A Long Journey from Protest to Incorporation: The Political Development of Haitians in New York City

By Pierre-Louis, François | Journal of Haitian Studies, Fall 2011 | Go to article overview

A Long Journey from Protest to Incorporation: The Political Development of Haitians in New York City


Pierre-Louis, François, Journal of Haitian Studies


On January 12, 2010, Haiti suffered the most dramatic and unimaginable catastrophe in its history. More than 222,570 citizens perished in a 7.0 earthquake and over 1.3 million people were left homeless (US Geological Survey, 2010). Within minutes of the catastrophe hundreds of Haitian-American doctors, nurses, and other professionals were mobilized to provide aid to the victims and travel to Port-au-Prince to help in the relief effort. While the reaction of the community to the earthquake demonstrated that Haitian Americans are deeply concerned about what happened to their homeland, it has also brought to the surface their ambivalence toward Haiti as they watch the Haitian government's unwillingness to address their issues.

In this article, I argue that the historical and political context in which the Haitian community emerged in New York City compel it to maintain a close relationship with Haiti. However, the unending violence in the country, the unwillingness of successive governments in Haiti to fulfill their promises to those of the diaspora, and the change in leadership of the community over time have pushed Haitian immigrants to be less politically focused on Haiti and more oriented toward local and national politics in the United States.

Haitians are one of the largest immigrant groups in New York City. In 2009, there were some 118,769 Haitian immigrants in the city, and this figure does not include those undocumented and the children of second-generation immigrants. The Haitian presence in New York is not new. They have been coming to the city in large numbers for more than fifty years. Now, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, it is a good time to reflect on how New York City's Haitian community has been transformed in the last five decades as the numbers have increased and as conditions in Haiti - as well as circumstances in New York-have continued to change. The focus of this essay is on the leaders and organizations in the community and the process through which they are incorporating themselves into the US political system.

There is a difference between assimilation and political incorporation. Assimilation refers to how immigrants shed their background, culture, and mores, and how they adopt the culture and customs of their new homeland. Political incorporation concerns the active engagement of immigrants and their children in the political process of the host country. How immigrants incorporate themselves into the US political system has been the source of continuous and contentious debate among scholars. Recent works by Kasinitz, Mollenkopf, et al. (2009), Min (2008), Rogers (2006), JonesCorrea (1998), and others have focused primarily on non-European immigrants that have arrived in the United States in large numbers over the past 50 years as a result of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965. Rogers (2006) argues that the political incorporation of Afro- Caribbean blacks into American politics has not been steady and predictable. Rather, "institutional resistance in the political arena, racism, and their own home country ties have complicated Haitian Americans' path to incorporation" (p. 13). In his study of the political incorporation of Latinos in Queens, Jones-Correa (1998) has found that the urban political machine can either facilitate or block the integration of new immigrants into the political system. Jones-Correa found that since established politicians in the county tended to ignore Latinos, activists had to go outside of their community to forge alliances with other groups and state institutions to have their voices heard. Similarly, in his study of Korean immigrants, Min (2008) found that although Koreans were not politically active at first, they later realized that developing the capacity to lobby politicians and establishing amicable relationships with other ethnic groups where they do business improved their image and lessened other groups' animosity toward them. …

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