Interview with Nancy Foner

(New York)

April 27, 2009

Nancy Foner is Distinguished Professor of Sociology at Hunter College and the Graduate Center, City University of New York.

For further information click here.


What does ‘diversity’ mean to you by way of your work and field of expertise?

For me, in terms of my work, when I speak of diversity I generally mean ethnoracial diversity – and ethnoracial diversity as it relates to immigration. One of the things I’ve been concerned with in my work is understanding why New York – the place where I live and write about – is very tolerant of diversity, in fact celebrates diversity. I also look at how the extraordinary ethnoracial diversity in New York --- with large numbers of immigrants from so many different regions and countries -- affects the city and its residents.

It seems that diversity is already or will become in the near future one of the key terms in the debate on immigrants and minorities. Is the term of diversity used much within US migration research?

I’d have to do a content analysis to check it out! It’s used by scholars in the United States, for example, when they are trying to describe and understand the way that the recent immigration, of thlast four or five decades, has added new diversity to places all over the country. By this they are really talking about the influx of new immigrant groups which are transforming the ethnoracial order. Many migration scholars specifically discuss and analyze the changing social construction of race and ethnicity and changing ethnoracial relations in the US in light of the huge influx of Asian and Latino immigrants, not simply diversity, which is a vaguer concept. One of the things that migration scholars are now looking at is what happens in communities, particularly in the South and Midwest, that were formerly all-white or were mainly African American and white, where there has been a huge inflow of Latinos, often Mexicans. The question is framed not just as increasing diversity, but, more specifically, as the impact of new, often Latino, immigrants and the reaction to them.

Is ‘diversity’ just a Zeitgeist term – a post-multiculturalism policy catch phrase (as in ‘integration and diversity’ policy), a corporate tool (as in ‘diversity management’), or can it be a concept that can help structure and advance social scientific analysis?

In the US context --- and that is the one you’ve been asking me about – diversity is used in terms of policies and programs, including affirmative action, to “diversify” workplaces, schools, and so on. In this sense diversity refers not simply to non-white immigrants (Asians and Latinos) but also, and very importantly, to African Americans in the US. This is really important to bring out in terms of comparing Europe and the US. When people in the US are talking about diversity, they are not only talking about immigrants. They are talking about African Americans, who are after all about 12 percent of the population. Color- coded race is a huge issue in the US and diversity, in many ways, is simply another way about talking about racial differences --- between whites (really non-Hispanic whites) and non-whites (who include blacks, Asians, and Hispanics, who tend to be thought of as nonwhite). Can diversity be a concept that helps structure and advance social scientific analysis? Much depends on how it is developed as a concept, theoretically elaborated, and used. To the extent that it points to and helps us understand interactions between ethnoracial groups and how notions of race and ethnicity have been shaped and develop over time and in different places, the answer is yes.

What I think is that the term is sometimes used in such a way that it implies an assumption of an increasing complexity of differences: You know, in earlier times society was more simple but now we have diversity.

That is also I think a European notion – that until recently European countries were more ethnically homogeneous societies and then immigrants have come in and made them more diverse. And diversity is often seen as problematic, with immigrants causing problems. In the United States, there isn’t this same notion. First of all, we’ve got a history of slavery, legal segregation, ghettoization. In that sense America has always been diverse – black and white. There is also a notion of America as an immigrant nation that has a long history of incorporating diverse national-origin groups.

This notion of America, celebrated as a nation of immigrants, actually took root in the mid-20th century when immigrants had stopped coming in massive numbers --- this was when the Statue of Liberty began to be seen as a symbol of immigrants. It was easier to celebrate immigrants when mass immigration had stopped. In the post-1960s period, when the huge recent immigration began, it was in the context of a society that now saw itself as an immigrant nation and that celebrated its diverse heritage. This was also a time, remember, when the civil rights movement and legislation were beginning to try to right the wrongs of segregation and racial inequality.

