In Florida, a Death Foretold

Posted in Articles, Latino Studies, Media Archive, Social Science, United States on 2013-07-15 02:52Z by Steven

In Florida, a Death Foretold

The New York Times
2012-03-31

Isabel Wilkerson

In the mid-1930s, a Yale anthropologist ventured to an unnamed town in the South to explore the feudal divisions of what we commonly call race but what he preferred to describe with the more layered language of caste. When he arrived — white, earnest and fresh from the North — white Southerners told him that a Northerner would soon enough “feel about Negroes as Southerners do.” In making that prediction, the anthropologist John Dollard wrote in his seminal study “Caste and Class in a Southern Town,” they are saying “that he joins the white caste. The solicitation is extremely active, though informal, and one must stand by one’s caste to survive.”

Americans tend to think of the rigid stratification of caste as a distant notion from feudal Europe or Victorian India. But caste is alive and well in this country, where a still unsettled multiracial society is emerging from the starkly drawn social order that Dollard described. Assumptions about one’s place in this new social order have become a muddying subtext in the case of Trayvon Martin, the unarmed black teenager slain at the hands of an overzealous neighborhood watch captain, who is the son of a white father and a Peruvian mother.

We do not know what George Zimmerman was thinking as he watched Mr. Martin from afar, told a 911 dispatcher that he looked suspicious and ultimately shot him. But we do know that it happened in central Florida, a region whose demographic landscape is rapidly changing, where unprecedented numbers of Latino immigrants have arrived at a place still scarred by the history of a vigilante-enforced caste system and the stereotypes that linger from it. In this context, newcomers — like previous waves of immigrants in the past — may feel pressed to identify with the dominant caste and distance themselves from blacks, in order to survive…

…On the other hand, almost three-quarters of blacks felt that Latinos were hard-working or could be trusted. Black Americans appear to view Latinos as more like themselves. “Blacks are not as negative toward Latinos as Latinos are toward blacks because blacks see them as another nonwhite group that will be treated as they have been,” said Paula D. McClain, the lead author on the study. Even as blacks worry about losing jobs to new immigrants, they are less supportive of harsh anti-immigration laws, she said, “because they know what laws have done to them.”

But shared hardships don’t necessarily make allies. “As linked fate rises, so does competition,” said Michael Jones-Correa, a professor of government at Cornell who specializes in immigration and interethnic relations. “It’s like a sibling rivalry,” he said. “This is not a painless relationship.” And, of course, Latino immigrants don’t just enter a pre-existing racial hierarchy; they bring with them their own assumptions based on the hierarchies in their home countries. “When we come to the U.S.,” Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, a professor of sociology at Duke, who is Puerto Rican, said, “we immediately recognize whites on top and blacks on the bottom and say, ‘My job is to be anything but black.’ ”…

Read the entire opinion piece here.

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A First Time for Everything

Posted in Articles, New Media, United States on 2011-12-26 03:22Z by Steven

A First Time for Everything

The New York Times Magazine
The Lives They Lived
2011-12-22

Isabel Wilkerson

While poring over the Web site Legacy.com to prepare this issue, we noticed a trend. A search of the site’s database — which includes obituaries from more than 750 newspapers across the country—turned up hundreds of obits published in 2011 with one phrase in common.

A single thread appears and reappears, as a headline or an afterthought, in the final words written by the families of more than 300 people who departed this earth in the past year. In each of these obituaries was a phrase that read something like this: “The first black American to . . .” or “The first African-American .”
 
Eugene King was the first African-American milk-delivery man in the Gary, Ind., area. Eddie Koger was the first black bus driver in the state of South Carolina. Camillus Wilson was the first African-American meter reader for the Baltimore Gas and Electric Company. Nancy Hodge-Snyder was said to have “had the distinction of being the first black registered nurse in Kalamazoo.”

I scan the list, a spreadsheet of names and obituary excerpts, and cannot stop reading. How mundane the positions were, how modest the dreams had been. Added together, they somehow bear witness to how far the country has come and how it got to where it is. They speak to how many individual decisions had to be made, how many chances taken, the anxiety and second-guessing at the precise instant that each of these people was hired for whatever humble or lofty position they sought…

Summie Briscoe was the first black certified automobile mechanic in Cleveland County, N.C. Harriet Braxton was the first African-American female housing inspector in the city of Harrisburg, Pa. Wilbert Coleman was the first African-American narcotics detective in Hackensack, N.J.
 
Sometime in the future, the phrase will be invoked for the biggest first of all, the first African-American elected to the Oval Office, a designation that surely the first milk-delivery man and the first postal clerk and the first business agent for Heavy Construction Laborers’ Union Local 663 in Kansas City, Mo., had, upon consideration, more than a little something to do with.

Read the entire essay here.

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