Transnational America Today
- Alejandro Portes (Editor) and Rubén G. Rumbaut (Editor)
Ethnicities: Children of Immigrants in America. University of California Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- John L. Jackson, Jr. (Author)
Harlemworld: Doing Race and Class in Contemporary Black America. University of Chicago Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
- Roger Waldinger (Editor)
Strangers at the Gates: New Immigrants in Urban America. University of California Press (purchase at Amazon.ca)
Reviewed by Michael Nowlin
"As America enters the twenty-first century" asserts Roger Waldinger at the outset of Strangers at the Gates, "it is clear that the twentieth was the century of immigration." His statement from hindsight is surely meant to recall the more prophetic statement made at the dawn of the last century by another eminent American sociologist, W.E.B. Du Bois, who in The Souls of Black Folk declared the problem of the twentieth century to be "the problem of the color line." American attitudes towards immigration throughout the twentieth century have been intimately entangled with this deeper facet of America’s social and cultural history, and so it is not surprising to find Du Bois’s words cited early in both the Waldinger led study, and the collection of essays Ethnicities: Children of Immigrants in America, compiled and introduced by Rubén G. Rumbaut and Alejandro Portes.
Today, we need reminding of the extent to which European immigrants were once classified as less than white: the success of the European immigrants from the 1880-1920 period is largely responsible for modern understandings of the American dream, and their experience testifies in the popular imagination to the virtues of the American melting pot. But the numerically vaster (if proportionally smaller) wave of immigrants that have come since the relaxation of restrictive immigration policies in 1965 returns the colour line to the forefront of the national consciousness, for most of the immigrants are from Mexico, Cuba, and various Asian, Central American, and Caribbean nations. And despite the gains made by African Americans as a result of what is sometimes referred to as the Second Reconstruction of the 1960s, the spectre of an African American urban "underclass" still serves as a negative yardstick by which to measure the prospects of the new Americans.
Strangers at the Gates and Ethnicities study the successes, failures, and prospects of the new immigrant groups and the effects these groups are having on the urban centres they tend to gather in. The former derives its general claims from intensive study of the social and economic structures of the five major urban immigrant destinations: Los Angeles, New York, San Francisco, Miami, and Chicago. The latter elaborates upon longitudinal studies of two pools of children of immigrants conducted in the 1990s in San Diego and Miami, in essays discretely focused on the different immigrant groups (e.g., Cubans, Mexicans, Vietnamese, Haitians, Filipinos, Nicaraguans, West Indians). For students of contemporary ethnic literatures of the United States, both essay collections provide indispensable contextual information highlighting the significantly different experiences undergone by these groups, experiences contingent upon the social capital and job skills they bring to America, the historical and ideological context of their reception, and the particular urban centres they gravitate to. But readers looking for intensive discussions of the cultural identity issues that inform so much multicultural fiction and poetry might be disappointed. The contributors are social scientists rigorously using predominantly (but not exclusively) quantifiable data to gauge the pragmatic issue of relative degrees of socio-economic success in the new land, which, of course, is what most immigrants to America are seeking. Still, issues of acculturation and ethnicity inevitably surface, and research findings reveal quite conclusively the role that biculturalism plays in facilitating such success, particularly a second generation member’s dexterity at moving between adopted American ways and the nurturing environment of the home culture and language.
Both studies are responding to concerns that the second great immigrant tide of the twentieth century will not duplicate the success of the first. Neither supports overly pessimistic prognoses, since upward mobility and a certain degree of assimilation over generations still seem to be the rule, but they also foreground some of the historically unique problems facing many of these immigrants in the new century, such as the increasingly bifurcated economic structure of the major cities in the wake of de-industrialization, which leaves fewer opportunities for low skilled workers to find a job ladder they can climb and thus makes for widening economic inequality in the cities. And all the contributors stress that the recent immigrants are coming in different streams, for different reasons, and with different responses from the host nation. Some groups are coming with a high concentration of highly skilled workers indeed, immigrants from some countries (India, China, Korea) are on average better educated than American-born workers, while others are predominantly low skilled and poorly educated, such as the large Mexican American population whose situation seems to cause the most concern.
If the late twentieth-century immigration tide inevitably invites comparisons with the earlier wave that helped transform the United States into a modern, cosmopolitan nation, so any study of America’s most famous urban "ghetto," Harlem, must confront the now-mythologized past glories of the black city within the white of the 1910s and 20s and the extent to which it has come to stand as a kind of black variation on the American dream. It certainly reveals something about the persistence of the colour line that Harlem has remained pretty much the black urban enclave it had become by the 1920s. For all the poverty afflicting its residents, it retains its powerful hold on the national and international imagination, black and non-black, as a special, racialized site: hence John L. Jackson, Jr.’s title Harlemworld, a neologism borrowed from hip-hop music to signify Harlem’s hyper-real and intertextual existence beyond the borders of the physical place. Jackson seeks to interrogate this larger than life symbolic realm by returning as a properly self-reflexive anthropologist to the field of contemporary Harlem itself.
Jackson seeks to reveal that the heterogeneity of Harlem belies any simplistic attribution of a black essence to this world famous "black" community. The colour-line permeates Harlem largely through class distinctions, created by the proximity of middle-class and impoverished blacks. Race and class are grounded in performances that become very real to the people for whom they are crucial constructions of a meaningful social identity. And for most of Jackson’s subjects, drawn from both the middle class and so-called underclass, "blackness" is a virtue. As he concedes, his theoretical claim has already been succinctly summed up in a rap song: "You not a nigga because you black. You a nigga ’cause of how you act." The citation is not mere whimsy, but reflects Jackson’s serious regard for African American "folk" culture. His genuine respect for ordinary black American voices also informs the many interviews that make up the most valuable and engaging component of his book. The fragmented portraits that emerge from these are the stuff of first rate documentary realism.
- Constructing American Biography by Victoria Lamont
Books reviewed: Constructing American Lives: Biography and Culture in Nineteenth-Century America by Scott E. Casper
- Refining the Isms by Maria Noëlle Ng
Books reviewed: Ethics After Idealism: Theory-Culture-Ethnicity-reading by Rey Chow and Cultural Readings of Imperialism: Edward Said and the Gravity of History by Benita Parry, Keith Ansell Pearson, and Judith Squires
- National Out-Takes by Adam Frank
Books reviewed: The Great American Thing: Modern Art and National Identity, 1915-1935 by Wanda M. Corn and Canadian Art: From Its Beginnings to 2000 by Anne Newlands
- The "Lighter" Companion by Wibke Reger
Books reviewed: The Concise Oxford Companion to African American Literature by William L. Andrews, Frances Smith Foster, and Trudier Harris
- Whiteout by Marilyn Iwama
Books reviewed: Discourses of Domination: Racial Bias in the Canadian English-Language Press by Frances Henry and Carol Tator
MLA: Nowlin, Michael. Transnational America Today. canlit.ca. Canadian Literature, 8 Dec. 2011. Web. 13 Dec. 2013.
This review originally appeared in Canadian Literature #181 (Summer 2004), (Wiseman, Livesay, Sime, Connelly, Robinson). (pg. 183 - 185)
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