Inheriting the City

The May 14 panel discussion to introduce Inheriting the City: The Children of Immigrants Come of Age at CUNY’s Graduate Center in Manhattan, was encouraging—with a few caveats.

The new book, by John Mollenkopf, Philip Kasinitz, Mary Waters, and Jennifer Holdaway and published by Russell Sage Foundation and Harvard University Press, presents the results of what the Graduate Center calls “the most comprehensive study ever undertaken of second-generation immigrants in New York City.”

Basically, second-generation New Yorkers whose parents were immigrants are doing better than their parents, and sometimes better than native-born New Yorkers, although Dominicans are not blazing ahead to the degree those of Chinese and Russian Jewish background are. (The authors also studied offspring of West Indian and South American immigrants.) They are overwhelmingly fluent in English and don’t have the occupational segregation of their parents’ generation.

Sewell Chan of the New York Times, who moderated a Q&A with the panel, sums up the study’s results here. A few things from the discussion he didn’t mention:

It’s possible that the third generation will not see the same gains. Sayu Bhojwani, former commissioner with the Mayor’s Office of Immigrant Affairs, who was born in India and grew up in Belize, said, “Part of the motivation comes from watching our parents work so hard,” which presumably won’t be the case for the second generation’s children.

And while the study found that “they are not ‘torn between two worlds’—language and transnational ties decline quickly,” Bhojwani felt that the young people surveyed may have downplayed tensions. For South Asians, she said, “there is a sense of gratitude to be here,” which may cloud their perspective about problems and challenges. And despite gains, skin color still makes a difference in how both immigrants and children of native New Yorkers are treated.

Yet the second generation holds certain advantages over children of native New Yorkers. While assimilated in school and work, they tend to be less “American” at home, living with their parents longer (obviously a huge advantage in New York) and drawing on a community of support—choosing among elements of both worlds. They also may take advantage of policies and programs originally intended to help native minority groups.

Author Philip Kasinitz spoke of the competition for space between the second-generation immigrants and the native-born populations: “This New York competition for space underlies a lot.” But that’s been the story for centuries. Like those before them, he said, this generation will revitalize the city, and “leave a new inheritance for others to follow.”

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