Voices in Education

Ethnicity Matters—and So Do Contexts
Since 1970, the United States has admitted more than thirty-million immigrants from around the world. While the vast majority of newcomers are of Latin American and Asian origins, they hail from heterogeneous socioeconomic backgrounds, ranging from investors and entrepreneurs to low-skilled laborers and undocumented migrants. As foreign-born populations continue to grow at the turn of the twenty-first century, the new second generation, born and raised in America, has come of age, making an indelible mark in cities across the United States. The children of immigrants are as diverse in national and class origins as the newcomers, and they are choosing routes to social mobility that are just as variegated as their parental backgrounds.

In the long journey to becoming American, the progress of the twenty-first century’s second-generation population is largely contingent upon not only the human, financial, and cultural capital that their immigrant parents bring along, but on the contexts that receives them. Often times, both policy makers and the public are concerned and anxious about whether or not new immigrants and their children will ever be integrated into American society. This mentality stems in part from the assimilationist assumption that immigrants are expected to shed ethnic baggage and eventually become indistinguishably American. However, using the convergence to the mean as the primary measure of social mobility only contributes to a sociologically incomplete understanding of the process of immigrant incorporation. The crux of the matter is not whether or not immigrants and their children will become “American,” but rather what opportunities and obstacles the newcomers encounter and how they navigate their way into their host society.

In my collaborative research on Los Angeles’ second-generation Mexicans, Vietnamese, and Chinese with professor Jennifer Lee of University of California, Irvine, we have found similar patterns of structural blockage and transculturation. Our research adopts a “subject-centered approach,” by which we not only focus on the way that our subjects—the children of immigrants —perceive, define, and measure success, but also place the children’s definitions of success and perceptions of progress at the center of our analysis. This approach enables us to see more clearly how significant intergroup differences in educational outcomes emerge and what accounts for these differences. Why neither Asians nor Latinos converge to the norm set by non-Hispanic whites, as shown in our research, is not a simple matter of cultural superiority or deficiency.

Our research and the works published in the Fall 2011 special issue of the Harvard Educational Review, Immigration Youth, and Education on the lived experiences of immigrants and their children have sufficiently demonstrated how ethnicity can pose a disadvantage, inhibiting social mobility, or operate as a resource to usher successful outcomes. However, there is still much more work ahead in search of effective ways to overcome structural disadvantages and enhance ethnic resources. So, whether the new second generation of the twenty-first century is able to assimilate into American society seems to be a less relevant question.

A unique contribution of this special issue is that it turns away from the dominant discourse that frames immigration or immigrant incorporation as a problem and immigrants as passive objects to be assimilated into American culture and society. Instead, this volume advances a nuanced analytical framework that allows for rigorous investigation of multiple factors—macro-structural versus micro-cultural—at multiple, systemic levels including state, city, neighborhood, and ethnic community while foregrounding the diverse voices, aspirations, and most important, agency of the immigrants and their children. The issue’s carefully selected scholarly articles and youth narratives are interwoven into two parallel conceptual themes: citizenship status on the one hand and transculturation on the other. These works offer rich empirical data to enhance our understanding of not only how the host state and societal institutions set barriers for inclusion and exclusion, hence disfranchising and alienating the underprivileged segment of the immigrant populations, but also how immigrants themselves consciously exercise their own agency to define their self-worth, goals, and notion of success.

Future research should turn more attention to what educational and public policies can do by offering not only remedies for the individuals or ethnic groups at a distinct disadvantage, but also engaging immigrants and their children—drawing on their aspirations, agency, and ethnic resources. Given the fact that children of Asian and Latin American immigrants will represent a crucial component of contemporary and future America, how do we, as a democratic society, understand these children’s role as citizens and full participants of American society? What do we do to reach out to both foreign born and native born populations to make immigrant incorporation a truly collaborative project?

About the Author: Dr. Min Zhou is Professor of Sociology and Asian American Studies, Walter and Shirley Wang Endowed Chair in U.S.-China Relations and Communications, and the founding chair of Asian American Studies Department (2001-2005) at UCLA.