Each generation of Caribbean immigrants has expressed shock at encountering American racism. And it frequently led to their radicalization. Many have figured prominently in radical and dissenting movements. Their political and social activism and their fight against racism were one reason why the Immigration Act of 1924 practically prohibited their immigration to the United States. Jamaican-born Marcus Garvey, who launched the largest black movement in history, the Universal Negro Improvement Association, was dubbed the "negro agitator" by the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and was prosecuted for fraud and deported.
In 1900 Florida had the highest concentration of black immigrants, just under 22 percent of them. New York State followed with 17.3 percent, and Massachusetts with 17 percent. But by 1910 the process of concentration had begun, with New York leading the way with almost one-third (32 percent) of black immigrants. In 1920 more than 43 percent of black immigrants lived there, rising to 59 percent by 1930 and over 61 percent a decade later. New York appears to have served as a magnet for those who had previously resided in other states. It was in the 1920s that New York became a preeminent destination for Caribbean immigrants, a position it would maintain for more than half a century.
New York's rapid preeminence, though multifaceted, is not hard to explain: improved and cheaper transportation from the Caribbean to the city, accompanied by extensive advertising in the islands. News reports on immigrant life in the United States abounded. (The
was especially attentive to this subject.) One immigrant writing in Harlem's
in the 1930s went so far as to claim, "Seventh and Lenox Avenues were as well known to people in Kingston, Jamaica; Bridgetown, Barbados; Port-of-Spain, Trinidad; and other West Indian capitals, as to the people of Brooklyn. Everybody wanted to get to New York."
For decades, the three immigrant groups from the Spanish-speaking Caribbean have clustered in the northeastern and southeastern United States. According to the 2000 census, more than two-thirds of all U.S. Cubans lived in Florida, whereas almost three-fifths of the Dominicans and nearly one-third of the Puerto Ricans lived in the state of New York (table 4). Puerto Ricans are more widely scattered than Cubans and Dominicans, who cluster in a single state. All three groups have substantial concentrations in New Jersey and, although the table does not show the figures, in Puerto Rico as well. (The 2000 census enumerated 19,021 Cuban-born persons and 61,455 Dominican-born persons in Puerto Rico). The clustering of Cubans in Florida and Dominicans in New York means that, for these groups, moving abroad is practically synonymous with moving to these two states. For Puerto Ricans, migrating to the mainland means increasingly to relocate away from New York, particularly in Florida, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Massachusetts.
The reception, perception, reaction, and adaptation of Caribbean immigrants have undergone changes, but there has also been remarkable continuity.
One of the constants is the perception of the immigrants, because of their skin color, as black first and foremost. This placed them in the same category as African Americans and made them subject to the same disadvantages: the racial discrimination and violence, especially in the South, and routine humiliation in daily life. There were, however, bizarre exceptions, especially in the Jim Crow South.
Greeted with the words "What you damned niggers want here?" the Trinidadian airman Hubert Julian and the other members of his group were, in the end, treated royally at a Texas gas station in 1931. They had passed themselves off as Ethiopians.
The teenaged Sidney Poitier was dealt with indulgently by the racist Miami police, once they realized he was a black foreigner. But in 1963, at a drive-in hamburger joint near Fort Benning, Georgia, a black Vietnam veteran and army officer was quizzed by the waitress: "Are you Puerto Rican?" "Are you an African student?" Colin Powell answered, "I'm a Negro. I'm an American. And I'm an Army officer." He was refused service and sent to the Jim Crow window at the back of the restaurant.
But their nationality, especially in the South, could also bring special negative attention to Caribbean immigrants. In Miami, the authorities branded them as troublemakers. In the 1920s, the Ku Klux Klan targeted Caribbean immigrants, especially the supporters of Marcus Garvey's UNIA.
The immigrants' relations with African Americans have drawn much attention. In general, the tensions have been overstated at the expense of the genuine collaboration that
also existed. There was definite tension, especially during the "Garvey Must Go" campaign of 1922-23; and tensions between these two elements of the African Diaspora still exist.
But there has also been a remarkable level of collaboration and cooperation between them. African Americans and Afro-Caribbeans married one another, shared their cultures (including cuisine, music, and sartorial tastes), learned to live with one another, and joined forces in the various political movements to fight racist and class oppression.
