The American immigrant story has a foil, African-Americans. Our first encounters with this go something like Uncle Harry telling of his grandfather who came to this country “without a dime in his pocket and not a word of English” (always the same formula) but within a few years had risen to prominence in the world of dry cleaning, or some such.
Always a great story showcasing the power of the American dream. However, there’s a coda: “I’ve never understood why Blacks can’t do the same thing.” The best example of that was my supervisor back in the 60s, a very nice man from Virginia. We were part of the welfare department and the conversation often turned to the minorities we served. One day he pontificated on the failure of Blacks to achieve, in contrast to other immigrant groups, and he never mentioned Jim Crow or slavery.
This sort of blindness to the obvious was on display in an interview with a couple who was prompted to write a book on the subject when they encountered a realtor in Charleston, S.C. who was showing them an ante-bellum house. The couple remarked that a set of small rooms must have been the slave quarters. “Oh, no!” the nice realtor exclaimed. “They did not have slaves here.” Oh? How so? Ante-bellum South, lots of servants…. they were surely slaves, no? NO, NO, NO. I know they did not have slaves because there is no evidence the servants were not paid. That actually makes sense to some people.
The next level is the behavior of immigrants themselves toward African-Americans (this includes Black immigrants as well)). During a period of severe strain between New York Blacks and taxi-drivers, the head of the drivers’ union, herself an immigrant from India, spoke candidly. Our people come from countries where there exists a caste system, where some groups are not due respect and can be dismissed and ignored. When they arrive here they see quickly who makes up that group – African-Americans.
This leads to my personal experience and though I have blogged on this elsewhere, I will avoid identifying the people involved other than African-Americans.
A large group of recent immigrants found co-religionists in this country, many of whom were African-American . Over time, tensions had developed. They seemed based on the old saw: we made it, why can’t they? We arrived speaking no English and it’s their native language, isn’t that a major advantage over us? And yet they complain of discrimination. The Blacks in the religion in this area had had enough; after all, they had joined the religion long before the wave of immigrants from this one country, the birth country of the religion. And now these new-comers who were supposed to be brothers and sisters to their African-American coreligionists were criticizing African-Americans without knowing the history of this country.
The key to this in some ways lay in language, in the word “discrimination.” A large meeting, several hundred people, was called and I believe the attendees were fairly evenly divided between immigrants and native-born Americans, a lot of them Black. The discussion got heated. Lots of pontification and rhetoric. Finally, from the back of the room, crowded with standing persons the large hall was so filled, a woman raised her hand to speak. She was a native-born American who had lived in the source country for a long time and spoke the language. She pointed out that in that country, the religion of most people in the room was a persecuted minority religion, considered a heretical sect or some such.
Her point? When the immigrants talked among themselves about discrimination, the word they use in their language means specifically religious discrimination. Since most Americans, including Black Americans, are Christians, why are the Blacks complaining about discrimination? How can there be discrimination when they – the Whites and the Blacks – are of the same faith?
Clearly, the immigrants saw African-Americans as having a leg up on them. Their religion was particularly well-known for championing racial equality around the world and had made large inroads into areas of people of color. Yet here the “Whites”, the immigrants, seen by African-Americans as having a leg up the size of an elephant’s, were blind to the centuries-long traditions of racial discrimination.
As I recall, the meeting adjourned amid grumblings and resolutions to talk more. I don’t know the current state of things in that faith now.