COLUMN ONE : U.S. Blacks: A Divided Experience : Animosity clouds relations between Caribbean immigrants, native-born African Americans. Competition for jobs, differences in their dealings with whites are at the heart of the split.

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Colin L. Powell, the retired four-star general who recently passed up a run for the presidency, is one. So, too, is Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakhan, whose “Million Man March” cemented his role as an influential player on the national political scene.

From popular entertainers like Harry Belafonte and Sidney Poitier to Harvard sociologist Orlando Patterson and novelist Jamaica Kincaid, from Ford Foundation chief Franklin Thomas to Black Enterprise magazine founder and Publisher Earl Graves, people of West Indian descent occupy some of the loftiest niches in American life and culture.

Yet below the surface of this high-achieving world are strains of animosity between blacks who entered this country voluntarily by way of the Caribbean, and those whose ancestors came to America chained to slave ships.


For the most part, the divisions are submerged, rarely exposed to those outside the respective communities. In his best-selling autobiography, however, Powell recently opened a window on the conflict when he wrote about the chilly reception he got from his future father-in-law.

Upon learning his daughter Alma was going to marry the son of Jamaican immigrants, R.C. Johnson turned to his wife and, according to Powell’s account, remarked: “All my life I’ve tried to stay away from those damn West Indians, and now my daughter’s going to marry one.”

With that bit of family lore, Powell exposed the chasm of attitudes, culture, history and opportunities that is often overlooked in public discussions of what it means to be black inside America’s caldron of ethnic identities.

Broadly stated, many among the nation’s 1 million West Indians do not see themselves--nor are they viewed by most blacks and some whites--as just African Americans. Instead, West Indians navigate a maze of complex relationships with non-Caribbean blacks and with the larger white community.

According to Mary Waters, sociology professor at Harvard University, Caribbean blacks often face hostility in their interactions with native-born black Americans. In fact, she says, the tension that exists between the groups appears to stem from the strange blend of contempt and envy they exhibit toward each other.

“There is a great deal of hostility between Caribbean blacks and black Americans,” said Waters, who has studied relationships between the two groups in New York’s food service industry. “They hold very stereotypical views of each other.”


To be sure, as the Powells’ long and apparently happy marriage indicates, harmony and mutual respect govern many interactions between black Americans and people of Caribbean descent.

Yet the exceptions can be striking. Powell remarked upon those in his book, “My American Journey.” “American blacks sometimes regard Americans of West Indian origin as uppity and arrogant,” Powell wrote. “The feeling, I imagine, grows out of an impressive record of accomplishment by West Indians.”

But often, say some observers, these intense feelings are based in workplace competition. Black Americans and West Indians have long been rivals for the menial positions available at the bottom rungs of the employment ladder. Interviews with black Americans and West Indians in New York--home to the nation’s largest concentration of Caribbean immigrants--spotlight the attitudes on both sides.

Some West Indians say American blacks don’t want to work very hard and are too quick to use racism as an excuse for their failure to advance. At the same time, many black Americans resent West Indians, arguing they are too eager to take their jobs or too willing to work with white people at the expense of black Americans.

“I don’t have black American friends; I have black American clients,” says Raynelle Benjamin, a 27-year-old hair designer at Shear Perfection, a bustling beauty parlor on Flatbush Avenue in the Caribbean-flavored section of Brooklyn.

Greater Opportunities

Benjamin emigrated from Guyana to New York 18 years ago; here, she says, there are greater career opportunities and her goal is to work hard at several jobs and earn enough money to retire back home by the time she’s in her mid- to late 30s. Although she’s a long way from retirement, she has several jobs, including her main one at the beauty salon.


“America is the land of opportunity and there is so much you can do here,” she says, waving the back of her hand toward the street where many other people seemed to be rushing home at the end of their workday. “I’m leaving here to go to another job. I don’t mind working hard because I’m focused, unlike black Americans. The difference is in our cultures. I have my culture and black Americans have theirs and the two don’t meet as far as I can tell.”

As Benjamin spoke, her colleague, Clair Wharwood, listened intently and offered nods of affirmation. “I have one best friend who’s [black and] American,” says Wharwood, who immigrated to New York from Trinidad 10 years ago. “But she’s been West Indianized. She prefers to associate with the West Indians, not black Americans.”

