites never guessed,
and even after I informed them it never seemed to make a difference. Why
would it? In a town that is ninety-nine per cent white, one modest alleged
splash of color hardly amounts to a threat.

But things changed when I left for Toronto to attend college. This was
during the early nineteen-eighties, when West Indians were immigrating to
Canada in droves, and Toronto had become second only to New York as the
Jamaican expatriates' capital in North America. At school, in the dining hall, I
was served by Jamaicans. The infamous Jane-Finch projects, in northern
Toronto, were considered the Jamaican projects. The drug trade then taking
off was said to be the Jamaican drug trade. In the popular imagination,
Jamaicans were--and are--welfare queens and gun-toting gangsters and
dissolute youths. In Ontario, blacks accused of crimes are released by the
police eighteen per cent of the time; whites are released twenty-nine per cent
of the time. In drug-trafficking and importing cases, blacks are twenty-seven
times as likely as whites to be jailed before their trial takes place, and twenty
times as likely to be imprisoned on drug-possession charges.

After I had moved to the United States, I puzzled over this seeming
contradiction--how West Indians celebrated in New York for their industry and
drive could represent, just five hundred miles northwest, crime and
dissipation. Didn't Torontonians see what was special and different in West
Indian culture? But that was a naļve question. The West Indians were the first
significant brush with blackness that white, smug, comfortable Torontonians
had ever had. They had no bad blacks to contrast with the newcomers, no
African-Americans to serve as a safety valve for their prejudices, no way to
perform America's crude racial triage.

Not long ago, I sat in a coffee shop with someone I knew vaguely from
college, who, like me, had moved to New York from Toronto. He began to
speak of the threat that he felt Toronto now faced. It was the Jamaicans, he
said. They were a bad seed. He was, of course, oblivious of my background. I
said nothing, though, and he launched into a long explanation of how, in
slave times, Jamaica was the island where all the most troublesome and
obstreperous slaves were sent, and how that accounted for their particularly
nasty disposition today.

I have told that story many times since, usually as a joke, because it
was funny in an appalling way--particularly when I informed him much, much
later that my mother was Jamaican. I tell the story that way because
otherwise it is too painful. There must be people in Toronto just like Rosie and
Noel, with the same attitudes and aspirations, who want to live in a
neighborhood as nice as Argyle Avenue, who want to build a new garage and
renovate their basement and set up their own business downstairs. But it is
not completely up to them, is it? What has happened to Jamaicans in Toronto
is proof that what has happened to Jamaicans here is not the end of racism,
or even the beginning of the end of racism, but an accident of history and
geography. In America, there is someone else to despise. In Canada, there is
not. In the new racism, as in the old, somebody always has to be the nigger.


copyright 1996 Malcolm Gladwell
Home Books Articles







April 29, 1996
PERSONAL HISTORY
Black Like Them
Through the lens of his own family's experience, the author explores why
West Indians and American blacks are perceived differently.


My cousin Rosie and her husband, Noel, live in a two-bedroom bungalow
on Argyle Avenue, in Uniondale, on the west end of Long Island. When they
came to America, twelve years ago, they lived in a basement apartment a
dozen or so blocks away, next to their church. At the time, they were both
taking classes at the New York Institute of Technology, which was right
nearby. But after they graduated, and Rosie got a job managing a fast-food
place and Noel got a job in asbestos removal, they managed to save a little
money and bought the house on Argyle Avenue.

From the outside, their home looks fairly plain. It's in a part of
Uniondale that has a lot of tract housing from just after the war, and most of
the houses are alike--squat and square, with aluminum siding, maybe a
dormer window in the attic, and a small patch of lawn out front. But there is a
beautiful park down the street, the public schools are supposed to be good,
and Rosie and Noel have built a new garage and renovated the basement.
Now that Noel has started his own business, as an environmental engineer,
he has his office down there--Suite 2B, it says on his stationery--and every
morning he puts on his tie and goes down the stairs to make calls and work
on the computer. If Noel's business takes off, Rosie says, she would like to
move to a bigger house, in Garden City, which is one town over. She says this
even though Garden City is mostly white. In fact, when she told one of her
girlfriends, a black American, about this idea, her friend said that she was
crazy--that Garden City was no place for a black person. But that is just the
point. Rosie and Noel are from Jamaica. They don't consider themselves black
at all.

