Tuesday, July 05, 2011

Helen Marrow's New Destination Dreaming

I read and really enjoyed Helen Marrow’s New Destination Dreaming. An anthropologist, Marrow conducted comparative research with a “context of reception” approach.  To that end she examines the specific characteristics of two counties in eastern North Carolina, selected for variation.  One exhibits characteristics of the new rural South (with rapidly growing immigrant populations) while the other is the old rural South (with relatively little migration and a majority of African Americans).  She labels them pseudonymously as Bedford and Wilcox.

Her conclusions are more optimistic than most of the literature, and focus on assimilation, race relations, and the political and institutional responsiveness to immigrants.  Her argument about rural assimilation is particularly interesting.  Unlike their urban counterparts, rural areas are more working class, and so recent migrants find it easier to achieve some measure of satisfaction about upward mobility.  In other words, their low wage employment is stable and not too far beneath the rest of the population.  Plus, jobs like poultry processing are stigmatized by many, so there are more opportunities for internal upward mobility.  Still, she tempers this relatively rosy picture with a nuanced analysis of the cross-cutting differences between different Hispanic populations, which include citizenship status, country of origin, affluence, and even gender.  All of these strongly affect who can move up more easily and rapidly.  Further, there is more upward mobility in poultry processing than in textiles (an industry that has been shrinking for well over a decade) so the structure of the receiving community can lead to significant variation.

She also does a nice job of contextualizing the rural experience of migrants, which vary not only by the receiving context, but also by the background of the migrants themselves.  In particular, migrant perceptions are colored by their own urban or rural origins.  More specifically, people from Latin American cities tend not to like rural North Carolina, while those from rural Latin America have a much more positive view.  For me, it raised a question about whether such a response would be common for much of the urban South as well.  Some interviewees compared rural North Carolina unfavorably to Chicago or Miami, but most southern cities (such as Charlotte or Raleigh) are smaller and more sprawling than those larger counterparts.

Her conclusions about race relations are more sobering, but reveal less hostility than is commonly assumed.  Marrow notes a larger gap between Hispanics and Blacks than between Hispanics and Whites, with a growing sense of a black-nonblack color line.  This is particularly pronounced in the minority African American county she studied versus the majority counterpart.  When in the minority, African Americans perceived a political and economic threat more acutely.

With regard to political representation, newly arrived migrants—especially those who do not speak English well—face daunting challenges.  Marrow argues that elected officials have shown relatively little interest in reaching out to the Hispanic population or addressing it needs, but that public bureaucracies have done so.  Since relatively few Latinos are eligible to vote, they are of less interest to politicians, but many individuals in bureaucracies view their own role as service-giving, and so often reach out to the immigrant population, even to the point of bending rules (it should come as no surprise to anyone that DMV officials were the least likely to be helpful!).  This contradicts political science literature, which would expect bureaucracies to follow political dictates.  That highlights the usefulness of a multi-disciplinary approach for understanding Latino immigration to the United States.  Nonetheless, as more restrictive laws were passed, state and local employees found it increasingly risky to do so, thus negating some of the more positive effects.

Notwithstanding the shrill media attention to restrictionist legislation being pursued at the state level in the South (as well as elsewhere, most famously Arizona) research like Marrow’s is pointing to more positive outcomes.  There is more work to be done to better understand why, but also to determine whether it is something that changes much—for better or worse—over time.  In sum, the book provides much food for thought as we try to understand the “Nuevo New South.”  As such, this and other works can provide a foundation for more comparative research on the political, economic, geographic, racial, and cultural impacts of Latino immigration to the South.


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