Asked about their relationships with white Americans, Benjamin and Wharwood exchanged knowing glances, clucked their tongues and broke into giggles. “I don’t have a lot of interactions with them, even less than black Americans,” Wharwood says. “When I do come across whites, they say things like ‘Oh, I just love your accent’ or ‘I knew you weren’t an American.’ ”

Sociologists and cultural experts say that although both black Americans and West Indians may have kinfolk on the African continent, the slave trade sent them on divergent paths before they were reunited in the United States--where disparate historical and cultural experiences conspire to hide a shared link to Africa.

For example, the journey black Americans took from Colonial slavery through the civil rights movement to their present-day status is nothing at all like the route of the people who landed in the Caribbean and later developed independent island nations.

Collectively, West Indians are descendants of African slaves brought to the Caribbean islands which were primarily under British rule during the 17th and 18th centuries. Once freed from slavery in 1833, nearly a generation before Colonial American slaves, they embraced the Queen’s culture and worked--without white overseers--in sugar fields of the Caribbean islands. Later, many of the better educated and more ambitious immigrated to the United States where some experienced overt racism for the first time.


Milton Vickerman, a sociology professor at the University of Virginia and a descendant of Jamaican parents, conducted extensive studies of 120 Jamaican men in New York during the 1980s. In a recent interview, he noted that the friction between the two groups may stem from their different histories and experiences in dealing with white people.

“Many of the Jamaican men would say to me, ‘I never knew what it was to be black until I came to the United States,’ ” Vickerman said, adding that black Americans tend to take offense at such statements because it sounds like West Indians are distancing themselves from being black. “It’s an honest and accurate statement for a person from the Caribbean, who defines blackness in a way that many black Americans would never define it.”

Uncertain where they stand with either black or white Americans, many Caribbean blacks say they prefer to stick close to their tightly knit families in an adopted country. That feeling goes both ways as many black Americans say they avoid contact with Caribbean blacks for the same reasons they avoid contact with white Americans--a sense of being out of place in a racially stratified society.

Not that most American-born blacks feel comfortable voicing such sentiments aloud. Although some, in private conversations, speak with great passion about their frustration and anger in dealings with Caribbean blacks, more often they refuse to put their comments on the record, saying they fear any negative remarks would be misunderstood by white Americans. Frequently, black Americans explain their reticence on the subject by saying they want to maintain the appearance of solidarity among dark-skinned people regardless of ancestry.

One exception is Harold Swift, a 55-year-old auto mechanic who was born and raised in Harlem. He thinks it’s wise and practical to steer clear of West Indians, who he feels are too comfortable around white people. That, says Swift, is reason enough to avoid the West Indian merchants and street vendors he sees all around his Brooklyn neighborhood.

“You can’t trust ‘em,” says Swift, who stopped tinkering under the hood of his car only long enough to explode in a profanity-laced diatribe against the people he calls “black foreigners.”


“They come over here and get our jobs by cozying up real tight and close with white people,” Swift says, almost shouting. “I can’t see where any of them have anything to do with black people like me.”

His remarks come against a backdrop of income disparity. The U.S. Census in 1990 found that the median household income for people who described themselves as West Indian was $28,819; for all black households, the median was $19,533. However, leading sociologists have questioned the significance of such comparisons, saying self-definitions are not always accurate and noting that West Indians tend to be concentrated in metropolitan centers where wages are higher, and that many American-born blacks live in rural areas with low pay and a low cost of living.

Others’ attitudes seem less rooted in economics, and more in perceived personal slights. One woman, who lives in a predominantly white and middle-class suburban Miami community, says she remains offended that the Jamaican families in her neighborhood were the only ones that did not greet her family when they moved in five years ago. “I feel they constantly look down on black Americans and identify more with white people,” she says, speaking on condition of anonymity. “I don’t want to be depicted as intolerant, but there are some things they do that get on my nerves, so I try to keep my distance.”

Arrogance or Pride?

Pressed for specifics, the woman says the West Indians she knows at work and other places tend to be “arrogant” and “materialistic.” “I assume that is a byproduct of their coming from such an impoverished background,” she said.

What some may perceive as arrogance or other negative traits may be nothing more than West Indians’ pride and their willingness to interact with white people without the racial baggage carried by many black Americans, sociologists say.

