PRRAC Poverty & Race Research Action Council
Home About PRRAC Current Projects Publications Newsletters Resources Contact Us Support PRRAC Join Our Email List

"Changing Relations Newcomers and Established Residents in U.S. Communities,"

by Robert Bach July/August 1993 issue of Poverty & Race

According to the 1990 census, there are nearly 20 million foreign-born residents in America, the most in the country's history. Changes in immigration laws in the 1960s shifted both the magnitude and composition of new immigrant populations, opening the gates to immigration from Asia and the Pacific, and stabilizing flows from Latin America and the Caribbean. The share of European immigrants declined. This new mix of diverse newcomers became an essential ingredient in the transformation of community life, recasting relations among groups, ethnic identities, community associations, and political alliances. Once again, America is changing.

In 1987 the National Board of the Changing Relations Project, a multidisciplinary group of scholars, launched a project to examine the everyday interactions and relations among new immigrants and established residents in six diverse U.S. communities [Albany Park (Chicago), IL; Garden City, KS; Houston, TX; Miami, FL; Monterey Park, CA; Philadelphia, PA]. From the outset, the board was concerned about popular reports of unrest and conflict between members of immigrant and established resident groups. Spectacular incidents, such as conflict between Korean shopkeepers and African Americans or Southeast Asian refugees and Texas shrimp farmers, had been highlighted in the press and even become the subject of movies. Invidious comparisons of immigrant success stories with impoverished minorities also fueled a widespread mythology about intergroup tensions and job competition. Did these incidents represent what was to become of the nation's increasingly diverse communities?

The project was initiated during a highly charged national debate over the reform of immigration policy. Throughout the debate, undercurrents of concern about the capacity of U.S. communities to absorb newcomers remained unsettled. The answers found in this study, from the rare and exceptional nature of incidents of open conflict to infrequent but promising efforts at intergroup coalition-building, respond to those undercurrents. The answers are not only about immigrants. They demand that attention be given to community conditions that newcomers and established residents face and struggle to overcome together ...

The research teams sought to answer five questions that guided the project:
*What is the nature of relations between native-born or longer-resident Americans and new immigrants? What
are the primary settings for interactions among these groups, and what brings them together or keeps them apart?
*What are the cultural conceptions of American identity and life, and how do they take shape through intergroup interactions?
*What sources of conflict, distance, tolerance, accommodation, and competition exist among these groups and what factors promote or inhibit their presence?
*To what extent have large-scale, long-term changes in the economy, population, structure, and policy influenced the way in which immigrants and established residents interact?
What situations, actions, and strategies promote communications, understanding, accommodations, and accord when multigroup interactions occur? ...


Collective Change, Not Assimilation

The traditional view of immigrant history is that it is characterized by a process of assimilation. Such a perspective examines only the immigrants themselves, assuming that newcomers will adapt completely to established U.S. life. The Changing Relations Project research focuses on accommodation, a process by which all sides in a multifaceted situation, including established residents and groups at different stages of settlement, find ways of adjusting to and supporting one another. Accommodation embraces an entire community in collective change. America's story, then, is no longer simply one of "coming to America." It is also an account of the places where immigrants settle and how those already there change. them together, create opportunities for newcomers to interact with established residents. For example, family reunification connects successive waves of immigrants to already settled kinfolk and concentrates them in particular neighborhoods. In addition, American employers generate immigrant flows to fill particular jobs. The federal government resettles refugees with the help of local residents and agencies.

During the last two decades, a broad restructuring of work, family, and politics has shaped the opportunities for interaction among newcomers and established residents. Economic restructuring has changed the role that particular regions play in the national or international economy and generated a new set of demands and services that affect newcomers and established residents. Increases in the volume and diversity of immigration were both a response and further stimulus to this restructuring.

The communities studied in the project all exhibited the effects of political and economic restructuring. Each has experienced an accelerated pace of change that had disrupted personal and social connections. In each site, transformation of the American political economy has rekindled fears of social disorder, disorganization, and conflict among newcomers and established groups, and fragmentation of the entire social fabric. Yet, within each locality, researchers discovered a stable social order that newcomers and established residents have been able to create and maintain through a wide-ranging set of activities.

New Ethnic Diversity

Immigration has changed the racial and ethnic composition of community authority and power, giving old problems a new identity. Although established inequities of race and wealth persist, immigrants' diverse linguistic, cultural, and class backgrounds have changed perceptions of the source of group differences. For example, immigration had added new complexity to inequality, exposing sharp class differences within established racial and ethnic groups. Immigration by itself does not create the divisions. But it can add to and sometimes exacerbate them.

Separation, Tension, and Conflict

Newcomers and established residents coexist primarily by maintaining distance from each other ... Separation-both residential and institutional-characterizes their divided world. While few opportunities for intergroup interaction exist, overt incidents of conflict among groups are rare.
The occasion and places for group interaction, including schools, workplaces, and playgrounds, are special and must absorb the strains of new demographic and social differences. Tensions may turn into conflict where the informal connections between groups are few. If a single source of conflict stands out, it involves the use of different languages ...

