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Becoming American/Becoming New Yorkers: The Second Generation in a Majority Minority City
By Philip Kasinitz, Hunter College and Graduate Center of the City University of New York; John Mollenkopf, Graduate Center of the City University of New York; Mary C. Waters, Harvard University; Jennifer Holdaway, Social Science Research Council
Immigration has profoundly transformed the population of metropolitan New
York, just as it has the populations of other gateway cities like Los Angeles and Miami. According
to the March 2005 Current Population Survey, the foreign born now make up 36
percent of the city's population and the second generation another 20
percent. Native-born whites with native-born parents make up only 20
percent of the city's population. Roughly 70,000 new legally admitted
immigrants arrived in the most recent year on record, 2003.
In short, New York City is overwhelmingly a city of minorities and immigrants. Unlike
its main rival, Los Angeles, where Mexicans alone make up 40 percent of the
immigrant population, New York receives immigrants from all of the world's
sending regions — including Europe and the Caribbean as well as Latin
American and Asia.
This article explores how growing up in and around New York has affected the
experiences of young, second-generation adults in school and on the job, how
they feel about their progress, and where they think they fit within American
society. Given that they come largely from non-European ethnic origins,
we ask what it means to grow up in a "majority minority" city.
This large-scale study of the adult children of immigrants began in 1999.
Telephone interviews were conducted with random samples of 3,415 men and women
aged 18 to 32 living in New York City (except Staten Island) or the inner suburban
areas of Nassau and Westchester Counties, New York, and northeastern New Jersey; in addition,
about 10 percent of respondents were interviewed at greater length in person.
Respondents' parents can be divided into five groups: Jewish immigrants
from the former Soviet Union; Chinese immigrants from the mainland, Taiwan,
Hong Kong, and the Chinese diaspora; immigrants from the Dominican Republic; immigrants from the English-speaking
countries of the West Indies (including Guyana but excluding Haiti and
those of Indian origin); and immigrants from Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru (subsequently designated
South Americans). These groups composed 44 percent of the 2000 second-generation
population in the defined sample area.
For comparative purposes, native-born people with native-born parents — whites,
blacks, and Puerto Ricans — were also interviewed. About two-thirds
of second-generation respondents were born in the United States, mostly in
New York City, while one-third were born abroad but arrived in the United States
by age 12 and had lived in the country for at least 10 years, except for those
from the former Soviet Union, some of whom arrived past the age of 12.
In addition, six ethnographies were fielded at institutions and sites where
second generation and native young people were likely to encounter each other,
including a City University of New York (CUNY) community college, a large public
service employees union, a retail store, several Protestant churches, and community
political organizations. Finally, a substantial number of those giving
in-depth interviews were reinterviewed about their experiences during the economic
downturn in the wake of September 11, 2001.
Together, these data sources provide the best picture yet available of the
life situations of a representative cross-section of the major racial and ethnic
groups in metropolitan New York.
Who Are the Second Generation in New York?
Compared to Los Angeles County and other gateway cities like San Francisco,
Chicago, Houston, and Miami, the native-born children with immigrant parents
living in New York City are less likely to be Hispanic, though New York is
still home to many second-generation Hispanics (see Figure 1).
Figure 1. Racial Composition of Second Generation in the United States
Source: March 2000 Current Population Survey
The Asian and non-Hispanic white shares of its second generation resemble
those of the nation as a whole, while New York also has a large, black second
generation. Note that Figure 1 shows that metropolitan New York is home
to many white children of immigrants, unlike Los Angeles.
For fiscal year 2000, what was then the Immigration and Naturalization Service
(now reorganized within the Department of Homeland Security as US Citizenship
and Immigration Services) reported that the top 10 countries sending immigrants
to New York City (a total of 85,000) were the Dominican Republic, China, Jamaica,
Haiti, the Ukraine, Bangladesh, Ecuador, India, and Russia.
The large flow of black and Hispanic immigrants into New York has strongly
affected the city's traditional "minority" groups. In
2000, the foreign born and their children constituted more than half of all
blacks and Hispanics and almost all of the Asian population in the city.
