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Social Science History 24.4 (2000) 697-726

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Beyond Black and White
Latinos and Social Science Research on Immigration, Race, and Ethnicity in America

Silvia Pedraza

Research on immigrants and the eventual outcomes of immigration processes was at the very foundation of American sociology. But with the exception of a couple of studies on the Mexicans in the United States, such as Paul Taylor’s (1932, 1934) monumental work on the life story of Mexican immigrant laborers in the Chicago and Calumet region during the late 1920s and early 1930s, Manuel Gamio’s (1971 [1930], 1971 [1931]) anthropological studies of Mexican immigrants in the United States, and Edith Abbott’s The Tenements [End Page 697] of Chicago, 1908–1935 (1936), Latinos were remarkably absent from such studies. Instead, these studies focused on the European immigrant experience and the experience of black Americans as newcomers to America’s cities. Scholarship on Latinos (much less by Latinos) simply did not put down roots as early as scholarship on Afro-Americans. Perhaps this was partly due to the smaller size of the population back then, coupled with its being largely immigrant—composed of people who thought they would one day return to where they came from. But it was also partly due to the greater level of segregation experienced by African Americans, for whom Jim Crow laws produced what Booker T. Washington (1969) once called “a nation within a nation.” That segregation also gave rise to the historically black colleges that issued a black intelligentsia whose work, both of sociology and social thought, to this day is very much worth reading (e.g., the works of W. E. B. Du Bois, E. Franklin Frazier, and Booker T. Washington).

While early social scientists emphasized immigration as a social process involving many of the fundamental questions in social science, they paid heed mainly to immigrants from Europe and the rural South; immigrants from Latin America remained largely invisible. In sociology, the pattern of immigration research is quite clear. At the turn of the last century, Chicago—“hog butcher of the world,” as Carl Sandburg called her—received vast numbers of Southern and Eastern European immigrants (particularly Poles, Jews, and Italians) who had crossed the Atlantic Ocean, as well as those who crossed only land within the United States, moving from the South and West to the North and Midwest (particularly blacks and Mexicans). Thus, among the first generation of sociologists in the “Chicago school,” immigrants and racial and ethnic minorities were the focus of vivid studies, such as Robert Park’s (1950) famous theory of the race relations cycle that would result from the encounter of different groups, and W. I. Thomas and Florian Znaniecki’s The Polish Peasant in Europe and America (1928), which analyzed the social psychological impact of immigration on the immigrants themselves. At the turn of the century, then, sociologists were concerned with what the experience of immigration had done to the immigrants’ lives and with the outcomes of the process of integrating those who arrived at its shores. These outcomes were usually conceptualized as acculturation and assimilation—as becoming like the dominant population, which at the turn of the century clearly meant conforming to Anglo-Saxon ways. [End Page 698]

However, as Alejandro Portes (1978a) pointed out, the emphasis on immigration began to wane, until in the 1960s it all but disappeared. Several different trends promoted its disappearance. First, the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1924 cut the massive waves of European immigration to the United States. Second, under the pressures of Anglo conformity, the children of those European immigrants went on to assimilate in American society at a time when the price of success was often one’s sense of ethnic identity. Third, the research focus on immigrants and immigration was also lost as a result of the racial demands and militancy of the civil rights movement, which shifted the analytical focus to racial and ethnic relations. And in the process, what is really distinctive about immigrants was lost: that they have...


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