This doesn't mean that my cousins haven't sometimes been lumped
together with American blacks. Noel had a job once removing asbestos at
Kennedy Airport, and his boss there called him "nigger" and cut his hours. But
Noel didn't take it personally. That boss, he says, didn't like women or Jews,
either, or people with college degrees--or even himself, for that matter.
Another time, Noel found out that a white guy working next to him in the
same job and with the same qualifications was making ten thousand dollars a
year more than he was. He quit the next day. Noel knows that racism is out
there. It's just that he doesn't quite understand--or accept--the categories on
which it depends.

To a West Indian, black is a literal description: you are black if your skin
is black. Noel's father, for example, is black. But his mother had a white
father, and she herself was fair-skinned and could pass. As for Rosie, her
mother and my mother, who are twins, thought of themselves while they
were growing up as "middle-class brown," which is to say that they are about
the same shade as Colin Powell. That's because our maternal grandfather was
part Jewish, in addition to all kinds of other things, and Grandma, though she
was a good deal darker than he was, had enough Scottish blood in her to
have been born with straight hair. Rosie's mother married another brown
Jamaican, and that makes Rosie a light chocolate. As for my mother, she
married an Englishman, making everything that much more complicated,
since by the racial categories of my own heritage I am one thing and by the
racial categories of America I am another. Once, when Rosie and Noel came
to visit me while I was living in Washington, D.C., Noel asked me to show him
"where the black people lived," and I was confused for a moment until I
realized that he was using "black" in the American sense, and so was asking
in the same way that someone visiting Manhattan might ask where Chinatown
was. That the people he wanted to see were in many cases racially
indistinguishable from him didn't matter. The facts of his genealogy, of his
nationality, of his status as an immigrant made him, in his own eyes,
different.

This question of who West Indians are and how they define themselves
may seem trivial, like racial hairsplitting. But it is not trivial. In the past
twenty years, the number of West Indians in America has exploded. There are
now half a million in the New York area alone and, despite their recent arrival,
they make substantially more money than American blacks. They live in
better neighborhoods. Their families are stronger. In the New York area, in
fact, West Indians fare about as well as Chinese and Korean immigrants. That
is why the Caribbean invasion and the issue of West Indian identity have
become such controversial issues. What does it say about the nature of
racism that another group of blacks, who have the same legacy of slavery as
their American counterparts and are physically indistinguishable from them,
can come here and succeed as well as the Chinese and the Koreans do? Is
overcoming racism as simple as doing what Noel does, which is to dismiss it,
to hold himself above it, to brave it and move on?

These are difficult questions, not merely for what they imply about
American blacks but for the ways in which they appear to contradict
conventional views of what prejudice is. Racism, after all, is supposed to be
indiscriminate. For example, sociologists have observed that the more blacks
there are in a community the more negative the whites' attitudes will be.
Blacks in Denver have a far easier time than blacks in, say, Cleveland.
Lynchings in the South at the turn of this century, to give another example,
were far more common in counties where there was a large black population
than in areas where whites were in the majority. Prejudice is the crudest of
weapons, a reaction against blacks in the aggregate that grows as the
perception of black threat grows. If that is the case, however, the addition of
hundreds of thousands of new black immigrants to the New York area should
have made things worse for people like Rosie and Noel, not better. And, if
racism is so indiscriminate in its application, why is one group of blacks
flourishing and the other not?

The implication of West Indian success is that racism does not really
exist at all--at least, not in the form that we have assumed it does. The
implication is that the key factor in understanding racial prejudice is not the
behavior and attitudes of whites but the behavior and attitudes of blacks--not
white discrimination but black culture. It implies that when the conservatives
in Congress say the responsibility for ending urban poverty lies not with
collective action but with the poor themselves they are right.