Americans have a notion that their society was always diverse --- but the trouble comes in that many think that, in terms of immigration, diversity “then,” when most immigrants were European, was better than diversity “now,” when most are Latino and Asian. It’s mainly a racial issue. Then, it is said, immigrants were white, now they’re mainly nonwhite. They forget the prejudice that the Irish, Italians, Jews experienced in the past --and the negative ways they were seen.

One of the topics that’s interested social scientists, including myself, who are concerned with immigration, race, and ethnicity in the US is looking back to history to see how European immigrants in the past (especially Jews and Italians who arrived at the turn of the 20th century) were racialized as inferior whites or, as some historians would say, “in-between peoples” – and to try to understand how, over time, they became transformed into white Americans for whom ethnicity is an option. Jews and Italians are recognized now as unquestionably white. They can emphasize their ethnicity – or not. The big question is what will happen to those groups that have been coming to the US in recent decades. Asians are a fascinating case since they were subject to enormous discrimination in the past. There were legal barriers preventing them from entering the US – starting with the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882. Asian immigrants were aliens ineligible for citizenship ---- Asian immigrants could not naturalize as citizens. During World War II Japanese were put in internment camps. And now Asians are the model minority. Intermarriage rates with whites, for American-born Asians, are very high. They are moving into high-level jobs at relatively high rates. They have not become white, but they are seen in a very different way today than they were in the past. A big question is what will happen to other groups. How will views of Latino change? And what about black immigrants? And of course African Americans? These are some of the issues that come up in the US in terms of diversity – and that I am interested in. And as I said they are questions concerning race and ethnicity.

If we were sitting here a few years ago, who would have thought that the US could have a black president? Of course there is still tremendous racial inequality in the United States and blacks, in particular, face prejudice, discrimination, and racial barriers. At the very least, having a black president is important symbolically – and it points to the importance of trying to understand the factors that lead to changes in perceptions of racial and ethnic differences and relations among people in different racial and ethnic groups.

At MPI-MMG, we are looking to develop research and theory spanning contemporary immigration societies (especially in Europe) and longstanding multi-ethnic and multi-religious societies (such as South Africa, India and Malaysia). How do you see the concept of ‘diversity’ shaping this agenda – or not?

Well, I'm a person who is very, very interested in comparative research. That's something I've written a book about – the great value of comparisons for the study of immigration -- and I'm currently involved in a project comparing the incorporation of immigrants and their children in North America and Europe. So I think the prospect of comparing contemporary immigration societies and longstanding multi-ethnic and multi-religious societies is an exciting one that can have significant theoretical pay-offs. One of the great benefits of these kinds of cross-country comparisons is that they can lead to asking new questions, to identifying factors that may not have been seen as important if you only looked at one society. They can lead researchers to new literatures that they were not aware of before, and help in developing and refining theories about diversity.

In the way that the diversity concept implies an opening up of the more narrow focus on ethnicity or nationality in migration research, diversity is not only about ethnicity but it is also about other types of differences like gender or class or age or legal status or whatever. Do you think this is a conceptual progress or is there the danger that the attempt to observe too many dimensions of differences at the same time causes a lack of focus?

I think that my own point of view – I think Karen Schönwälder said it yesterday or something similar – is that I see diversity research as being mainly focused on ethnic and racial differences and as related particularly to migration. Does that mean you ignore age, gender and class? Obviously, no. Clearly, if we’re looking at ethnoracial diversity, then gender enters into the picture. So does class. So does age. In many cases, legal status, needs to be taken into account and studied as well. They are all obviously important and need to be considered and analyzed and not just considered as minor afterthoughts. This is basic, and good, social science. But I think the central focus should be on ethnic (or nationality) and racial differences – they should be on center stage in a research effort that seeks to understand diversity.

Perfect. Thank you very much.

Interviewer: Boris Nieswand

Go to Editor View