The story of West Indian immigrants to the United States is considered a great success. Many of these adoptive citizens have prospered, including General Colin Powell. But Mary Waters tells a very different story about immigrants from the West Indies, especially their children.
She finds that when the immigrants first arrive, their knowledge of English, their skills and contacts, their self-respect, and their optimistic assessment of American race relations facilitate their integration into the American economic structure. Over time, however, the realities of American race relations begin to swamp their positive cultural values. Persistent, blatant racial discrimination soon undermines the openness to whites the immigrants have when they first arrive. Discrimination in housing channels them into neighborhoods with inadequate city services and high crime rates. Inferior public schools undermine their hopes for their children's future. Low wages and poor working conditions are no longer attractive for their children, who use American and not Caribbean standards to measure success.
Ultimately, the values that gained these first-generation immigrants initial success--a willingness to work hard, a lack of attention to racism, a desire for education, an incentive to save--are undermined by the realities of life in the United States. In many families, the hard-won relative success of the parents is followed by the downward slide of their children. Contrary to long-held beliefs, Waters finds, those who resist Americanization are most likely to succeed economically, especially in the second generation.
It would be fair to say that most Americans are not aware of the wide variety of ethnicities that exist among the black Caribbeans migrating to this country. Determined to render visible Caribbean immigrants and their families, Waters undertook an exhaustive research project. Here she compares Jamaican, Barbadian, Trinidadian, and Guyanese immigrants to their Irish and Italian counterparts of the turn of the last century, and because the issue of race so strongly shapes everyday life for people of color in this society, she examines the relationships between (and differences among) American blacks and black Caribbean immigrants. Drawing from interviews with several generations of immigrants, Waters reports a wide range of discoveries--including her finding that the Caribbean immigrants who resist Americanization are the most likely to succeed. And excellent history and a multifaceted analysis of current immigration issues.
Black Identities, Mary Waters' new study of West Indian immigrants and their troubled encounter with the American dream, is an accomplishment of the first order. Full of rich material, Waters' book is delivered in clean, crisp prose, offering an original argument sure to provoke controversy, even as readers will admire its good sense. An outstanding work, Black Identities will be eagerly read by sociologists, historians, political scientists, and anyone interested in the emerging shape of American ethnic life.
Black Identities establishes a new landmark in the study of West Indian immigrant experiences in the United States. Mary C. Waters' perceptive and authoritative study challenges conventional views of the Americanization of West Indian immigrants. Also, her comprehensive coverage of their experiences and contacts with native Americans enriches our understanding of race relations in this country.
This is a very ambitious and important book that offers a sophisticated and highly nuanced treatment of several complex social issues that lie at the core of American politics and society in the late 20th century. The work is distinguished by the sensitivity and imagination of the analysis, its firm grounding in solid empirical work, and a clear and engaging style that makes Black Identities a pleasure to read.
Waters tackles an important problem, one filled with implications, to say nothing of consequences, for our new century It is, however, the story of ordinary West Indian immigrants that Waters wants to tell, and here is where her field work, which is to say, the collection of immigrant voices across a spectrum of attitudes and generations, is of enormous value.
- 2001, Winner of the Thomas and Znaniecki Book Award
- Harvard University Press
From this author
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