Summer Reading 2017: ‘Ethnoburbs’ — Where Suburbs Meet Melting Pot

As immigrants establish themselves economically in some communities, one result can be the hardening of lines between ethnic groups

2017 summer rodriguez
While we’re on summer hiatus, we want to make sure we’re still giving our readers something to think about, so NJ Spotlight is continuing its annual summer reading series. Every day we’ll feature an excerpt from a recent book — from nonfiction to novels to poetry – with a New Jersey connection.

The author, Robyn Magalit Rodriguez, calls this sociological look at New Jersey’s immigration experience her “love letter” to the state. It examines the issues faced by all residents, including immigrants, of the state with the most diverse population in the country. In this excerpt, Rodriguez looks at “ethnoburbs,” formerly all-white suburbs who now have a majority of immigrants, such as Edison or Palisades Park.

Residential or spatial assimilation, what many scholars consider the opposite of residential segregation, is the degree to which people of color live in close proximity to whites. While research has typically measured the degree to which immigrants and other racialized minorities have achieved economic and political parity with whites (in other words, are economically and politically assimilated), residential assimilation has often been considered an important indicator that group boundaries and the hierarchies that organize them are destabilizing.

If racial groups live in close proximity to each other they have more contact. The “contact hypothesis” posits that with more contact, tensions between groups are likely to lessen. Moreover, if racial groups live in close proximity and have more contact, the chances that they may cross racial boundaries and intermarry are greater. It is through intermarriage that group boundaries are breached and ultimately destroyed. Alongside the “contact hypothesis” advanced by scholars, civil rights activists have championed desegregation as a primary means by which equality can truly be achieved between/across racial groups. As I discussed in Chapter 1, suburbs have typically been highly segregated and many suburban residents have engaged in efforts to keep them that way. Yet, despite these eff orts, suburbs are changing quite rapidly.

African Americans have been able to make inroads into the suburbs. In fact, what was once Levittown, New Jersey, is now Willingboro. Whereas various Levittowns were known for being almost exclusively white in large part due to racial covenants encouraged by Levittown developer William Levitt, today’s Willingboro is predominantly African American. When African Americans weren’t able to breach the boundaries of white suburbs, they have created their own.

Cities were the initial stop for many generations of immigrants who then moved to the suburbs after achieving some degree of upward mobility economically. Many of the more privileged and highly educated immigrants, like immigrants from Asia, are bypassing cities altogether and settling directly in suburbs because they have the human and social capital to do so. At the same time, many immigrants settle in emerging ethnic communities in the suburbs because it gives them access to people who share their background, as well as goods and services they desire. Asians are more likely than most other immigrant groups to live in suburbs than in cities. New majority minority, “melting pot” suburbs have begun to emerge. In the Middlesex-Somerset-Hunterdon County region of New Jersey, where Edison is located, the Asian suburban population is over 10 percent. The diversification of many New Jersey suburbs, particularly those defined as part of the “Greater New York metropolitan region,” which includes Edison, is a process that has progressed since the 1970s. It is not a new phenomenon.

Although contact theorists might have predicted that ethnoburbs are sites where racialized boundaries are weakening and hence group conflict (specifically between whites and racialized minorities) may be lessening, residential assimilation has not necessarily led to the weakening of boundaries, but, seemingly, to the bolstering of them. Residents, particularly white, native-born residents in ethnoburbs, engage in bitter battles to define the identities of their communities. This is certainly true in Edison. What contact theorists may not be accounting for is that residential assimilation is not just about having more nonwhite neighbors. When more minorities move into a neighborhood, they can engage in a host of practices that dramatically reshape the look and feel of a place. For example, along with residential assimilation can be the establishment of businesses by racial and ethnic minorities, which cater to both their own and the broader community.

Minority businesspeople, like the Indian entrepreneurs that enliven Edison’s Oak Tree Road, are generally thought to embody the “American” ethic of entrepreneurship and are typically held up as “model minorities.” Even the White House celebrated Asian American entrepreneurs, calling them “leading actors in the U.S. economy.” Unlike their undocumented Latino counterparts, these immigrant entrepreneurs are often depicted in broader public discourses as truly contributing to the United States. According to the White House, they provide jobs, and “[a]s the U.S. faces diffi cult economic times, these contributions are a vital catalyst to economic recovery.” These aren’t the immigrants that “take jobs away.”

The immigrant entrepreneur, particularly the Asian American entrepreneur, is oft en held up as a model racialized citizen, not only in contrast to low-wage undocumented Latinos immigrants but also native-born Latinos and blacks. Indeed, Asian immigrant businesspeople themselves often try to use their entrepreneurship to stake a claim as authentic Americans. Yet, immigrants’ businesses also raise concerns among “natives” because they reshape suburban landscapes in very visible ways. Ethnic businesses have ethnic signage, ethnic patrons from beyond the neighborhood, and the like. The issues raised by Joel Stein, for instance, are issues related to Edison’s landscape as it has been reconfigured by Indian businesses. As ethnic studies scholar Wendy Cheng argues, based on research of a Chinese ethnoburb in Southern California, struggles over landscapes “are also struggles over power in which questions of race, history, and identity are implicated, and the stakes include specific and unequal material outcomes.” The suburban-scape is constituted by commercial landscapes (those to which businesses contribute through buildings, signage, types of retail activity, and the consumer base they attract), residential landscapes (the types of houses people live in), and civic landscapes (government buildings and other public spaces, including how they are occupied and used). In Edison, changing landscapes have been a source of a range of conflicts and have been at the heart of local electoral battles.

Used with kind permission of Rutgers University Press, © 2017, all rights reserved

This book is available from Amazon.