On the eve of Haiti’s Independence Day in 2011, hundreds of people—Haitian and non-Haitian alike—congregated in a town about an hour outside of New York City. They gathered in Spring Valley, New York not to commemorate the anniversary of a nation’s triumph, but rather to mourn, a Haitian immigrant living with mental illness who was shot and killed earlier that month by a police officer. The mourners marched from the scene of the murder to the funeral site in solidarity with Gilles’ family, including his mother who travelled from Haiti to see her son for the first and last time in years.
Gilles’ tragedy represents one account of many Haitians and Haitian descendants losing their lives, livelihoods or safety to state-sanctioned violence. In the wake of civil unrest along with renewed discourse around police brutality and other forms of systemic racism following George Floyd’s execution in Minneapolis, stories like Gilles’ serve as a reminder that Haitian immigrants and first-generation Haitian Americans should never distance themselves from movements like Black Lives Matter under a false pretense that such struggles do not represent our own. The muted reaction to police brutality against Black Americans noted in our community reflects a pattern of failed coalition-building between Afro-Caribbean immigrants and native-born Black people, and several scholars over the last few decades highlight the institutional, cultural and interpersonal factors contributing to this pattern.
In her book Black Identities: West Indian Immigrant Dreams and American Realities, Harvard sociologist Mary C. Waters cites the three primary factors shaping Afro-Caribbean immigrants’ understanding of race that undermine the formation of reliable alliances with the African American community.
First, immigrants from the Caribbean come from a society in which the vast majority of people are Black, including those with economic, political and social power. This reality at home allows them to move to the United States with high perceptions of their own
self-efficacy, which creates high levels of ambition, and in turn contributes to the “work hard” mentality that characterizes many Caribbean American families. Secondly, they have low expectations for interpersonal race relations, which allows them to forge the amicable connections with white Americans that many native Black Americans lack due to mistrust solidified over the course of generations. Lastly, those emigrating from the Caribbean expect that race will pose challenges as they attempt to build their lives in the United States, so they come mentally prepared with a certain resilience to overcome any obstacles.
This concoction of high ambition, positive interactions with white Americans, and resolve to confront any perceived discrimination, often leads to more favorable outcomes in the labor market, and therefore better social mobility, for Afro-Carribbean immigrants than for African Americans. These contrasting socioeconomic results lay the foundation for the misguided and contentious stereotypes we overhear in our homes, churches and other community spaces: Caribbean people work hard, stay out of trouble, and succeed, unlike Black Americans who choose the delinquency that leads them into issues with the state.
While studies show that, over time, wide-eyed beliefs of success regardless of skin color crumble in the face of institutional racism in this country, the passivity of many in the Haitian community in recent months suggests to me that some of us still cling to an illusion of superiority over our native-born Black American kin. Despite what the divisive rhetoric of the model minority myth attempts to convince us, Afro-Caribbean lives do not hold more value because we “work harder,” are friendlier with white people, or “stay out of trouble.” We cannot hide behind this thin veil of respectability woven with internalized anti-blackness, internalized elitism and model minority indoctrination.
Whether it rears its head in the form of job discrimination, predatory housing policies, underfunded schools or food deserts in our neighborhoods, state-sanctioned racism will find us. And if not through one of these manifestations, it will find us through the barrel of a cop’s gun, just like it found Herve Gilles, George Floyd and countless others.
Danette is a first-generation Haitian American committed to promoting health, wellness and empowerment in her community. She is a registered yoga teacher and graduate student pursuing her Master of Science in Counseling at Johns Hopkins University.