What The Notorious BIG Can Tell Us About Race and Immigration


(x-posted at Social Science Lite)

In Black Identities, Harvard sociologist Mary Waters analyzes the racial and ethnic identities of first and second generation West Indian immigrants in New York City. At its core, Black Identities is a study of paradox. Waters eloquently states, “[For West Indians], America is a contradictory place…a land of greater opportunities than their homelands but simultaneously a land of racial stigma and discrimination. Immigrants readily buy into an image of American affluence, but are grounded in American racial and economic realities. One respondent noted despair that America is a “white world” in which “white people have all the money,” but in the same breath rejoiced in the fact that America is “a place where everyone has opportunity.” This is the inherent contradiction of the “American dream:” First generation West Indian immigrants must reconcile their lofty expectations of achievement with the myth of American social mobility as they grapple with structural and interpersonal racism in their day-to-day lives.

Second generation West Indian immigrants are also directly confronted with uniquely American race relations, resulting in contradictory immigrant identities. On the one hand, some immigrants embrace their Caribbean ancestry and construct social boundaries separating themselves from black Americans. On the other hand, many young, second generation West Indians (a plurality of her sample) buy into the uniquely American racial caste system and self-identify as black, abandoning other “ethnic options.” There wouldn’t be anything wrong with indentifying as “black,” if of course a slew of disadvantages and prejudices didn’t follow as a result. When race collides and interacts with social structure and culture, West Indian immigrant identity precariously wavers between ethnic loyalty and American assimilation. Paradoxically, the choice to remain loyal to their West Indian heritage affords these immigrants more social mobility than direct incorporation into American culture, as buying into American stereotypes often means downward mobility.

Sound familiar? Oddly reminiscent of a certain Brooklyn born rap legend? Indeed, The Notorious BIG represents an interesting case study—and exemplar—of Waters’ extensive empirical data. Biggie was born to a hardworking, loving Jamaican immigrant mother. While his father was largely absent from his life, Biggie’s mother held steady employment as a pre-school teacher and by all accounts was an involved parent. She enrolled her son in a private middle school in Brooklyn where he thrived academically. This scholastic success, of course, came to an end when Biggie began selling drugs at age 12. A (pun intended) notorious crack dealer, he eventually dropped out of high school, only to reach temporary stardom but ultimately suffer an untimely death.

A scene near the beginning of the recent biopic Notorious, in which Biggie’s character exhibits admiration and lust for the life of a street hustler, is telling. Waters’ research suggests that Biggie’s identity as a second generation West Indian immigrant could have, presumably, led him to continue his studies and perhaps achieve upward mobility—distancing himself both from the general stereotypes of American blacks and the actual hustlers in his immediate surroundings. But, when confronted with the reality of American race relations—in this example, Bed-Stuy/Clinton Hill in the early ‘90s—Biggie could have just as easily been propelled to identify more with the black Americans selling drugs on the corner by his house. Like many poor second generation West Indian immigrants, Biggie lacked local models of success, a disparity caused by urban economic marginalization and resulting in a push to identify with a certain type of black American.

Big had an ethnic “choice,” sure; claim his Jamaican roots, or step in line with America’s vision of race. But it was a structured choice provided under economic duress and within the context of a uniquely American racial order. The problem is, both paths of ethnic identity formation have problematic results for blacks as a whole. By distancing themselves from the “black underclass,” many West Indians reaffirm long-standing stereotypes of blacks as lazy, violent, and generally inferior. In this model, immigrants achieve individual mobility at the expense of group advancement. In other words, individual immigrants can use this boundary work to catapult themselves toward success, but it negates the possibility for the advancement of blacks as a group. West Indians face American stereotypes and norms of black insolence, and their rejection—and even acceptance—of this identity solidifies white preconceptions. This puts West Indian immigrants in a uniquely difficult position—a Catch-22 in which either path of identity formation reinforces a firm black-white color line.

Biggie’s life story dovetails nicely with Waters’ analysis, complicating traditional studies of race, immigration, and assimilation in the United States. Of course, Biggie’s life obviously doesn’t reflect the experiences of all second generation West Indian immigrants. Still, Waters’ analysis in Black Identities does help explain, in part, why “G-E-D, wasn’t B-I-G.”

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4 comments for “What The Notorious BIG Can Tell Us About Race and Immigration

  1. September 25, 2009 at 4:34 pm

    A very thought provoking post, Jeremy. I am a Jamaican and I have always heard my friends who have migrated to the United States say the same negative things about African-Americans that you mentioned in your post.

    Many Jamaicans go to the U.S. and are able to excel and the feeling is if they can do it, why can’t African-Americans. Jamaicans and other West Indians come to the U.S. with a different mindset.

    We have the advantage of being a majority and therefore accustomed to seeing people who look like us in positions of power and authority whereas African-Americans have to deal with power structures that are white and have a legacy of racism.

    West Indians did have to deal with a measure of racism post-slavery but not the dehumanising aspects such as lynching, Klu Klux Klan, jim crow laws etc. so they don’t have the emotional scars that African-Americans have.

    People fron the West Indies go to the U.S. with the intention of making enough money to go back home (even though most don’t). Therefore they will put up with whatever hardships there are since in their minds its only a matter of time before they go back to their island paradise. Whereas for many African-Americans there is no escape.

    Instead of this animosity between West Indians and African Americans I would love to see dialogue to promote greater understanding and on that basis seek areas where we can co-operate in advancing our interests.

  2. September 26, 2009 at 7:34 am

    An interesting post indeed, but for me, there are more researchable questions than answers here.

    First, the depiction of African Americans is too flat. The same Brooklyn populated by crack dealers pretending to authentic blackness was also home to middle class strivers who were children and grandchildren of the Great Migration. The Huxtables might have been an exaggeration, but there were and are plenty of hardworking African Americans in the brownstones and co-ops of Bed-Stuy, Crown Heights and the surrounding neighborhoods. The real question is how did the marginal hustlers and neighborhood parasites come to be seen as the role models?

  3. Robin
    October 1, 2009 at 2:54 am

    “Then fuck your mom hit them skins to amnesia
    She don’t remember shit just the two hits
    Her hittin the floor and me hittin the clit
    Suckin on her tit
    Had the hooker beggin for the dick
    And your moms ain’t ugly love my dick got rock quick
    I guess I was a combination of House of Pain and Bobby Brown
    I was humpin around and jumpin around
    Jacked her then I asked her who’s the man
    She said B-I-G then I bust in her E-Y-E…
    Hit mummy in the tummy if the hooker plays a dummy
    Slit the wrist of little sis
    After she sucked the dick, I stabbed her brother with the icepick
    Because he wanted me to fuck him from the back
    But Smalls don’t get down like that
    Got your father hidin in a room; fucked him with the broom
    Slit him down the back and threw salt in the wound…
    I’m using rubbers so they won’t trace the semen
    The black demon, got the little hookers screamin
    Because you know I love it young, fresh and green
    With no hair in between, know what I mean?”
    -B.I.G. “Dead Wrong”

    This is the guy you’re featuring in an article? Really?

  4. October 1, 2009 at 6:17 am

    Yes, Robin, that’s the guy. Did you even read the post? Because if you did, you might have noticed I said nothing about the content of his music–save, of course, for my reference to his “legendary” status, which, problematic lyrics or not, is a widely accepted view.

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