Why Do Black Immigrants Do Better Than Native Blacks?

This argument pops up from time to time, but it's been coming up a lot lately. It always seemed to me that the question answers itself--an immigrant is someone who's specifically come to this country to capitalize and exploit opportunity. Comparing any immigrant group to virtually any native-born group is like comparing the most ambitious members of one team with the entirety of another team. This is to say nothing of whatever skills, education and wealth a particular immigrant group may bring to bear.

I think it's very hard to accept what's happened to black people in this country post-slavery. I think we can accept that we had slaves--most countries did. But very few followed it up with the Klan and Jim Crow. These facts challenge our self-image as Americans. How can red-lining and Horatio Alger be true at the same time? The black experience threatens our image as a place of great individual opportunity. Of course, if our ideals are real, we shouldn't be threatened at all. Sometimes I say something stupid and unloving to Kenyatta. Doesn't mean I don't love her. But I also can't act like I never said it, or look for excuses for why I would. I have to confront myself and be honest, as opposed to trying to cover my ass

Where was I? Oh yeah, black immigrants. I think a natural--but ultimately cheap--reaction is to appeal to the Myth Of The Black Immigrant. If we can prove that other black people come here and do well, than it must mean that our ideals and our execution of them have, indeed, been righteous. It's just that the American blacks are too lazy and self-pitying to see this.

I think the best grappling I've seen with this was by Malcolm Gladwell, himself an immigrant black of West Indian descent. He rather brilliantly combines his own first person experience, his family's views, and some actual social science to show that, as he says it, someone must always be the villain. Forgive me for quoting at length. The piece is quite lovely:

I grew up in Canada, in a little farming town an hour and a half outside of Toronto. My father teaches mathematics at a nearby university, and my mother is a therapist. For many years, she was the only black person in town, but I cannot remember wondering or worrying, or even thinking, about this fact. Back then, color meant only good things. It meant my cousins in Jamaica. It meant the graduate students from Africa and India my father would bring home from the university...
But things changed when I left for Toronto to attend college. This was during the early nineteen-eighties, when West Indians were immigrating to Canada in droves, and Toronto had become second only to New York as the Jamaican expatriates' capital in North America. At school, in the dining hall, I was served by Jamaicans. The infamous Jane-Finch projects, in northern Toronto, were considered the Jamaican projects. The drug trade then taking off was said to be the Jamaican drug trade. In the popular imagination, Jamaicans were--and are--welfare queens and gun-toting gangsters and dissolute youths. In Ontario, blacks accused of crimes are released by the police eighteen per cent of the time; whites are released twenty-nine per cent of the time. In drug-trafficking and importing cases, blacks are twenty-seven times as likely as whites to be jailed before their trial takes place, and twenty times as likely to be imprisoned on drug-possession charges.

After I had moved to the United States, I puzzled over this seeming contradiction--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? But that was a naïve question. The West Indians were the first significant brush with blackness that white, smug, comfortable Torontonians had ever had. They had no bad blacks to contrast with the newcomers, no African-Americans to serve as a safety valve for their prejudices, no way to perform America's crude racial triage.

Not long ago, I sat in a coffee shop with someone I knew vaguely from college, who, like me, had moved to New York from Toronto. He began to speak of the threat that he felt Toronto now faced. It was the Jamaicans, he said. They were a bad seed. He was, of course, oblivious of my background. I said nothing, though, and he launched into a long explanation of how, in slave times, Jamaica was the island where all the most troublesome and obstreperous slaves were sent, and how that accounted for their particularly nasty disposition today.

I have told that story many times since, usually as a joke, because it was funny in an appalling way--particularly when I informed him much, much later that my mother was Jamaican. I tell the story that way because otherwise it is too painful. There must be people in Toronto just like Rosie and Noel, with the same attitudes and aspirations, who want to live in a neighborhood as nice as Argyle Avenue, who want to build a new garage and renovate their basement and set up their own business downstairs. But it is not completely up to them, is it? What has happened to Jamaicans in Toronto is proof that what has happened to Jamaicans here is not the end of racism, or even the beginning of the end of racism, but an accident of history and geography. In America, there is someone else to despise. In Canada, there is not. In the new racism, as in the old, somebody always has to be the nigger.

Read the whole thing. It's wonderful.

Presented by

Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

The Blacksmith: A Short Film About Art Forged From Metal

"I'm exploiting the maximum of what you can ask a piece of metal to do."

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register.

blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

Riding Unicycles in a Cave

"If you fall down and break your leg, there's no way out."

Video

Carrot: A Pitch-Perfect Satire of Tech

"It's not just a vegetable. It's what a vegetable should be."

Video

An Ingenious 360-Degree Time-Lapse

Watch the world become a cartoonishly small playground

Video

The Benefits of Living Alone on a Mountain

"You really have to love solitary time by yourself."

Video

The Rise of the Cat Tattoo

How a Brooklyn tattoo artist popularized the "cattoo"

More in Entertainment

From This Author

Just In