Ethnicity as Racism’s New Look

At the beginning of his essay, “Black Like Them,” Malcolm Gladwell describes how his cousins, Rosie and Noel, despite being Jamaican, “don’t consider themselves black at all” (Gladwell, 29). In his work, Gladwell explores the phenomena of West Indians’ success in ; though physically similar to African-Americans, West Indians seem to be distinguished from African-Americans by American society and are generally doing much better economically than their somewhat physically identical counterparts. Gladwell dubs this anomaly in traditional racism, “new racism.” Joane Nagel’s essay, “Constructing Ethnicity: Creating and Recreating Ethnic Identity and Culture,” elucidates how Jamaicans and other West Indians have become their own distinct ethnic group, as opposed to being lumped together with African-Americans due to their appearance. In the chapter “The Decomposition of America,” from his work The Disuniting of America, Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. examines the negative consequences that the creation of ethnic groups, such as West Indian, can have on society and its various members. Also, in his chapter “E Pluribus Unum?,” Schlesinger’s views on the ideals behind life in America offer some insight into why Jamaicans are perceived differently in Toronto as opposed to New York City. Both Nagel and Schlesinger’s works suggest that the phenomena of new racism, as experienced by West Indians in Gladwell’s work, is only a mutation of traditional racism: ethnic prejudice.

The constructionist view of ethnicity, as Nagel describes it, explains how the West Indians in Gladwell’s observations managed to differentiate themselves from African-Americans, despite their physical resemblance. In his investigation, Gladwell discusses the work of two sociologists, Philip Kasinitz and Jan Rosenberg, in which the duo explored ethnicity’s role in obtaining work in Red Hook, Brooklyn. Their findings revealed that local employers preferred hiring “good” minorities, rather immigrants, who offered “a loyalty and a willingness to work and learn not found among the native-born” (Gladwell, 32). The distinction being made by the employers is the dissection of larger ethnic groups, like Hispanic, into smaller categories, like Puerto Rican and Mexican, and then the application of new, more specific, stereotypes to the smaller enclaves, like Puerto Ricans being lazy or Mexicans being hardworking. The reason for this discrepancy is due to the experience of employers with individuals from different ethnic backgrounds. From their experience, employers generalize the traits they have observed in individuals to define entire groups of people. This is an attempt by the employers to hire more able employees based on their ethnic background because they believe it reflects the employee’s work ethic. This process can be explained by Nagel’s “constructionist view” of the nature of ethnicity. The constructionist view on ethnicity is one in which “ethnicity is created and recreated as various groups and interests put forth competing visions of the ethnic composition of society and argue over which rewards or sanctions should be attached to which ethnicities” (Nagel, 239). The nature of ethnicity is derived from a collection of perspectives of different groups in society, which change over time according to the needs of people. The fluid, constantly changing and, most especially, socially constructed borders that define members of different ethnic groups explain how, through their own actions, Jamaicans have distinguished themselves from African-Americans. Once this anomaly in the racist paradigm was experienced by society, the necessary changes were made to accommodate this new population; West Indians were given their own smaller ethnic group, complete with more specific stereotypes.

Despite the perceived differences between themselves and African-Americans leading to much economic success for West Indians, dividing populations along ethnic boundaries comes with many negative repercussions. In his work, Schlesinger examines how the rise of different ethnic groups in can be problematic. Though no harm is done through taking pride in one’s own culture, dividing society into ethnicities creates a type of hierarchy, instigating a “culture of victimization” (Schlesinger, 109). Dividing any population into smaller segments only results in borders between the different groups created and, ultimately, magnifies resentment between the competing groups. This idea is exemplified in Gladwell’s essay. Besides the aforementioned preference amongst employers for immigrant employees over native ones, the division of people into ethnic groups can also have more severe social consequences. Gladwell dissects a white manager’s racist criticism of African-Americans and arrives at what he calls discriminations’ “last vicious twist” (Gladwell, 34). Gladwell exemplifies this “twist” while speculating what that particular manager was thinking in reference to African-Americans: “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” (Gladwell, 34). The division of society along ethnic borders increases the chances of stereotyping and discrimination. But instead of the basis of oppression being vague, like skin color, it becomes based on more specific criteria, like ethnicity. The more specific the criteria for oppression, the smaller the group of victims become, in turn making the forces of discrimination far more concentrated, damaging and sometimes even legitimate in the eyes of the oppressor.

The difference in the perception of West Indians in the Toronto area as compared to New York City, as described by Gladwell, can be explained by Schlesinger’s analysis of ‘s underlying philosophy. Gladwell discusses the perception of West Indians in New York as hardworking and law biding citizens. But he is also exposed to the negative stereotypes of Jamaicans from Toronto, which leaves him wondering “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?” (Gladwell, 36). Gladwell believes this discretion is due to West Indians being the first colored race of immigrants that Toronto was ever exposed to. But according to Schlesinger’s work, the success of West Indians in New York may lie more on the philosophy upon which is based on than Toronto’s history of immigration. Schlesinger claims that because has always been a land of different cultures, it embodies “the movement from exclusion to inclusion,” which “causes a constant revision in the texture of our culture” (Schlesinger, 142). A basic ideal of this country is progress, not only in a scientific or industrial sense, but also in a greater social aspect. Encompassed in this philosophy is the gradual assimilation and acculturation of minority immigrant groups into the mainstream population. Injustices have been committed towards minorities in the past, but this strive for perfection has allowed America to attempt to correct its wrongs and, as generations pass, become more accommodating towards all of its citizens. This concept of amending society to meet the needs of the time has more to do with the success of Jamaicans in than the presence of a colored population prior to their arrival.

In the closing to his work, “Black Like Them,” Malcolm Gladwell draws a parallel between traditional and new racism. He writes, “In the new racism, as in the old, somebody always has to be the nigger” (Gladwell, 36). It is a rather depressing end to a story basically revolving around the success of a new group of immigrants in . Gladwell does not offer any resolution to the problem of new racism. He only points out the faults in the seemingly positive attitude. Joane Nagel’s work, “Constructing Ethnicity: Creating and Recreating Ethnic Identity and Culture,” suggests how new racism is possible, but offers no solution to antagonism between different ethnic groups. On the other hand, in the chapter “The Decomposition of America” from The Disuniting of America, Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr. does offer some hope for the future. He claims that diversity is what makes such a wonderful place and that people should hold on to their cultures and traditions, but shouldn’t divide themselves into different ethnic groups, alienating themselves from American culture. He goes on to claim that is about progressing towards the ideal, shooting for perfection. In the closing of “E Pluribus Unum?” Schlesinger quotes Hector St. John de Creve Coeur in writing, “What then is the American, this new man?… Here individuals of all nations are melted into a new race of men” (Schlesinger, 147). And Schlesinger remarks, “Still a good answer-still the best hope” (Schlesinger, 147). Ethnic borders magnify the differences between groups of people, leading each group to feel alienated from one another. This forces them to compete with one another instead of cooperating and working together. The elimination of ethnic groups would create unity and truly progress life in this country.

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