- BLACK ETHNICS: Race, Immigration, and the Pursuit of the American Dream by Christina M. Greer
The changes brought about by the increased access to the polls and to the country through more liberal immigration policies should expand our understanding of Black from a race into various ethnicities. Expanding this understanding is the focus of Christina Greer’s Black Ethnics: Race, Immigration, and the Pursuit of the American Dream. In five chapters, she offers a case study of political engagement among three ethnic distinctions within the Black society of New York City in the years before Obama’s presidential election. Greer begins Black Ethnics by situating her biography related to her study. As a Black student at a predominantly white institution in a segregated city, she found that “Just Black” students, the “native-born [End Page 135] black Americans…with no country other than the United States” like her, were joined by Caribbeans and Africans in the Black Student Union after it was renamed the Pan-African Alliance. The renaming was partially intended to recognize and bring together these groups from the African diaspora. While unifying, Afro-Caribbeans and Africans maintained membership in separate organizations that reflected their country of origin (2). The multifaceted self-definitions, Black by race and ethnic by country of origin, stood in contrast to Greer’s sole “Just Black” identify because Black was imposed on the Afro-Caribbeans and Africans by the white majority on the campus as well as by the larger society. The students were Black by societal definition but ethnic by self-definition: were they able to work together in the solidarity of being Black while remaining distinctly different?
Black Ethnics delves into this question by looking at how the understanding that to be Black in the United States is largely to be considered Black, phenotypical characteristics override differences between the Blacks, Afro-Caribbeans and Africans regardless of their self-identities. Greer’s book interrogates the relationships of American born Blacks and immigrant groups from Africa and the Caribbean in terms of how they engage in politics, primarily through voting. Black Ethnics adds her case study to the body of work on influences on Black politics.
Greer’s analytical rubric interrogates Black, Afro-Caribbean, and African political participation through the lens of their perception and pursuit of the American dream—the opportunity and ability of achieving success through their own hard work. Black Ethnics relies upon Greer’s access to the Social Service Employee Union (SSEU), Local 371, the public sector union of social service providers who deliver and administer government assistance (what was formerly commonly known as welfare) working for the city of New York. She administered surveys and conducted follow-up interviews of union members. Focusing on members of SSEU helps to provide a study that largely stabilizes the variables of class and education among the three Black ethnic groups. Local 371 was fortunate to have a popular long-serving leader, Charles Ensley, who was an active participant in New York City’s civil rights efforts of the 1960s. Ensley explained to Greer that his active participation guided his efforts to educate his union members about politics, especially on issues pertaining to their social service work. He considered this education as an extension of the civil rights movement’s efforts towards social justice.
The significant work and most valuable contribution of Black Ethnics comes in the fourth chapter where Greer directly engages these three groups self-perceived relationship to, and potential to achieve, the American Dream. This approach provides unique insight because Greer’s research reveals that each group’s perception of their own position within the United States dictates the degree of their political engagement; their view of their ability to succeed as a class outweighs the limitations from the role of race in the country. Greer’s initial hypothesis was that Blacks would least believe that their actions would lead to their ability to achieve the American Dream, and Afro-Caribbeans and then Africans would have more faith. Her case study found instead that Afro...