E.g., 12/01/2023
E.g., 12/01/2023
Becoming American/Becoming New Yorkers: The Second Generation in a Majority Minority City

Becoming American/Becoming New Yorkers: The Second Generation in a Majority Minority City

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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 U.S. 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)
Source: ISGMNY

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 U.S. 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 Chinese food."

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
  Work School Store Police
South Americans 19.8 17.2 41 22.4
Dominicans 18.9 13.9 37.5 25.1
Puerto Ricans 25.8 15.2 40.5 22.4
West Indians 30 17.3 43.5 35
Native Blacks 35.1 14.8 55.5 33.7
Chinese 13.8 25.1 40.9 13.6
Russians 7.8 11 12 8.4
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.

Institutional Impact

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 into "America."

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 of them.

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 Puerto Rican.

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 West Indians.

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 financial support.

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 New Yorkers.

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 second generation.

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 American.


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