Carol Archer | J’can Diaspora forging political identity at home and abroad
The week of June 17, 2019, witnessed the eighth assembly of the Jamaica Diaspora conference. According to the reports in our local newspapers, many conference attendees expressed concerns about the conference being one of “much talk, policy inaction, and political polarisation.” It is unfortunate that after 19 years, since the inception of the Diaspora Conference, the attendees seem to have such level of trepidation.
In 2017, the Migration Policy Institute, a leading research Centre for analysis of immigrant data, revealed that between 1980 and 2000, the Caribbean immigrant population in the United States increased by more than 50 per cent every 10 years (54 per cent and 52 per cent, respectively) to reach 2.9 million in 2000. In 2010, the Caribbean population grew by only 26 per cent, to 3.7 million, and slowed to an 18 per cent growth, or 4.4 million, in 2017. Jamaicans represent the largest group of the non-Hispanic Caribbean in the United States in general and New York City in particular. Haitians represent the second-largest grouping of non-Hispanic Caribbean.
In the 1990 US decennial census, there were approximately 100,000 Jamaica-born nationals living in New York City (Archer, 1999). According to the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs, in 2017, there were 175,000 Jamaican born nationals living in New York City. This represents 5.6 per cent of the total immigrant population in New York City. Based on historical data, it is safe to conclude that the bulk of the population lived in the neighbourhoods in the East Flatbush section of Brooklyn, followed by Southeast Queens in neighbourhoods such as Springfield Garden and Rosedale and Northeast Bronx in the Baychester community.
The Migration Policy Institute revealed that the median age of Caribbean immigrants in the United States was 49 years, compared to 45 years for all immigrants and 36 years for the US born. Most immigrants from the Dominican Republic (78 per cent), Trinidad and Tobago (77 per cent), and Jamaica and Haiti (76 per cent each) were of working age.
The bulk of the Caribbean-born population, including Jamaicans, were employed in the service industries such as the healthcare sector. The average annual income of Jamaica-born immigrants living in New York City for 2017 was $47,000. Trinidadians earned more by comparison – $61,000. Immigrants from the Dominican Republic and Haiti earned the lowest average annual income at $41,000. The income profile for Jamaicans has not changed significantly since the 2010 census.
Jamaicans who settled in New York City during the 1980-1990 period amassed enough wealth, along with their African American counterparts, to move into the neighbourhoods once occupied by working and middle-class whites. Unfortunately, these Jamaicans were unable to forge an identity that allowed them to be political and economic powerhouses.
On arrival in New York City, most Jamaicans, while maintaining their racial and national identity, adopted a “Caribbean” or West Indian identity to differentiate themselves from native-born African Americans (Archer 1999). In fact, in the 1970s, the term “West Indian” was most widely used by Jamaicans to distinguish between them and those from the non English speaking Caribbean (Archer, 1999).
Bryce-Laporte, a noted Caribbean scholar in New York City, argues that Jamaicans and other immigrants from the region as a means of “surviving” used the term West Indian or Caribbean. Without this separate and distinct identity, Jamaicans and other Caribbean immigrants would have dissolved into the marginalised African American or black population.
My research on the relationship between the Caribbean immigrant and African American communities from as far back as the 1920s discovered that there was infighting between the two groups. Allegedly, African Americans were of the view that more Caribbean registered voters would change the political dynamics of racial politics in New York as back then, African Americans were more conservative and leaned toward the Republican Party while most Jamaicans and Caribbean immigrants aligned with the Democratic Party. The local political organisations in New York City encouraged the conflict within the communities of African ancestries while actively registering immigrants from Europe to join the dominant Democratic Party.
In the Caribbean and African American communities, this political infighting along ethnic, racial, and regional lines, although subtle at times, is still obvious in 2019, and issues related to the national politics of Jamaica remained outside of the New York City political arena. Currently, it is difficult for Jamaican leaders and the Jamaican population in New York City to forge a political identity around issues of nationalism as the Irish did with the state of Ireland or the Jews did with Israel. The Jamaicans will have to rely on their African racial identity or Caribbean identity to become the political force influencing policies in the US and in Jamaica.
The prospects of a Jamaican political powerhouse in New York City become more daunting as the Caribbean community, in general, and the Jamaican community, in particular, exhibits low levels of political participation. Even with the spike in political participation during the Obama era and the encouragement of Jamaica’s Ambassador to the US, Audrey Marks, for Jamaicans to became naturalised citizens and register to vote, participation among Jamaicans and Caribbean immigrants remains lower than their Hispanic, Asian, and European counterparts. The social and cultural organisations used to introduce other immigrant groups to New York’s political process have failed to play an active role in the city’s political system. In other words, the social and cultural capital of the Jamaican and Caribbean communities has not fully translated into political capital in New York City.
Some Jamaicans have direct access to elected officials in New York at the city, state, and national levels. However, community-based organisations serving the Jamaican or Caribbean community positioned to advance the political agendas of the community are limited or non-existent.
The political organisation that comes closest to addressing the racial, national, ethnic, and regional identities of Jamaicans and Caribbean immigrants is The Progressive Democrats of Central Brooklyn, founded in 1987 by former New York City Council Member Una S.T. Clarke. The founding name of the organisation was The Caribbean American Political Association. The name changed after Clarke’s election to city council. This change was necessary to embrace the wider community of people of African ancestry.
Clarke, and subsequently, her daughter, Congresswoman Yvette D. Clarke, were able to forge a political agenda for Jamaicans in New York City and Jamaica by navigating the national, racial, ethnic, and regional identities around such issues as healthcare, education, and economic development. These issues are important to her New York constituents and to Jamaica. Unfortunately, no Jamaican has emerged on the New York political landscape with the tenacity and the all-encompassing political agenda of the Clarkes.
The next US census will start in 2020. This will result in the redrawing of the political boundaries for the congressional and city council districts and may influence the opportunity for Jamaica- or Caribbean-born candidates to win political office.
A relevant question flowing from this is whether it is useful for Jamaica, given its size and economic situation, to have political representatives based on a narrowly defined national or a Pan-Caribbean identity.
Regardless of ethnic, racial, national, or regional identity, it is necessary for someone to emerge from the Jamaican or Caribbean community to reignite the soul of the largest Jamaican diaspora in New York City, the United States, and the world.
- Carol Archer is an associate professor of urban and regional planning at the University of Technology, Jamaica, and served on the campaign committees to elect Una Clarke to the New York City Council and Yvette Clarke to the US Congress. Email feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.