Working Papers

So Goes the Nation?

A preliminary report on how immigration is reshaping the identities of workers in California

Since 1990, immigrants and their children have been the fastest growing component of the American population (Portes and Rumbaut 2005; Pew Hispanic Center 2011). Unlike the newcomers who arrived a century ago during the last period of large-scale immigration, today’s immigrants are largely non-European, a trend that is projected to persist into the future. By the year 2050, America’s Latino and Asian populations are expected to triple, making up 29% and 9% of the nation’s population, respectively, while the African American population is expected to only modestly increase its share of the population, from 12% to 13% (Smith and Edmonston 1997; Passel and Cohn 2008). These trends are profoundly altering the nation’s racial and ethnic landscape.

Until quite recently the United States was a biracial society with a large white majority, a comparatively small black minority, and a relatively rigid color line separating the two groups (Lee and Bean 2004). Today, that landscape is changing. However, it is not yet possible to know exactly how, for we do not know how today’s immigrants understand social hierarchy in America, nor how they interpret their place in it, nor how they perceive themselves vis-à-vis the race/ethnicity distinction that has shaped American politics for the last 100 years

Nowhere are the changes to the racial and ethnic landscape as profound as in the workplaces of California, where the number of immigrant workers exceeds that of every other state. In 2010, more than a third of the workforce was foreign born; up from 25% in 1990, while in the United States as a whole, the figures were 16.5% and 12.4%, respectively (Migration Policy Institute 2012). Yet, although the state’s racial and ethnic landscape began to change much earlier than in the rest of the nation, even in California we know little about how today’s immigrants construct similarities and differences between themselves and other groups, or how the arrival of unprecedented numbers of Latinos and Asians have shaped the identities of native-born workers.

Using data from in-depth interviews conducted between 2009 and 2012, this paper reports preliminary findings about the ways in which workers in California construct the boundaries that define “people like me” and “people different from me.” Our research builds on the approach used by Michèle Lamont (2000) in her study of black and white workers in the suburbs of New Jersey and New York in the early 1990s. This approach is especially well suited for getting at how immigrant and native-born workers see both themselves and the larger social hierarchy in which they are embedded. It also provides a set of comparisons against which to assess how the process of boundary construction might be changing along with the nation’s racial and ethnic landscape.

Some of our preliminary findings diverge sharply with Lamont’s findings while others are more analogous. Most strikingly, the workers Lamont interviewed were largely indifferent to immigrants but drew clear boundaries based on black-white racial distinctions; in contrast, the workers with whom we spoke were far more likely to make distinctions based on immigration status. Latinos rather than African-Americans are the most salient comparative group for the white workers we interviewed and whites are the most salient group for Latinos. This change in reference group appears to affect the type and strength of distinctions drawn by working-class interviewees. In contrast to the sharp boundaries Lamont’s white interviewees drew along racial lines, we find that whites draw much fuzzier boundaries against Latino immigrants. Though many of our white interviewees believed Latino immigrants posed a threat to their livelihood due to their willingness to accept low wages and poor working conditions, they found it very difficult to criticize Latinos for these qualities, as they are seen as closely linked to highly esteemed characteristics such as self-reliance and a strong work ethic. In contrast, Lamont’s white interviewees saw African-Americans as comparatively lazy and irresponsible. Further, the Latino immigrants we interviewed joined Lamont’s African-American interviewees in criticizing whites for lacking warmth and generosity; additionally, they drew boundaries against whites for their limited work ethic and self-reliance.