From Ellis Island to JFK

By Perlmutter, Philip | Shofar, Summer 2002 | Go to article overview

From Ellis Island to JFK


Perlmutter, Philip, Shofar


by Nancy Foner. New York: Russell Sage Foundation, 2000. 334 pp. $29.95.

For those interested in immigrants and New York City, this is must reading. Though some readers may not agree with some of Professor Foner's interpretations of why or how some group "made it" in the big apple, they will find her overall approach both interesting and provocative.

Basically, she describes and compares two major immigrant movements to New York City. The first is of Jews and Italians from 1880 to 1920, and the other of post-1965 Mexicans, Asians, Latin Americans, and Caribbean Islanders. The earlier movement arrived at Ellis Island after a long and wearying boat ride, while the later arrived at the JFK international airport, after a flight of a few hours or a day at most.

In comparing the two movements, Professor Foner, who is an anthropologist at Purchase College in New York, utilizes a variety of sociological, demographic, literary, and historical sources, as well as some of her studies. Each chapter deals with a different aspect of how immigrant groups confronted and reacted to life and conditions in the city. In comparison to Jews and Italians, some recent immigrant groups, particularly Asians, are generally more educated, financially better off, less given to self-ghettoization, and more likely to obtain high-paying jobs. Conversely, for today's uneducated, there are fewer non-skilled jobs available.

With a minimum of academic jargon, Professor Foner explores the many similar and different reasons why immigrants came, the skills and values they brought, the areas they resided in, the work they did, the problems of women, the changing racial and ethnic demography of the city, the prejudices and racism they confronted, the education they had or sought, and the problems of adjusting and acculturating in a huge, multicultural metropolis.

She concludes with a series of haunting questions, such as whether the offspring of today's immigrants will replicate the successes of earlier Jews and Italians, whether today's immigrant offspring will retain the emotional, familial, and political attachments their parents had for "the old country," and, most provocatively, whether race will continue to be a divisive force within and between immigrant groups.

It is her use of critical white theory in dealing with Jews, Italians, African Americans, and current ethnic groups that is debatable. Yes, there were late nineteenth-and early twentieth-century academics, politicians, and demagogues who thought Jews and Italians belonged to an inferior race, but such "racism" was not a problem for them the way it was for Blacks, Indians, and Asians, then or today. In the case of Jews, theological and economic antisemitism was older and more injurious, as was first brazenly displayed by Peter Stuyvesant in old New York when he wanted to expel a boat-load of Jews -- those "hateful enemies and blasphemers of the name of Christ. …

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