Of course, this is a tradition in New York. Between 1892 and 1924, thousands
of immigrants arrived at Ellis Island every day. In 1910, two out of
five New Yorkers were born abroad, mostly in Europe, but also in the West Indies
in the Caribbean. In 1920, a quarter of the city's black population
was West Indian. Thus, both the white and black residents of New York
have a strong immigrant tradition.
In short, when new immigrants and their children encounter white Americans
in New York, they do so along a continuum, not across a sharp boundary between
nonwhite immigrants and native whites, as they do in other immigrant destinations,
such as Southern California, Texas, and Florida.
School and Work
Among the older respondents in the survey, the native whites, Russian Jews,
and Chinese were significantly more likely to have completed a four-year college degree
or to have attained a post-graduate education than the other groups; they were significantly
less likely to have dropped out of high school (see Figure 2). Considering
that some young whites in metropolitan New York are recent college graduates
moving to the city to begin their careers, these two second-generation groups
are clearly performing on a par with native whites.
Figure 2: Educational Attainment of Second Generation by Group (Age 25 and Older)
On this score, the two native minority groups are faring the worst, with Puerto
Ricans at the bottom. Indeed, more of the Puerto Rican respondents are
high school dropouts than are college graduates, and the numbers are nearly
equal among native blacks.
Even among Dominicans, who are doing the least well of the second-generation
groups, the ratio of college graduates to dropouts is more favorable than among
the two native minority groups. The educational profiles of the South Americans
and West Indians, while not as strong as those of the Chinese and Russians,
are clearly stronger than those of the native minorities.
This pattern remained surprisingly strong after controlling for parents' education,
gender, and age, in part because the parents of Puerto Ricans had somewhat
higher levels of education than parents of Dominican and South American respondents.
Also, the education levels among Chinese parents were far lower than those
of native white parents. Since Russian parents were well educated, the educational success of their children was hardly surprising.
Refining this analysis, it was also apparent that the quality of the colleges
attended by our respondents, as indicated by US News and World Report college
rankings, also varied systematically. This ranking categorizes national
and regional schools into tiers of one (highest) to four (lowest).
In the study sample, 23 percent of the Chinese, 16 percent of Russian Jews,
and 38 percent of native whites attended "national tier-one" colleges,
which include Ivy League universities, compared to only six percent of native
blacks, eight percent of Puerto Ricans, seven percent of Dominicans and seven
percent of West Indians.
By contrast, 22 percent of college-educated Dominicans, 38 percent of native
African Americans, 35 percent of Puerto Ricans and 39 percent of West Indians
attended "regional tier-four" schools; only four percent of Chinese
and nine percent of Russian Jewish respondents went to such colleges. Thus,
the quality as well as the quantity of the education varied greatly across
the groups of respondents.
The study also compared the occupation and industry profile of the respondents
with those of their parents and the city as a whole. As one might expect,
the parents of second-generation respondents were highly concentrated in ethnic "niches" and
segmented by gender. For example, 38 percent of the fathers of Chinese
respondents worked in restaurants, while 31 percent of the mothers of the West
Indian respondents worked as nurses or nurse's aides or in housekeeping
in healthcare or nursing home settings.
But the children were making their way upward in the labor force by fleeing
these niches in favor of the mainstream economy. Only three percent of
the Chinese male respondents worked in restaurants, while nine percent of West
Indian female respondents worked in health care. Other second-generation
groups moved even further from their parents' industries and occupations.
While economic opportunity has pulled the second generation away from their
parents' jobs, they also had a distaste for stereotypical "ethnic" occupations. When
asked what job he would never take, one Chinese respondent replied, "Delivering
Even respondents with less education have largely exited their parents' employment
niches. The drop off between generations was particularly striking in
manufacturing employment. While many fathers, and particularly mothers,
worked for manufacturing companies (often in the garment industry), fewer second-generation
respondents worked in manufacturing than was true of their overall age group
in the metropolitan economy. As one Colombian respondent put it when asked
if he would consider taking his father's job, "Hey, I don't
do that factory thing."
