Posted on April 17, 2020

Black Like Who?

Gene Demby, NPR, April 15, 2020


This week on the podcast, we talked to a lot of people about the ever-shifting boundaries of blackness, including Christina Greer, an associate professor of political science at Fordham University. She’s the author of the book Black Ethnics: Race, Immigration, And The Pursuit Of The American Dream.


This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

To research your book, you hunkered down with a large labor union in New York City, and you asked the black members of this union — some African, some Afro-Caribbean, some Black American — how they thought about blackness.

Right. I wanted a union because of a few things. One, I wanted to control for class; I didn’t want to interview, say, taxicab drivers, dentists, nannies and engineers, because I was afraid that some of my responses might be due more to financial status and occupation. Within this union, everyone makes different amounts of money, but there’s kind of a shared ethos in a shared occupation. I wanted to see how much black identity meant to them, in a very political, not sociological sphere.

You found that although Afro-Caribbean respondents would ethnically distinguish themselves at times — say, identifying as Haitian or Jamaican — they were also the group most supportive of a shared black racial identity and they articulate most forcefully the inequities persistent in the United States.

You contrasted that with African respondents, who you said “expressed positive opinions pertaining to the possibility of success in America and the least favorable attitudes towards other black ethnic groups.” What is going on there?

I thought that Afro-Caribbeans’ [attitudes] would be in the middle of black Americans and African groups, in the sense that [they might feel there] is the ability to succeed in this country. {snip}

African groups were the most optimistic, which is not surprising. They’ve been here the shortest amount of time as a wholesale group, and there’s still a lot of optimism there.

Black Americans were in the middle. There seemed to be this kind of you-win-some, you-lose-some attitude. You know: you could have a kid who’s a Ph.D. or an NPR host, or you could have a kid who’s incarcerated for 25 years for a bag of weed — what are you going to do? There’s an understanding that you can work really hard and succeed, and this country can just come and pull the rug from underneath you. But you still have to just keep moving.

{snip} African immigrants had the most optimistic outlook about black opportunity in America, Caribbean folks were the most pessimistic, and black Americans are in the middle.

Yes. And that is not what I hypothesized. What I found with my Afro Caribbean respondents was a sense of frustration. They were saying, “I’m now considered black in America. There’s some limits to my success as an immigrant. And that’s not right.”

At once, you have a shared identity with black people in the United States, Black immigrants aren’t allowed to become American the way other immigrant groups are. If they are to assimilate or acculturate, they become black American.

This was the first time that when I spoke to people, they were choosing to remain immigrant. There’s a long legacy of people coming to this country trying to assimilate as quickly as possible so that they can become American. [But] to become American for a Caribbean or an African means to become black American, and that wasn’t necessarily something they wanted for themselves [or] their kids, either. There is a certain element of danger [for] a black American child in this country.

{snip}You write that in the late ’60s, we first saw a really big wave of black immigrants coming to the U.S. Can you tell us about how big that population is today, relative to the larger black population of the U.S.?

We saw trickles [of immigration] in the ’20s, ’30s, ’40s and ’50s, for sure. But the passage of the 1965 Immigration Act completely changed the face of immigration, and this is how we get people from Central and South America, Asia and the Caribbean. This is also the time where we start to see sprinklings of Africans coming over. But it’s not until the ’80s where we start seeing real significant numbers.