I think of this sometimes when I go with Rosie and Noel to their church,
which is in Hempstead, just a mile away. It was once a white church, but in
the past decade or so it has been taken over by immigrants from the
Caribbean. They have so swelled its membership that the church has bought
much of the surrounding property and is about to add a hundred seats to its
sanctuary. The pastor, though, is white, and when the band up front is
playing and the congregation is in full West Indian form the pastor sometimes
seems out of place, as if he cannot move in time with the music. I always
wonder how long the white minister at Rosie and Noel's church will
last--whether there won't be some kind of groundswell among the
congregation to replace him with one of their own. But Noel tells me the issue
has never really come up. Noel says, in fact, that he's happier with a white
minister, for the same reasons that he's happy with his neighborhood, where
the people across the way are Polish and another neighbor is Hispanic and
still another is a black American. He doesn't want to be shut off from
everyone else, isolated within the narrow confines of his race. He wants to be
part of the world, and when he says these things it is awfully tempting to
credit that attitude with what he and Rosie have accomplished.

Is this confidence, this optimism, this equanimity all that separates the
poorest of American blacks from a house on Argyle Avenue?

2.

In 1994, Philip Kasinitz, a sociologist at Manhattan's Hunter College, and
Jan Rosenberg, who teaches at Long Island University, conducted a study of
the Red Hook area of Brooklyn, a neighborhood of around thirteen or fourteen
thousand which lies between the waterfront and the Gowanus Expressway.
Red Hook has a large public-housing project at its center, and around the
project, in the streets that line the waterfront, are several hundred thriving
blue-collar businesses--warehouses, shipping companies, small
manufacturers, and contractors. The object of the study was to resolve what
Kasinitz and Rosenberg saw as the paradox of Red Hook: despite Red Hook's
seemingly fortuitous conjunction of unskilled labor and blue-collar jobs, very
few of the Puerto Ricans and African-Americans from the neighborhood ever
found work in the bustling economy of their own back yard.

After dozens of interviews with local employers, the two researchers
uncovered a persistent pattern of what they call positive discrimination. It
was not that the employers did not like blacks and Hispanics. It was that they
had developed an elaborate mechanism for distinguishing between those they
felt were "good" blacks and those they felt were "bad" blacks, between those
they judged to be "good" Hispanics and those they considered "bad"
Hispanics. "Good" meant that you came from outside the neighborhood,
because employers identified locals with the crime and dissipation they saw
on the streets around them. "Good" also meant that you were an immigrant,
because employers felt that being an immigrant implied a loyalty and a
willingness to work and learn not found among the native-born. In Red Hook,
the good Hispanics are Mexican and South American, not Puerto Rican. And
the good blacks are West Indian.

The Harvard sociologist Mary C. Waters conducted a similar study, in
1993, which looked at a food-service company in Manhattan where West
Indian workers have steadily displaced African-Americans in the past few
years. The transcripts of her interviews with the company managers make
fascinating reading, providing an intimate view of the perceptions that govern
the urban workplace. Listen to one forty-year-old white male manager on the
subject of West Indians:

They tend more to shy away from doing all of the illegal things because
they have such strict rules down in their countries and jails. And they're
nothing like here. So like, they're like really paranoid to do something
wrong. They seem to be very, very self-conscious of it. No matter what
they have to do, if they have to try and work three jobs, they do. They
won't go into drugs or anything like that.

Or listen to this, from a fifty-three-year-old white female manager:

I work closely with this one girl who's from Trinidad. And she told me
when she first came here to live with her sister and cousin, she had two
children. And she said I'm here four years and we've reached our goals.
And what was your goal? For her two children to each have their own
bedroom. Now she has a three bedroom apartment and she said that's
one of the goals she was shooting for. . . . If that was an American,
they would say, I reached my goal. I bought a Cadillac.

This idea of the West Indian as a kind of superior black is not a new
one. When the first wave of Caribbean immigrants came to New York and
Boston, in the early nineteen-hundreds, other blacks dubbed them
Jewmaicans, in derisive reference to the emphasis they placed on hard work
and education. In the nineteen-eighties, the economist Thomas Sowell gave
the idea a serious intellectual imprimatur by arguing that the West Indian
advantage was a historical legacy of Caribbean slave culture. According to
Sowell, in the American South slaveowners tended to hire managers who
were married, in order to limit the problems created by sexual relations
between overseers and slave women. But the West Indies were a hardship
post, without a large and settled white population. There the overseers
tended to be bachelors, and, with white women scarce, there was far more
commingling of the races. The resulting large group of coloreds soon formed a
kind of proto-middle class, performing various kinds of skilled and
sophisticated tasks that there were not enough whites around to do, as there
were in the American South. They were carpenters, masons, plumbers, and
small businessmen, many years in advance of their American counterparts,
developing skills that required education and initiative.

