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.