Thursday, May 21, 2015

Immigrants and African Americans

African Americans who migrated from the South to Chicago in 1918. Photo: Getty Images/Chicago History Museum

(Department of Sociology, Harvard University)

The experiences of African Americans and immigrants have long provided different, and sometimes contrasting, models with which the United States has understood racial and ethnic difference. In some historical moments, blacks and immigrants have made common cause in their struggle for inclusion (Parks & Warren 2012, Telles & Ortiz 2008). More often, however, they have been rivals or competitors, viewing their interests as standing in opposition. Indeed, since the early twentieth century, African American scholars have often noted that the successful incorporation of immigrants into American society, and perhaps even their social recognition as whites, was connected to their differentiation from blacks (Du Bois 1920, Frazier 1966 [1939]).

In recent years, historians have picked up this notion, pointing to immigrants’ achievement of “whiteness” in large part by distancing themselves from African Americans as a key factor in their upward mobility (Ignatiev 1995; Roediger 1994, 2005). Other observers have argued that applying this contemporary racial lens creates an oversimplified and anachronistic understanding of past immigrants’ incorporation experiences (see Alba 2005, Fox & Guglielmo 2012, Jacobson 1998). Nevertheless, most would agree that immigrant progress has often come, at least in part, at the expense of African Americans.

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