The concentration of groups in different and unequal positions stimulates comparisons between winners and losers ... Economic, social and political opportunities exclude large subgroups, whether. . newcomer or established resident. Much of this exclusion results from well-established sources of division in America, including wealth, income, ethnicity, gender, and primarily race. The media often play an ambivalent, if not counter-productive, role in paying attention to diversity only when groups become involved in conflict.

Common Tasks in Building Community

Active engagement in common tasks most frequently brings about accommodation. When groups come together to participate in a shared task, the inspiration is usually a desire to improve specific community conditions-to secure better social services or housing, or to battle neighborhood crime and deterioration. The groups are not searching consciously for cross-cultural means to improve an abstract sense of "quality of life." Rather, in these situations, they are struggling together over a loss of control in the face of dramatic changes in their standard living. Shared activities reduce tension and competition and build bonds of trust among groups. Other community activities, like sports and recreational clubs, also provide opportunities for positive interaction among groups. When given the opportunity, occasion, and shared project, newcomers and established residents show a willingness to work together.

Local Organizations and Leadership

Although local organizations and in-stitutions, such as schools, create opportunities for interaction because of their control of resources and shared values, many have not incorporated the full implications of the changes that have accompanied immigration into their communities. Institutions that are organized around small geographical units, such as schools and neighborhood associations, have advantages over other organizations. Yet, the individuals who will lead the way in encouraging full participation across group lines may be more important. In the communities studied, these individuals are often teachers, clergy, social workers, or police, not the elite cadre of institutional organizers. Through the day-to-day interaction and encounters, these "community brokers," often women, forge ties and ease tension among groups.

Recommendations to Foster Positive Interactions

How does the nation promote the occasions and opportunities for newcomers to interact with established residents in ways that build meaningfully shared interests and common goals, while recognizing the value of distinct group identities? The answer requires expanding capacities for accommodation among diverse local people and their institutions. It demands mobilization of joint efforts by newcomers and established residents and decisive public strategies to encourage them: ...
*A primary rule of policy should be to avoid actions that worsen relations among newcomers and established residents. In [the] research sites, anti-immigrant reactions exacerbated community problems. Aggressive "get-tough" policies on immigration seldom work. Increasingly, federal policy that draws legal distinctions among groups of newcomers is part of the problem.
*Policies, such as the legalization program under the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, should foster inclusion and participation of newcomers. The legalization program, particularly, should-be extended beyond current limits.

Newcomers with permanent residency status should be enabled and encouraged to participate in local elections, reinforcing efforts of coalition-building through local electoral participation.

Federal budgetary problems and the uniqueness of local combinations of groups require a renewed focus on community building. Grass-roots organizing is a useful approach in promoting opportunities for interaction among groups at the local level. "Bottom-up" processes often work better than "top-down" ones. Leadership training for community members should be encour-aged, particularly for teenagers and women, who have already forged interpersonal and intergroup relations in many communities.

Local activities should encourage participation and mobilization across group lines. Attention should be focused on producing unified activities that require the energy of diverse people to reach a shared goal. It is not enough to simply try to negotiate group differences. These common projects should address community conditions, such as housing, education, and recreation.

*Existing organizations are not necessarily responsive to the new demographic, social, and economic diversity in today's communities. They should consciously seek ways to cross group boundaries and identify common projects. Re-examination of and innovation in membership and approach in all organizations are needed to build cooperation and encourage inclusion of diverse participants.

*Efforts should be expanded to provide newcomers with access to English-language programs, and established residents should be encouraged to learn other languages. Although language differences cause major divisions, development of language skills can be a focal point around which people can rally and seek accommodation.

*Established residents need more and better information about newcomers. Such information could be provided through creative use of community newspapers, library resources, and outreach programs. In schools, efforts to promote better understanding and cooperation among newcomers and established residents should be expanded to include the whole family.

*Media reporting often misrepresents the range of interactions and complexities of relations, especially in crises. Coverage should be continued until such incidents are resolved. There is currently too little media follow-up. Positive inter-group activities should be examined and reported, as well.

*Special events and public festivals can create a more tolerant tone in communities and are particularly effect when they involve face-to-face collaboration among groups in planning the events. Such efforts must lead to continued opportunities for inclusion and full participation. One-time efforts often exacerbate rather than resolve tensions.
The challenge for America may be less in harmonizing relations among groups than in mobilizing intergroup cooperation into strategies for economic and political advancement. Attention must focus on participation and membership, on opportunities to pursue shared concrete tasks, and on building organizations in local neighborhoods. If our goal is to create and ensure harmony, then the struggle must not be just for social peace but for opportunity and equality.

Join Our Email List
Search for:             
Join Our Email List