My mother and Rosie's mother came from this colored class. Their
parents were schoolteachers in a tiny village buried in the hills of central
Jamaica. My grandmother's and grandfather's salaries combined put them, at
best, on the lower rungs of the middle class. But their expectations went well
beyond that. In my grandfather's library were Dickens and Maupassant. My
mother and her sister were pushed to win scholarships to a proper English-
style boarding school at the other end of the island; and later, when my
mother graduated, it was taken for granted that she would attend university
in England, even though the cost of tuition and passage meant that my
grandmother had to borrow a small fortune from the Chinese grocer down the
road.

My grandparents had ambitions for their children, but it was a special
kind of ambition, born of a certainty that American blacks did not have--that
their values were the same as those of society as a whole, and that hard work
and talent could actually be rewarded. In my mother's first year at boarding
school, she looked up "Negro" in the eleventh edition of the Encyclopędia
Britannica. "In certain . . . characteristics . . . the negro would appear to
stand on a lower evolutionary plane than the white man," she read. And the
entry continued:

The mental constitution of the negro is very similar to that of a child,
normally good-natured and cheerful, but subject to sudden fits of emotion
and passion during which he is capable of performing acts of singular
atrocity, impressionable, vain, but often exhibiting in the capacity of
servant a dog-like fidelity which has stood the supreme test.

All black people of my mother's generation--and of generations before
and since--have necessarily faced a moment like this, when they are
confronted for the first time with the allegation of their inferiority. But, at
least in my mother's case, her school was integrated, and that meant she
knew black girls who were more intelligent than white girls, and she knew
how she measured against the world around her. At least she lived in a
country that had blacks and browns in every position of authority, so her
personal experience gave the lie to what she read in the encyclopedia. This, I
think, is what Noel means when he says that he cannot quite appreciate what
it is that weighs black Americans down, because he encountered the
debilitating effects of racism late, when he was much stronger. He came of
age in a country where he belonged to the majority.

When I was growing up, my mother sometimes read to my brothers and
me from the work of Louise Bennett, the great Jamaican poet of my mother's
generation. The poem I remember best is about two women--one black and
one white--in a hair salon, the black woman getting her hair straightened
and, next to her, the white woman getting her hair curled:

same time me mind start 'tink
'bout me and de white woman
how me tek out me natural perm
and she put in false one

There is no anger or resentment here, only irony and playfulness--the
two races captured in a shared moment of absurdity. Then comes the twist.
The black woman is paying less to look white than the white woman is to look
black:

de two a we da tek a risk
what rain or shine will bring
but fe har risk is t're poun'
fi me onle five shillin'

In the nineteen-twenties, the garment trade in New York was first
integrated by West Indian women, because, the legend goes, they would see
the sign on the door saying "No blacks need apply" and simply walk on in.
When I look back on Bennett's poem, I think I understand how they found the
courage to do that.

3.

It is tempting to use the West Indian story as evidence that
discrimination doesn't really exist--as proof that the only thing inner-city
African-Americans have to do to be welcomed as warmly as West Indians in
places like Red Hook is to make the necessary cultural adjustments. If West
Indians are different, as they clearly are, then it is easy to imagine that those
differences are the reason for their success--that their refusal to be bowed is
what lets them walk on by the signs that prohibit them or move to
neighborhoods that black Americans would shy away from. It also seems hard
to see how the West Indian story is in any way consistent with the idea of
racism as an indiscriminate, pernicious threat aimed at all black people.

