Immigration: not just a black and white issue

In today’s society, Italians and Jews are viewed as unquestionably white. But that wasn’t always the case, according to Nancy Foner, author of 13 books and professor of sociology at Hunter College and the Graduate Center, City University of New York.

In the Committee for Cultural and Intellectual Community’s (CCIC) keynote address on Thursday in the Science Complex, Foner described how the construction of race and ethnicity has changed.

“Immigration brings out, in a very powerful way, that views of race are highly changeable,” Foner said. She traced back to a time when Jewish and Italian immigrants were not considered white, but rather “in-between peoples.”

Foner was invited because of “her expertise in immigration and her unique ability to link the past to the present,” Alan Dawley, director of the U.S. Studies Program that sponsored the event with the Center for the Study of Social Justice, said.

Foner focused on New York City. In her discussion, she highlighted the factors that enabled the immigrant Jews and Italians to become “racial insiders” over time.

She explained how their economic and educational success led to increased intermingling in the workplace and eventually in marriage. Foner noted that in distinguishing themselves from other immigrants, particularly the West Indian immigrants to whom they claimed superiority, the immigrants were able to develop into “racial insiders.”

Foner drew a parallel to today’s immigrants, who similarly “emphasize their Hispanic or Latino identity to avoid association with blackness.”

After drawing that link between the past and the present, she began to speculate “whether any of the current groups now viewed as non-white will come to be seen as white.”

She also asked, “Will the category of white become outmoded as a new way of thinking about racial and ethnic divisions emerges?”