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immigrants united political black

Immigration from the Caribbean can take a number of forms, including refugees fleeing political turmoil in Cuba, Haiti, and the Dominican Republic; economic migrants from Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago, Guyana, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, and Puerto Rico; and others who migrate for family reunification purposes. Caribbean immigration to the United States significantly increased after World War II due to the repeal of Jim Crow laws and the slow dismantling of the institutional architecture of racial discrimination. This immigration peaked in the post–civil rights era, as more people sought to emigrate because of employment opportunities, political upheaval at home, and for family reunification. Due to their nonwhite ethnicity (e.g., African, Hispanic, East Indian, Chinese, Jewish, Lebanese), when Caribbean immigrants were incorporated into the U.S. social system, they were typically ascribed minority status, in line with the color code in American society. The concept of “race at the gate,” referring to U.S. immigration officials who decided whether or not to let people in depending on the racial group they belonged to, influenced the trajectory of these immigrants’ journeys through the American social and political landscape.

First-generation immigrants from the Caribbean often experience a shift in racial ideology, because the continuum of “black-mulatto-white” they were accustomed to is condensed in the United States into a “black-white” spectrum. Thus, some Caribbean immigrants find their racial identity and status changed from somewhere between black and white into the subaltern African-American group, which often views them with suspicion and ambivalence. The Caribbean immigrant population in the United States is estimated by observers and activists to be approximately ten to fifteen million people, with strong concentrations on the East Coast—including the New York and Miami metropolitan areas—and with vibrant enclaves in Jersey City, Boston, Atlanta, Philadelphia, Chicago, Washington D.C., and Los Angeles.

Some of these Caribbean immigrants have distinguished themselves with their lasting contributions to American society through the arts, politics, education, sports, and other professions and institutions. In the process, many have become household names, including Harry Belafonte, Stokely Carmichael, Shirley Chisholm, Kenneth Clark, Celia Cruz, Rep. Lincoln Diaz-Balart®, Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart®, St. Clair Drake, Marcus Garvey, Alexander Hamilton, Rep. Luis V. Gutierrez (D), Leroi Jones, June Jordan, Elizabeth Lange, Jose Marti, Sen. Mel Martinez®, Rep. Robert Menendez (D), Homer Plessy, Sydney Poitier, Colin Powell, Arthur Schomberg, Rep. Jose Serrano (D), Sammy Sosa, Cicely Tyson, Jean Baptiste Point Du Sable, Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen®, Rep. Nydia M. Velazquez (D), and Malcolm X.


Historically, social conditions that led to Caribbean emigration to the United States have differed from island to island. The early waves of Haitian migration between 1791 and 1809 were a result of the Haitian Revolution. After World War II, a mass migration of Puerto Ricans occurred. They came to the East Coast cities not as foreigners, but as U.S. citizens, and therefore were simply engaged in internal migration as they relocated to the mainland to improve their economic conditions. As U.S. citizens, they did not experience the hurdles that other groups of Caribbean immigrants had to confront, and deportation was not an option they needed to fear. Cubans immigrated under special conditions, because they were offered legal status upon arriving in the United States. They came to escape a Communist regime, and the first wave of immigrants mostly comprised of former members of the Cuban political and commercial elite (often characterized as “whites, Jews, and Chinese”). The dictatorship of François “Papa Doc” Duvalier from 1957 to 1971, which transformed Haiti into a terrorist state, was the primary initial cause for the second wave of Haitian emigration to the United States. Later, the continuously poor performance of the Haitian economy led many people to seek asylum or refugee status in the United States. Migration from the Anglophone Islands has been caused not so much by political instability but by a desire to improve one’s economic condition. This movement gained strength after Jamaica achieved its independence in 1962.

While immigration has provided a safety valve for the surplus population and a source of revenues for Caribbean economies (because of the remittances from abroad), it has concurrently contributed to the political and social dysfunction of some of these states. This occurs because of the departure of educated citizens, which negatively impacts the functioning of the school system, public administration, and the democratic political system.

The mass migration of the middle class to the United States was accompanied in many cases by a migration of the rural population to urban areas, and particularly to the capital cities. This severely impacted the Caribbean agricultural sector, and some of the states have been forced to import basic food staples, such as rice and beans, that they were once able to produce for domestic consumption. It also created overcrowding and the transformation of capital cities into large slums, which has generated a rise in street violence that undermines the ability of the police to maintain law and order.