But here is where things become more difficult, and where what seems
obvious about West Indian achievement turns out not to be obvious at all.
One of the striking things in the Red Hook study, for example, is the
emphasis that the employers appeared to place on hiring outsiders--Irish or
Russian or Mexican or West Indian immigrants from places far from Red Hook.
The reason for this was not, the researchers argue, that the employers had
any great familiarity with the cultures of those immigrants. They had none,
and that was the point. They were drawn to the unfamiliar because what was
familiar to them--the projects of Red Hook--was anathema. The Columbia
University anthropologist Katherine Newman makes the same observation in a
recent study of two fast-food restaurants in Harlem. She compared the
hundreds of people who applied for jobs at those restaurants with the few
people who were actually hired, and found, among other things, that how far
an applicant lived from the job site made a huge difference. Of those
applicants who lived less than two miles from the restaurant, ten per cent
were hired. Of those who lived more than two miles from the restaurant,
nearly forty per cent were hired. As Newman puts it, employers preferred the
ghetto they didn't know to the ghetto they did.

Neither study describes a workplace where individual attitudes make a
big difference, or where the clunky and impersonal prejudices that
characterize traditional racism have been discarded. They sound like places
where old-style racism and appreciation of immigrant values are somehow
bound up together. Listen to another white manager who was interviewed by
Mary Waters:

Island blacks who come over, they're immigrant. They may not have
such a good life where they are so they gonna try to strive to better
themselves and I think there's a lot of American blacks out there who feel we
owe them. And enough is enough already. You know, this is something that
happened to their ancestors, not now. I mean, we've done so much for the
black people in America now that it's time that they got off their butts.

Here, then, are the two competing ideas about racism side by side: the
manager issues a blanket condemnation of American blacks even as he holds
West Indians up as a cultural ideal. The example of West Indians as "good"
blacks makes the old blanket prejudice against American blacks all the easier
to express. The manager can tell black Americans to get off their butts
without fear of sounding, in his own ears, like a racist, because he has
simultaneously celebrated island blacks for their work ethic. The success of
West Indians is not proof that discrimination against American blacks does not
exist. Rather, it is the means by which discrimination against American blacks
is given one last, vicious twist: I am not so shallow as to despise you for the
color of your skin, because I have found people your color that I like. Now I
can despise you for who you are.

This is racism's newest mutation--multicultural racism, where one
ethnic group can be played off against another. But it is wrong to call West
Indians the victors in this competition, in anything but the narrowest sense.
In American history, immigrants have always profited from assimilation: as
they have adopted the language and customs of this country, they have sped
their passage into the mainstream. The new racism means that West Indians
are the first group of people for whom that has not been true. Their
advantage depends on their remaining outsiders, on remaining unfamiliar, on
being distinct by custom, culture, and language from the American blacks
they would otherwise resemble. There is already some evidence that the
considerable economic and social advantages that West Indians hold over
American blacks begin to dissipate by the second generation, when the island
accent has faded, and those in positions of power who draw distinctions
between good blacks and bad blacks begin to lump West Indians with
everyone else. For West Indians, assimilation is tantamount to suicide. This is
a cruel fate for any immigrant group, but it is especially so for West Indians,
whose history and literature are already redolent with the themes of
dispossession and loss, with the long search for identity and belonging. In the
nineteen-twenties, Marcus Garvey sought community in the idea of Africa.
Bob Marley, the Jamaican reggae singer, yearned for Zion. In "Rites of
Passage" the Barbadian poet Edward Kamau Brathwaite writes:

Where, then, is the nigger's
home?
In Paris Brixton Kingston
Rome?
Here?
Or in Heaven?

America might have been home. But it is not: not Red Hook, anyway;
not Harlem; not even Argyle Avenue.

There is also no small measure of guilt here, for West Indians cannot
escape the fact that their success has come, to some extent, at the expense
of American blacks, and that as they have noisily differentiated themselves
from African-Americans--promoting the stereotype of themselves as the good
blacks--they have made it easier for whites to join in. It does not help
matters that the same kinds of distinctions between good and bad blacks
which govern the immigrant experience here have always lurked just below
the surface of life in the West Indies as well. It was the infusion of white
blood that gave the colored class its status in the Caribbean, and the
members of this class have never forgotten that, nor have they failed, in a
thousand subtle ways, to distance themselves from those around them who
experienced a darker and less privileged past.

