The Immigrant Second Generation

According to Graduate Center Professors John Mollenkopf and Philip Kasinitz, the cultural variety of New York offers a unique opportunity to uncover the facts about assimilation and, possibly, provide some object lessons for the rest of the country.

“New York looms huge in American letters and American history, and in discussions of American culture, but the social science on New York is fairly thin,” says Philip Kasinitz, Professor of Sociology at The Graduate Center. “In part, this is because people assume that New York is exceptional. Well, if it is exceptional, it’s an awfully big exception, and it’s worth studying. Certainly, in the social science literature on contemporary immigration, New York was underrepresented relative to its size.”

Along with John Mollenkopf, Distinguished Professor of Political Science and Sociology, Kasinitz is discussing a decade-long study on the young adult children of immigrants in New York City. Conducted under the auspices of the Center for Urban Research at The Graduate Center, its findings have surprised those who feared that poor schools, racial discrimination, and the disappearance of blue collar work would hold back today’s “second generation.” In fact, the researchers have concluded that these young people are not only doing better than their parents; they are, despite many obstacles, doing better than their contemporaries in terms of education, employment, and civic participation.

Unlike previous generations in their position, these children of immigrants do not see their parents’ “foreignness” as an obstacle, and they do not feel “torn between two worlds.” On the contrary, they are benefiting from what Mollenkopf and Kasinitz call “the second generation advantage,” creatively combining aspects of their parents’ culture, aspects of American mainstream culture, and aspects of American minority culture in ways that serve them well.

“The true future of immigration in America is not written by the first generation, but by the second,” says Mollenkopf. Years ago, when the highly regarded Russell Sage Foundation suggested that future research in the field focus on the children of immigrants rather than the immigrants themselves, he and Kasinitz joined Mary Waters, a renowned sociologist at Harvard, to tackle this project. Later, Jennifer Holdaway signed on to manage some of the field activities. (Holdaway was then a graduate student in Political Science at The Graduate Center; today she is a Program Director at the Social Science Research Council.)

The study looked at 18-32 year-olds born of at least one immigrant parent, as well as members of this age group who emigrated to New York with their families before the age of 12. Rather than taking a random cross-section of all children of immigrants, the research team decided to select five specific second generation groups to study: West Indians (from the English-speaking Caribbean), Dominicans, Chinese, South Americans (Colombians, Ecuadorians, and Peruvians), and Jews from the former Soviet Union. These five groups encompass a wide variety of race, class, and socioeconomic backgrounds – a variety that is available in statistically meaningful numbers only in New York City.

In most U.S. cities, a single immigrant group predominates, such as Mexicans in Los Angeles, or Cubans in Miami. Mollenkopf explains, “New York has a variation that other places don’t have, which can give you intellectual purchase on some questions. If Russian kids are having exactly the same problem as West Indian kids and Dominican kids, then it’s not really about race. If the problem has to do with one group but not another, then maybe race is operating in a certain way. In New York, we have some ability to parse it out.”

Just as important, the researchers chose three control groups (consisting of the children of non-immigrants) to whom the second generation groups would be compared; these were African Americans, Puerto Ricans, and whites. This made it possible to distinguish between two types of experiences – those that could be attributed to being the child of immigrants, and those that could be attributed simply to be a young person coming of age in New York City at this time. Says Kasinitz, “Most studies on in this area don’t do a direct comparison to the children of natives of the same age, in the same labor market. It’s easy to get obsessed with what you think is ‘an immigrant thing’ when in fact what you’re looking at is ‘a kid thing.’ Also, if you’re going to talk about assimilation – assimilation into what? What does that native population look like?”

The study revealed that second generation young people are open to alternatives that their contemporaries resist, and that the availability of these alternatives plays a pivotal role in their long-term success. For example, among the native control groups, young adults rarely live at home beyond their college years because they (and friends and family members within that group) consider it a sign of stunted growth. However, in many immigrant cultures there is no stigma associated with multi-generational homes because they are, in fact, the norm. Consequently, the children of immigrants often live at home well into their twenties. Taking advantage of this aspect of their parents’ culture, they are not burdened by the heavy housing costs of New York City, and thus are in a better position to complete their education and develop the early stages of their careers. Often such choices are made without any conscious deliberation; solutions like this feel natural to young people who have the benefit of two frames of reference, rather than one.

There are, nonetheless, some significant distinctions between the five groups studied. The Russian parents, most of whom arrived in the U.S. with high levels of education and refugee status, received aid from both refugee programs and established Jewish organizations; their children are doing exceptionally well. The second generation of Dominicans, whose families emigrated without fluency in English, and West Indians who, like Dominicans, have faced more racial discrimination, are doing less well. However, all the groups are better educated, higher earning, and less occupationally segregated than their parents; they are being quietly and steadily assimilated into the American mainstream.

Kasinitz summarizes another important conclusion: “Groups count in shaping life chances in a lot of unexpected ways.” He explains, “In the social sciences, we occasionally hear that ethnicity is a myth; that these groups are a just a creation of the observer. But actually, groups matter because they are about the kinds of networks you have access to.” Mollenkopf offers the example of a second generation Chinese boy in Queens who became involved with gangs and was on the verge of dropping out of high school; his immigrant parents sent him back to Taiwan. Eventually, he was able to return to New York, graduate from a college of the City University of New York, and go on to law school. “The children of immigrants sometimes have school options or life choice options that the native minority kids don’t have, says Mollenkopf. “The extended family of the immigrant is a network, and your network can work in a number of ways to get you out of a jam.”

Recent projections from the Census Bureau indicate that in little more than a generation, the majority of the U.S. population will be made up of ethnic and racial minorities. Kasinitz points out that this will constitute, in essence, a “no majority” nation and, in this respect, New York City offers a preview of what the country will look like. “Our second generation is already growing up in the ‘no majority’ city,” he says. “I would be sorry if people elsewhere looked at this study and thought, ‘OK, this is why New York is different from us.’ This story is very much about New York, but not exclusively. We’ve unearthed lots of patterns and interesting lessons that can now be compared to the rest of the country. And if certain things are working better in New York, are they applicable in other cities?”
Gail Goldberg

To learn more about this study, see the books Inheriting the City: The Children of Immigrants Come of Age by Philip Kasinitz, John H. Mollenkopf, Mary C. Waters, and Jennifer Holdaway (Russell Sage Foundation and Harvard University Press, 2008); and Becoming New Yorkers: Ethnographies of the New Second Generation, edited by Kasinitz, Mollenkopf, and Waters (Russell Sage Foundation, 2004).