The postwar wave of immigration brought strain, but then collaboration emerged once again, especially during the civil rights struggle.
The Hispanic migrants' reception in the United States has varied considerably from group to group. Until 1980, the U.S. mass media tended to portray Cuban exiles as hardworking, independent, law-abiding, and successful refugees from Communism. But after the Mariel exodus, Cubans were increasingly depicted as another group of undesirable, economically deprived, and criminally prone aliens. In 1994, the Clinton administration reversed the "open-door" policy toward Cubans and began to deport the balseros, like other undocumented migrants. This executive decision signaled the end of the special treatment of Cubans by the federal government and entailed their symbolic Caribbeanization or Haitianization. The new measures reflected a profound shift in U.S. public opinion toward Cuban immigrants in the post-Cold War period.
In contrast, the dominant image of Puerto Ricans and Dominicans in the U.S. has long been uncharitable. Since the mid-1940s, the large influx of Puerto Ricans into New York City has often been portrayed as a social problem - from creating housing shortages and crowded schools to increasing unemployment and crime rates. Since the 1960s, the most popular representation of stateside Puerto Ricans has been the movie West Side Story and the most influential one, within academic circles, remains Oscar Lewis's La Vida. According to a 1964 report by the Puerto Rican Community Development Project, New York Puerto Ricans were still publicly characterized as "indigent, disorganized, and lacking in civil responsibility." Even today, they are commonly derided as ignorant, lazy, dirty, and stupid.
In the 1980s and 1990s, Dominicans joined Puerto Ricans as one of the most stigmatized ethnic minorities in the United States. Both groups are frequently associated with poverty, welfare dependence, urban blight, and violent crime, as witnessed by a host of Hollywood films and television situation comedies. Recent journalistic reports consistently identify Dominicans as one of the main culprits of drug trafficking - particularly the cocaine trade - and money laundering in the east coast of the United States. Many of the negative stereotypes of African Americans and Puerto Ricans have been extended to Dominican Americans, especially those with a dark skin color.
Since 1980, the Census Bureau has asked U.S. residents to classify their race, separately from their Hispanic origin. In the year 2000, four out of five Cubans responded that they were white. In contrast, less than half of the Puerto Ricans and less than one-fourth of the Dominicans considered themselves white. Less than 4 percent of the Cubans, about 6 percent of the Puerto Ricans, and nearly 9 percent of the Dominicans reported their race as black. The most striking response was the high proportion of people choosing "some other race" or "two or more races" - ranging from 11 percent among Cubans to almost 45 percent among Puerto Ricans and 67 percent among Dominicans. These figures run parallel to a general trend among U.S. Hispanics - 42.2 percent in the 2000 census - who preferred such categories to describe their race. When asked to clarify, most respondents used the pan-ethnic label Hispanic or Latino, their national origins, and other folk terms for racial mixture, such as mestizo, trigueño, moreno, or indio. (The latter term is commonly used in the Dominican Republic for anyone with a dark skin color, except Haitians.)
Many people employ the terms Hispanic or Latino as a quasi-racial label equivalent to "brown," "tan," or "colored." To this extent, Latinos have become a "middle race" between whites and blacks in the United States. Finally, Hispanic Caribbean migrants have been artificially separated from Afro-Caribbean migrants, such as Haitians and Panamanians of Jamaican origin, with whom they share much history and culture. Although census statistics on race are not scientifically valid, they are relatively accurate representations of the migrants' predominant self-perception as neither white nor black. In the United States, most Hispanic Caribbean immigrants do not consider themselves African American. Instead, they tend to make common cause with other immigrants of Central and South American origin.
In Miami as in New York City, Hispanic Caribbean residents tend to live apart from non-Hispanic whites, blacks, and even other Latinos such as Nicaraguans and Colombians. Even where Latinos share the same neighborhoods with other racial and ethnic groups - such as African Americans or Asians - , they tend to remain socially encapsulated in their own communities. Although residential segregation has many pernicious effects, it allows for the consolidation of compact barrios and the redesigning of the urban landscape following the immigrants' preferences. It also promotes some degree of political representation through concentration in certain electoral districts.