In my mother's house, in Harewood, the family often passed around a
pencilled drawing of two of my great-grandparents; she was part Jewish, and
he was part Scottish. The other side--the African side--was never mentioned.
My grandmother was the ringleader in this. She prized my grandfather's light
skin, but she also suffered as a result of this standard. "She's nice, you know,
but she's too dark," her mother-in-law would say of her. The most telling
story of all, though, is the story of one of my mother's relatives, whom I'll call
Aunt Joan, who was as fair as my great-grandmother was. Aunt Joan married
what in Jamaica is called an Injun--a man with a dark complexion that is
redeemed from pure Africanness by straight, fine black hair. She had two
daughters by him--handsome girls with dark complexions. But he died young,
and one day, while she was travelling on a train to visit her daughter, she
met and took an interest in a light-skinned man in the same railway car.
What happened next is something that Aunt Joan told only my mother, years
later, with the greatest of shame. When she got off the train, she walked right
by her daughter, disowning her own flesh and blood, because she did not
want a man so light-skinned and desirable to know that she had borne a
daughter so dark.

My mother, in the nineteen-sixties, wrote a book about her experiences.
It was entitled "Brown Face, Big Master," the brown face referring to her and
the big master, in the Jamaican dialect, referring to God. Sons, of course, are
hardly objective on the achievements of their mothers, but there is one
passage in the book that I find unforgettable, because it is such an eloquent
testimony to the moral precariousness of the Jamaican colored class--to the
mixture of confusion and guilt that attends its position as beneficiary of
racism's distinctions. The passage describes a time just after my mother and
father were married, when they were living in London and my eldest brother
was still a baby. They were looking for an apartment, and after a long search
my father found one in a London suburb. On the day after they moved in,
however, the landlady ordered them out. "You didn't tell me your wife was
colored," she told my father, in a rage.

In her book my mother describes her long struggle to make sense of
this humiliation, to reconcile her experience with her faith. In the end, she
was forced to acknowledge that anger was not an option--that as a Jamaican
"middle-class brown," and a descendant of Aunt Joan, she could hardly
reproach another for the impulse to divide good black from bad black:

I complained to God in so many words: "Here I was, the wounded
representative of the negro race in our struggle to be accounted free and
equal with the dominating whites!" And God was amused; my prayer did not
ring true with Him. I would try again. And then God said, "Have you not
done the same thing? Remember this one and that one, people whom you have
slighted or avoided or treated less considerately than others because they
were different superficially, and you were ashamed to be identified with
them. Have you not been glad that you are not more colored than you are?
Grateful that you are not black?" My anger and hate against the landlady
melted. I was no better than she was, nor worse for that matter. . . . We
were both guilty of the sin of self-regard, the pride and the exclusiveness
by which we cut some people off from ourselves.

4.

I grew up in Canada, in a little farming town an hour and a half outside
of Toronto. My father teaches mathematics at a nearby university, and my
mother is a therapist. For many years, she was the only black person in town,
but I cannot remember wondering or worrying, or even thinking, about this
fact. Back then, color meant only good things. It meant my cousins in
Jamaica. It meant the graduate students from Africa and India my father
would bring home from the university. My own color was not something I ever
thought much about, either, because it seemed such a stray fact. Blacks knew
what I was. They could discern the hint of Africa beneath my fair skin. But it
was a kind of secret--something that they would ask me about quietly when
no one else was around. ("Where you from?" an older black man once asked
me. "Ontario," I said, not thinking. "No," he replied. "Where you from?" And
then I understood and told him, and he nodded as if he had already known.
"We was speculatin' about your heritage," he said.) But whites never guessed,
and even after I informed them it never seemed to make a difference. Why
would it? In a town that is ninety-nine per cent white, one modest alleged
splash of color hardly amounts to a threat.

But things changed when I left for Toronto to attend college. This was
during the early nineteen-eighti

  

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odu
Member since Jun 02nd 2002
33 posts
Thu Aug-03-00 11:34 AM

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20. "Yup"
In response to Reply # 19


          

"In America, there is someone else to despise. In Canada, there is not. In the new racism, as in the old, somebody always has to be the nigger. "

Exactly right. African-Americans already represent the permanent underclass in this society. When other immigrants of similar color come over and "succeed", they tend to slap themselves on the back for their industrious attitude and "hard work." Well, no doubt people must work hard to get ahead here, but they are still getting ahead at the expense of others.

  

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