A well-documented and scrupulously researched look at New York City’s two greatest waves of immigration.
Foner (Anthropology/Purchase Coll.) compares and contrasts the experiences of the largely Jewish and Italian immigrants at the turn of the century with those of New York’s current Asian, Latin American, and West Indian newcomers. Whereas only a minuscule amount of earlier immigrants were professionals, today’s represent every class and occupational background—from farmers and factory workers to physicians and engineers. In fact, over half of the Indians, Filipinos, and Taiwanese arriving on our shores today have college degrees (a larger percentage than white New Yorkers have). And whereas earlier immigrants who fled untenable circumstances were often viewed as heroes, today’s undocumented immigrants who have risked all and arrived illegally are often stigmatized and unwanted. Particularly interesting is Foner’s examination of the prejudice faced by members of both waves of immigrants. At the turn of the century, Jews and Italians were viewed as inferior “mongrel” races and, although higher in status than African-Americans or Asians, were deemed to be racial pollutants. Prominent social scientists wrote about the Jews’ innate love of money and the Italians’ inborn instability. Today it’s the darker-skinned immigrants—both West Indians and dark-skinned Latinos—who confront the most bias. Intent on shattering romantic, idealized stereotypes of earlier immigrants (whom she refers to as “folk heroes of a sort”), Foner consistently challenges the misconceptions that make the current immigrants suffer by comparison. Among these are the alleged educational successes of early immigrants, particularly Jews; in fact, during the early 1900s, few Jews attended high school and even fewer graduated. Less than one percent ever reached the first year of college. And while earlier immigrants were shamefully coerced into adopting American ways, today’s attend schools where their culture is celebrated as an element of a multicultural curriculum.
As enlightening as it is entertaining: a worthwhile addition to the field of popular anthropology.