Where did they work? Many have been attracted to New York's large finance,
insurance, and real estate (FIRE) sector. Indeed, Chinese and Russian
respondents were more likely to be in this sector than native whites or New
York City residents as a whole. The sector also employed many South American
respondents. Interestingly, every second-generation group was more likely than
their parents to work in FIRE except West Indians, where the parents had already
made good inroads into this prosperous sector of the New York economy.
For the most part, however, second-generation respondents held the
kinds of jobs that most young people find. Given their age and the era in which
they entered the labor market, the most likely occupations were retail sales
or clerical work for every group except native whites, where they were the second-
and third-most common after managerial jobs.
Intergroup Contact and Conflict
Because minority and second-generation immigrant young people dominate their
age cohort, our second-generation respondents had a great deal of contact with
one another but sometimes had little contact with native-white New Yorkers. Recalling
their experiences of discrimination in the multiethnic worlds in which they
grew up, members of the second generation often found themselves at odds not
with whites but with other nearby groups.
While the second generation was less likely to live in first-generation immigrant
neighborhoods than their parents, many still lived in such areas. Since
blacks and whites are the most segregated groups in metropolitan New York,
the West Indian and native black respondents were more segregated than others,
living near African Americans in central Brooklyn and southeast Queens, as
well as in the north Bronx; Roosevelt, Long Island; and Jersey City, New Jersey.
Dominicans remained heavily concentrated in Washington Heights, with lesser
concentrations on Manhattan's Lower East Side, Sunset Park and Bushwick
in Brooklyn, and Elmhurst and Jackson Heights in Queens. The South Americans
mostly lived in more middle-class areas in Jackson Heights, Queens, and in
Jersey City. Although many Chinese immigrants still lived in Chinatown,
Chinese second-generation respondents were spreading through South Brooklyn,
and Corona, Elmhurst, and Flushing in Queens. Russian Jews were concentrated
in the Brighton Beach section of Brooklyn.
Table 1 summarizes responses that our survey and follow-up interviews gave
to a series of questions about experiences of prejudice and discrimination. Blacks
and West Indians reported facing the highest levels of discrimination from
the police and while shopping, looking for work, or working; Hispanic
groups were not far behind. The Chinese, Russians, and whites experienced
the least discrimination in these realms.
Table 1. Second Generation's Experience of Discrimination by Group
Source: Kasinitz, Mollenkopf, Waters, and Holdaway
Chinese respondents reported experiencing higher levels of prejudice in school than
any other group. In-depth interviews indicated that this experience did
not stem from interaction with whites but with African Americans. The
Chinese also reported experiencing relatively high levels of prejudice in stores.
Respondents were also asked whether parents had ever talked with them about
discrimination against their group. Three-quarters of native blacks said
their parents had talked with them about discrimination.
But about two-thirds of the Russian and Chinese respondents also reported
talking to their parents about discrimination. Even though the Russians
and the Chinese were doing the best in terms of educational attainment and
labor market outcomes, they were also the most likely to spontaneously tell
in-depth interviewers that discrimination had been an impediment to their success.
The in-depth interviews also revealed that native blacks and West Indians,
as well as the Dominicans, Puerto Ricans, and some South Americans, reported
that whites often discriminated against them or showed prejudice in public spaces,
such as on the streets or in stores. These experiences included police
harassing them, "driving while black," whites moving across the
street to avoid passing near them, and store clerks following them to make
sure they do not shoplift.
In contrast to this "minority experience" in public settings,
Chinese and upwardly mobile black and Hispanic respondents often met a more
personal form of discrimination from whites while attending school or working. This "face-to-face" prejudice was more common for better-off
respondents who leave their neighborhoods, shop in more upscale stores, and
work in predominantly white settings. As a result, they were more likely
to encounter, and compete with, native whites.
Many of the upwardly mobile respondents reported that they needed to try harder when encountering
what was in effect a "glass ceiling." Instead of disengaging,
they reacted with increased effort and a sustained focus on success.