“What I see as interesting about black Americans’ attitudes toward Colin Powell, for example, is . . . the fact that he has a way of dealing with whites that whites find non-threatening,” says Harvard’s Waters, who is white. “There seems to be less of an expectation among whites that their interpersonal relations with [West Indians] will be soured by race. West Indians are at ease around whites, not expecting really awful experiences to happen.”


Before Powell announced that he would not seek the presidency, a Times Poll found blacks somewhat less enthusiastic about his potential candidacy--with 63% saying they would definitely vote for the former general or would consider doing so, compared to 70% of whites.

Waters adds her research suggests white employers show a measurable--and sometimes stated--preference for hiring blacks from Caribbean islands over native-born black Americans. “Most whites I interviewed said they felt more at ease with foreign born blacks than American-born blacks,” she says. “When they worked with West Indians, they said, ‘I don’t see race.’ What I think they’re saying is they see a child of immigrants and someone who doesn’t carry the weight of American race relations with them. That West Indian employee isn’t angry at them personally.”

That may stem in part from their history and their status as voluntary immigrants to the United States. West Indians are a subset of the nation’s larger black demographic classifications. According to U.S. Census Bureau figures, 1,058,345 people--representing eight separate island-nation or ethnic groups--identified themselves as West Indians in the 1990 census sample data forms.

In his study, Vickerman notes that black immigrants from the Caribbean are one of the groups that have benefited most from changes in immigration law over the past 30 years. In particular, four countries--Jamaica, Barbados, Guyana, and the twin island-nation of Trinidad and Tobago--account for most of the West Indian migration to the United States.

Philip Kosinitz, an urban sociologist and author of “Caribbean New York,” a 1992 historical study of the city’s West Indian population, says very little research has been done to tease out differences in white Americans’ attitudes toward blacks from the Caribbean versus those who are descendants of American slaves.

“To the extent that [whites] make any distinctions there is a mythology of West Indians as a model black minority,” he says, citing their clipped British accents, their lack of ancestral ties to America’s segregationist history and their willingness to work for lower wages than black Americans. “All of these are various reasons that white people have rationalized a preference for West Indians.”


Kosinitz says studies show that most first- and second-generation immigrants tend to have favorable work ethics, high academic achievement and strong economic productivity when compared to other members of their ethnic group who have already settled in the United States. However, black immigrants tend to fare worse than their white counterparts because of the barriers of racism, Kosinitz said.

Divergent Journeys

“If West Indians look like immigrants when compared to African Americans, then they look a lot like African Americans when compared to other [white] immigrants,” he says. “There seems to be something about becoming an American that over time depresses all the good things about being an immigrant. We only take these differences among immigrants and native-born Americans seriously when we talk about black people because we’re willing to believe that there is something defective about black Americans.”

Back on Flatbush Avenue, Sister Kwayera, who operates a cultural arts center on the second floor of a storefront building, is trying to bridge the gulf of misunderstanding and hostility that she sees and experiences between the two communities. She says it is “unfortunately ironic” that the two groups with roots in Africa have taken divergent, 400-year journeys to live uncomfortably in parallel worlds here in Brooklyn.

“I hear all sides of it,” she says, explaining that her parents, who were born in Jamaica, often complained around the dinner table about “lazy, black Americans.” But since she was born in New York, never developed a lilting accent and identified with her black playmates, “it really disturbed my soul to hear them talk like that,” she says. “I thought they might be talking about me as well.”

After spending several years with an international dance troupe, she returned from traveling the globe to overhear African Americans and Caribbean Africans, as she calls them, saying horrible things about each other. “I heard one African American say that all the monkey chasers should go back to the islands,” Sister Kwayera says. “I think this is a tactic and tool to divide and conquer us as people from the African diaspora. We need to reteach and re-educate our people about our differences and to respect them.”

So in 1989, she opened the Ifetayo Cultural Arts Facility, where community residents can find classroom space for dance, cultural studies, drama, martial arts and after-school programs. Three years ago, the center moved to its current location in the heart of the West Indian neighborhood south of Brooklyn, where it attracts both Caribbean and native black Americans.


“We wanted to be in a strongly diverse community,” says Sister Kwayera. “The people who come here learn about each other. Often African Americans feel there is a disrespect for what they had to go through for Caribbean Africans to come over here and get the benefits . . . African Americans need to hear that their struggle is respected. That’s our purpose.”