Location

This article focuses on immigrants who have settled in New York City, predominantly in the Flatbush, East Flatbush, and Crown Heights sections of Brooklyn.

Cultural Overview Settlement Patterns

Although once described as "invisible immigrants" and still sometimes mistakenly lumped with African Americans, "Black" immigrants from the Anglophone Caribbean, including Jamaica, Trinidad and Tobago, Guyana, Barbados, Grenada, St. Vincent, and St. Lucia currently comprise the largest immigrant group in the largest U.S. city, New York (Kasinitz, 2001, p. 257). West Indians comprise over 8% of New York's population if one includes their U.S. born children (Kasinitz, 2001, p. 257). Census Bureau estimates from the late 1990s indicate that the four largest West Indian groups— Jamaican, Guyanese, Trinidadian, and Barbadian immigrants—number about 435,000 in New York City.

Although home of the largest U.S. population of West Indians, New York is not the only U.S. city to which this group has migrated; the second-largest population resides in Miami. However, unlike New York, Miami does not host a densely concentrated and distinctly West Indian neighborhood. New York's West Indian community has overwhelmingly settled in the Flatbush, East Flatbush, and Crown Heights sections of the borough of Brooklyn. While this article concentrates on the majority of West Indian Americans who are descendants of African slaves, it is important to note that significant numbers of East Indian descendants of Indian indentured servants from the Anglophone Caribbean have settled in other New York neighborhoods.

Basic Economy

While once stereotyped as a "model minority" group with a "genius" for business, West Indians have had in the past and continue to have low self-employment rates. Ample scholarly work comparing West Indians with African Americans has revealed that West Indian New Yorkers have higher median household incomes than African Americans (Foner, 2001, p. 14). West Indians have very high labor force participation rates. The group's percentage of households in poverty is lower than that of most immigrant groups; this is partially due to the fact that almost 25% of West Indian headed households have three or more people earning wages (Foner, 2001, p. 14).

Political Organization

West Indians' strong sense of both racial and ethnic identity has had implications for their political involvement in the United States. Since they share phenotypic traits and experiences of U.S. racism with African Americans, West Indians have built political coalitions with African Americans. In the pre-1965 wave of West Indian immigration, when most Caribbean immigrants settled in the Harlem section of Manhattan, West Indians played instrumental roles in the city's political arena. In fact, they played disproportionately high roles in the city's politics compared with their proportion of the population (Kasinitz, 2001, p. 258). During that time, however, both West Indians and African Americans downplayed their ethnic differences while emphasizing the common African origins that they shared (Kasinitz, 2001, p. 258).

The current wave of West Indian immigrants have different political frames of reference from African Americans and they alternatively ally themselves with and distance themselves from African Americans (Rogers, 2001). The redistribution of Brooklyn's voting districts in the 1990s created two predominantly West Indian districts and added to West Indians' strong political presence in New York City (Foner, 2001, p. 6). This charter revision resulted in the election of a Jamaican immigrant woman, Una Clarke, to the New York City Council. Today, West Indians participate in all levels of the nation's politics, from holding several seats on New York City Council and in the State Assembly, to the appointment of Secretary of State Colin Powell, who is a second-generation West Indian.

Family and Kinship

The family is the traditional primary social unit for West Indians. They trace descent bilaterally but often value matrilateral ties over patrilateral kinship ties. Their kinship terminology is similar to that of the British and the Americans. After migrating to the United States, West Indians maintain consanguineal ties with relatives in their homelands through the transnational flow of remittances, gifts, visits home, and through telephone conversations. Women are the primary caregivers for children in the United States, as is also the case in the Caribbean. Owing to their higher rates of participation in the U.S. labor force, it is not uncommon for West Indian women to migrate before their children. Married women hope to earn enough so they can subsequently send for husbands and children. In the Caribbean, legal marriage, although an ideal for the societies on the whole, is often practiced more by the middle and upper classes than by the lower classes. West Indians from the lower and working classes sometimes leave behind "common-law" husbands and children. Children of unmarried women are often left in the care of matrilateral kin in the Caribbean until their mothers are able to send for and support them in the United States. New West Indian immigrants utilize their strong networks of previously migrated kin to help them secure housing and employment. Still, working mothers who might have relied on the child-rearing assistance of a close-knit extended kinship network back home sometimes miss the benefits of such an extended network of consanguines after migrating.

Intercultural Relations

The history of race relations in the United States and the presence of a social hierarchy which has placed "Blacks" on the bottom rungs, has shaped how "Black" West Indian Americans interact with other ethnic and cultural groups. West Indians who have migrated to the United States recently face less overt racism than those who migrated before the civil rights movement (Foner, 2001, p. 1). West Indians come to America from societies in which people of African descent are either a majority or, as is the case in Guyana, are slightly outnumbered by East Indians. Therefore these immigrants tend to have a unique understanding of how their own racial identities effect their social interactions. West Indians have sometimes allied themselves with African Americans and at other times formed tense relationships with them.

A few well-known racial incidents in New York City involving West Indians have caused controversy. One incident occurred when a racial riot ensued after a young Guyanese boy was struck and killed by a car driven by a Hasidic Jew. Another occurred when a Trinidadian immigrant was struck and killed after being chased by a group of "White" youths. West Indians are as segregated from European Americans as African Americans are (Foner, 2001). While West Indian Americans share experiences of racial discrimination with African Americans, they "do not attach the same political and ideological meanings to their racial identity" (Rogers, 2001, p. 176). This difference in outlook, accompanied by stereotypes of West Indians as more hardworking than African Americans, might account for some preferential hiring by European Americans which West Indians have experienced (Waters, 1999). Gender has affected West Indians' intercultural relations. Male West Indian youths, more so than their female peers, enjoy greater freedom to travel beyond the ethnically "Black" confines of their neighborhoods and schools. This greater freedom has sometimes resulted in boys reporting more experiences of racial harassment by European Americans and police. Girls, on the other hand, are more shielded from racial harassment, tend to graduate from high school more than boys, and tend to perceive themselves as having greater chances for job success (Waters, 2001, p. 201). Thus it can be said that West Indian girls have less negative views of intercultural relations involving European Americans than do boys (Waters, 2001, p. 201).

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