Finally, given that native whites with native parents make up no more than
one in five New Yorkers, many members of the second generation encountered
other immigrant and minority-group members in ways that involved conflict,
prejudice, and discrimination. They often reacted to this type of conflict
with distancing behaviors, as when West Indians try to distance themselves
from African Americans or Dominicans seek to distinguish themselves from Puerto
Ricans, or when Chinese and Russians distance themselves from blacks and Hispanics
of various backgrounds.
The struggle for minority empowerment established new points at which native
minority group members could enter mainstream institutions and created new,
minority-run institutions. Because respondents operate in contexts where "American" means
African American or Puerto Rican, they have developed ethnic solidarity with native
blacks or Hispanics and received signals that they would be easily accepted
This dynamic has put native blacks and Puerto Ricans in the strange position
of managing the ethnic succession of second-generation individuals in colleges,
labor unions, and political groups while continuing to see themselves as outsiders
to these power structures. Although community-based social services or "second
chance" entry points into white institutions were initially meant for
blacks and Puerto Ricans, the second generation is well situated to take advantage
Two ethnographic tales illustrate this point. One, written by sociologist
Alex Trillo, involved a Puerto Rican studies class at a community college in
Queens. Founded in the late 1960s in the first wave of open admissions
to the City University of New York, this college was designed to be particularly
sensitive to New York City's Hispanic population, then overwhelmingly
A Cuban-American professor taught this class to students who were Colombian,
Ecuadoran, Peruvian, and Dominican. In other words, an immigrant professor
was using the Puerto Rican experience to teach first- and second-generation
Latino immigrants what it means to be American.
Another ethnographer, Amy Foerster, studied a public-employee union that had
been founded in the 1960s by Jewish radicals for a largely African-American
membership with origins mostly in the American South. Today, its leaders
are mostly African Americans who rose through the civil rights movement, but
the rank-and-file members have become overwhelmingly first- and second- generation
At a union meeting celebrating its members' Caribbean heritage, they
shouted out recognition for each of the various islands. Listening to
this response, the African-American leader asked plaintively, "Isn't
anyone here from Alabama?"
Originally designed to advance native minorities, this community college and
social service union are now "Americanizing" and "ethnicizing" immigrants
and their children. In quite practical material and symbolic
terms, they are promoting upward mobility through skills, credentials, and
As they make educational progress, especially compared to native blacks and
Puerto Ricans, second-generation West Indians, Dominicans, and South Americans
are well positioned to inherit leadership positions within minority institutions
and gain greater access to mainstream institutions. It seems becoming identified
as a member of a racial minority can have tangible benefits for second-generation
Creating Hybrid Minority Cultures
Finally, respondents used the term "American" in two different
ways. The first was to describe themselves as American compared to the
culture, values, and behaviors of their parents. For example, they were
not inclined to endorse physical punishment of children. They definitely
thought the United States had influenced them to approach the world differently
than their parents.
They were not inclined to return to their parents' home countries, where
they sometimes found conditions to be too primitive. "I couldn't
live there, the electricity goes off at eight o'clock!" said a
respondent whose family came from the rural part of a Caribbean island.
But they also used the term to distinguish themselves and their peers from
the "American" native whites they encountered at school, the office,
in public places, and on television. They saw those "Americans" as
part of a different world that would never include them because of their race/ethnicity.
Many respondents sidestepped this ambivalence about being American by describing
themselves as "New Yorkers." This identity was open to them
even as blacks, Hispanics, or Asians, and it embraced them as members of the
A "New York" identity reflects the dynamic cultural creativity
familiar to them, but not necessarily the larger white society. "New
Yorkers," for the respondents, could come from any immigrant or native
minority group. Perhaps the individual changes necessary to become a
"New Yorker" are not nearly so great as those required to become an "American."
As immigration continues to transform the United States, New York may serve
as a positive model of creative multiculturalism and inclusion. While some
skeptics might argue New York is unique and not likely to be replicated other
places, New York, as the quintessential immigrant city, is at its core very
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