Urban Labor Markets: Immigrants vs. African Americans

By Frank Morris, Sr. on December 1, 1996

A review of Still the Promised City?, by Roger Waldinger (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1996)

pp. 18-19 in Immigration Review no. 27, Fall/Winter, 1996-97

Still the Promised City? is a hard-hitting, well-researched work that challenges and scrutinizes many of the accepted theories and assumptions about urban job and labor markets. Using New York City as a case study, Waldinger provides important insight into how urban public and private labor markets have absorbed the large increase in immigrant workers over the last generation, and the impact of this increase on African Americans.

The greatest contribution of this book is the documentation, through rigorous historical analysis, of how most immigrant groups have succeeded economically: by finding particular occupational niches, from which they can then consolidate their economic gains. One of the most common ways in which immigrant groups have sought to preserve economic gains is by reserving access to their occupational niche to only members of their ethnic group. The book documents the fact that conflict often is inherent either in establishing occupational niches, if other ethnic groups are competing for the same niches (often in public sector employment or competitive private sector fields, such as construction or the garment industry), or in protecting an established niche from access by other ethnic groups seeking a foothold.

Still the Promised City? is a must read for anyone interested in African American urban employment and the potential for ethnic conflicts resulting from employment-related issues. Waldinger examines whether high Black urban unemployment is more a result of declining industrial and manufacturing jobs, or of intense low-wage immigrant competition and racial discrimination. He also examines whether the often-blamed weakness of African American educational and training capabilities could account for their seeming inability to adjust to the changing local economy as efficiently as recent immigrant groups. He finds that the assumption that African American workers suffer disproportionately higher urban unemployment than immigrants because of less education or skills simply is not true. African Americans should have a competitive advantage over most immigrants because of Blacks' generally higher educational attainment and better English skills.

To his credit, Waldinger recognizes that, to understand why African Americans are concentrated in public sector work, one must thoroughly examine the extensive racism and barriers to their participation in both the private and public sectors going back over many generations. However, he does not emphasize adequately that the African American niche in certain New York City government jobs developed as large numbers of European immigrants abandoned these positions when better opportunities became available in the private sector.

Waldinger correctly points out that racial barriers continue to this day in both public sector niches, such as the New York City Fire Department, and private sector niches, such as the construction industry. He finds that the collective experience of past and present denial to African Americans of access to the most lucrative restaurant industry jobs, such as waiter and bartender positions, helps explain the low participation rate of Blacks in this industry.

Waldinger's use of New York City as a case study limits the broader applicability of some of his conclusions. For example, he takes great pains to point out the fact that African Americans never were able to establish niches in New York City¹s manufacturing sector because it was controlled largely by white immigrant groups. Thus, the decline of the manufacturing industry over the last generation did not affect African Americans in New York as greatly as it did in other parts of the country, especially in the Midwest and north central states, where Blacks held a much larger share of manufacturing jobs.

In comparing the experiences of African Americans and immigrants in New York City, Waldinger notes that many immigrants enter the United States with a labor market advantage over African Americans because they can benefit immediately from the already-established immigrant occupational niches. Furthermore, many immigrants arrive with the knowledge that they can depend on the established immigrant community as clientele for a successful small business operation. The absence of successful African American small business owners as role models is an additional barrier to Blacks¹ entry into private sector economic niches.

The greatest weakness of Still the Promised City? is that Waldinger does not fully understand the cumulative effects of the generations of racial discrimination experienced by African Americans, especially when compared to the immigrant experience. He assumes that employers do not differentiate in hiring, purchasing or contracting decisions between African Americans and immigrants of color. However, he quotes individuals who attribute positive stereotypes to black West Indians while attributing negative ones to African Americans. This would seem to indicate that employers may prefer immigrants of whatever color to African Americans. If this is the case, African Americans will continue to be denied entry into certain occupations while immigrants are hired, just as, according to Waldinger, they were denied entry into the skilled trades in New York over the last century because European immigrants were preferred.

Dr. Morris is a professor at the University of Texas at Dallas and a Board member of the Center for Immigration Studies.