Newswise — A new book by Suzanne Model, a sociologist at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, examines why West Indian immigrants enjoy more economic success than native-borne African Americans and finds that the key factor in this outcome is their self-selected immigrant status. The findings of the book, "West Indian Immigrants: A Black Success Story," are summarized in the November/December Issue of the journal "Society."
Model's research explores whether the success of English-speaking West Indian immigrants is based on a series of factors, including white favoritism toward West Indians, differing historical experiences of slavery or the impact of having grown up in all-black societies. In each case, she demonstrates that these factors don't account for the different level of achievement between West Indian immigrants and native-born African Americans.
Rather, West Indian immigrants do well because people who choose to migrate tend to be more talented and determined than the compatriots they leave behind, Model says. "This is so for a host of reasons, not the least of which is the difficulty of starting a new life in a strange land. To be sure, a minority of immigrants has little choice in the matter; famine or war forces them from their homes. Lawmakers would do well to keep this point in mind when they convene to rewrite American immigration laws."
To back up her arguments, Model draws on four decades of U.S. Census data, with surveys of emigrants from the Caribbean living around the world as well as historical records that reach back to the beginnings of the slave trade. In addition, she looks at the education and employment achievements of those who left Barbados, Jamaica, Trinidad and Guyana, and those who stayed on the islands.
Model uses these sources to test several explanations for West Indian success relative to native-born African Americans. In an effort to see if the selectivity of migration is a factor, she compares the economic achievement of recent West Indian immigrants with the achievement of native-born African Americans who recently changed residence within the U.S. There are no differences between the two groups. Put another way, West Indian immigrants have better economic outcomes than African American non-movers, but they do not have better economic outcomes than African American movers, Model says. Since the majority of native-born African Americans do not move, West Indian immigrants register an advantage over native-born African Americans as a whole.
In an effort to see if white American favoritism plays a significant role in West Indian success, Model examined their economic position in New York, London, Toronto and Amsterdam. She found in each case, despite differences in labor markets and the racial compositions of these cities, West Indians have been able to reach similar levels of economic success. The consistency she uncovered across destinations suggests that West Indian achievement is not the result of American employers treating the immigrants more favorably than they treat native-born African Americans.
To try to see whether regional variations in the way slavery was organized account for the advantages West Indian immigrants enjoy, Model looked for areas of the Caribbean where the organization of slavery was similar to that in the American South. She then contrasted the economic performance of immigrants from these areas with the performance of immigrants from areas where slavery was organized in typical Caribbean fashion. There was no difference. This result implies that the organization of slavery does not contribute to West Indian attainment.
Finally, Model considered whether growing up in an all-black society conferred an advantage relative to growing up in a multiracial society dominated by whites. A variety of comparisons contradicted this expectation; for example, black immigrants from South Africa, a multiracial society until recently dominated by whites, do just as well as black immigrants from Nigeria, an all-black society with a much weaker legacy of white domination.
Overall, Model concludes that studying the success of West Indian immigrants in America reveals more about the talent and initiative that immigrants bring with them than it does about race relations in the U.S.