Caribbean immigrants have had different experiences of racial discrimination in the United States, depending on their racial background. Historically, white immigrants received better treatment by immigration authorities than their black counterparts. By approximately 1800, laws were passed in some states, such as Maryland, to prevent black refugees from Saint Domingue (Haiti) from coming to the United States. From 1960 to 1990, white Cubans and black Haitians arriving at the port of Miami were treated differently: The former, in general, were welcome to stay, while the latter were incarcerated and deported. This clearly illustrates the racialization and double standards of U.S. immigration policies and practices.

Although discrimination in the United States was more brutal in the South than in the North, in both places West Indian immigrants reacted vigorously to protect their civil rights. For example, a group of Haitians in New Orleans were the complainants in the historic 1896 Supreme Court case Plessy v. Ferguson , which led to the creation of the “separate, but equal” doctrine. In the North, after the Jamaican leader Marcus Garvey established his Universal Negro Improvement Association in 1916, he and members of his organization were the targets of countless forms of harassment by the local New York authorities, and he was eventually thrown in jail and deported to his homeland.

While these were public cases that appeared in the press, they are representative of the discrimination of West Indians from every walk of life faced on a daily basis. The most blatant form was housing discrimination, which forced them to live in Harlem or other segregated areas in Brooklyn. Puerto Ricans had no other choice but to develop their barrio , or enclave, within the physical borders of a black ghetto. One such barrio in New York City became known as Spanish Harlem.

Racial discrimination involves a system of practices that must be deconstructed to understand the aspects of its deployment and crude impact. It manifests itself not simply in housing, employment and physical interactions, but also in laws and institutions. For example, country discrimination refers to the technological mechanisms used to infuse race into the process of admission to a country, and by which individuals from some countries are made less welcome than others. Statistical discrimination refers to the decisions and policies of the federal government that pertain to the racial balance of the U.S. population. What are the percentages of non-Europeans allowed to immigrate (often hidden in the per-country quota system for the Western and Eastern Hemispheres) in order to maintain the viability of the racial state?

Certificatory discrimination refers to the ability to get one’s professional qualification approved by the receiving state, so that a person can seek equivalent employment. Certification is not simply based on expertise and experience; it is a value judgment based on whether or not the receiving country recognizes the validity of the institution that grants a diploma or provides training. Classificatory discrimination refers to the situation whereby one is identified with a subaltern racial group irrespective of one’s previous racial status. In interacting with American institutions such as schools, hospitals, or government offices, Caribbean immigrants are identified simply as African Americans, rather than as Trinidadian, Dominican, or Guyanese American (in reference to the country of origin), as some may prefer.


Historically, relations between African Americans and Caribbean immigrants have often been strained. Prior to the civil rights movement, there were two main reasons for the ethnic tension between African Americans and Caribbean residents in New York. First, most Caribbean immigrants learned about African Americans through the white press (newspapers and books) and Hollywood (films depicting black characters). By and large, these images and descriptions were negative (e.g., black riots, black maids, segregated housing). As a result of this exposure, civil rights–era Caribbean immigrants developed an ambiguous, if not critical, conception of African Americans. The second aspect of these encounters reflected differences between the two groups of newly arrived migrants—one of which was from the Deep South, the other from the Caribbean islands. The first was a lower-class group striving for better economic conditions and an improved quality of life; the second was an educated middle class intent on maintaining its standing. This encounter did not occur in the upper echelons of a firm or on a university campus. Rather, it happened in the lower echelons of the employment ladder or in a segregated housing complex, with its attendant problems of juvenile delinquency, crime, and vagrancy. Such early encounters were tension-filled because they involved people of different class backgrounds, aspirations, educational attainment, and professional skills. Up until the civil rights era, because of socialization and cultural differences, Caribbean immigrants tended to look down on African Americans.

The civil rights movement was a catalyst that changed the social context of the interaction between African Americans and Caribbean islanders. Collaboration, cooperation, and, at times, competition became strong features of the relationships between the two groups. Relatively speaking, Caribbean immigrants have succeeded in their economic pursuits, with Jamaicans and Cubans generally being more successful than others, such as Puerto Ricans and Dominicans. Many Caribbean businessmen, because of discrimination barriers, have opened their own shops, and Caribbean economic enclaves have become thriving business centers that provide an infrastructure capable of sustaining Caribbean-American communities.

Between the two groups, “coalition” has become the name of the game within the political arena. Caribbean political candidates may depend on African American votes, and vice versa, to be elected to public office. For example, in Brooklyn it is unlikely that a Caribbean or African American could be elected to public office, particularly at the state or national level, without the support of the other group. The strategy developed by Caribbean immigrants is to seek the cooperation of African Americans for certain activities. For other activities, such as the Caribbean Carnival in Brooklyn, they seek the cooperation of all the Caribbean groups, whereas for still other activities they seek only people from their country of origin, especially if they are concerned about events occurring in their homeland.


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