This summer Bedelia Richards stepped out of her role as an assistant professor and into the role of a student at a National Endowment of the Humanities summer seminar, where she studied immigration from different perspectives.

Richards, a sociology professor who specializes in immigration, social inequality, and race and ethnic relations, spent five weeks in Los Angeles with 15 other scholars from around the country for the seminar, “Rethinking International Migration.” UCLA distinguished professor of sociology Roger Waldinger led the seminar and met with participants individually.

Richards’ goal was to work on her book proposal, which would explore the research she conducted on second generation West Indians. Some of the issues she researched included what it means to become an American for children of immigrants and what types of ethnic identities they adopt.

The purpose of the seminar was to expose the scholars to an interdisciplinary approach to immigration studies, exploring issues such as rights, citizenship, and migration policy; diasporas and transnationalism; and the second generation. 

In addition to Richards, there were scholars with backgrounds in history, philosophy, political science, geography, and other disciplines.

Participants met three days a week, discussing readings and exchanging feedback on their own work. Richards said the collegial setting was both extremely constructive and “very uplifting.” She hopes to finish revising her proposal in the fall.

“In some ways, it reminds me of graduate school,” she said. “We’re all students for those five weeks … It was intense but it was definitely an amazing experience.”

Richards’ research involved in-depth interviews and participant observation with children of West Indian immigrants in Brooklyn, N.Y. She spent a full academic year in two schools, shadowing a small number of students in school and at social events.

“Wherever I was able to gain access, I just observed,” she said. “When you do interviews, it’s kind of a one-shot thing. People are complex individuals. It enabled me to triangulate and get a more complete picture by going deeper.”

Richards wanted to explain the academic outlooks and behaviors of West Indian youth who were educated in schools where African Americans comprised a negligible percentage of the student body. She looked at how the children experienced self-identification—both as members of their ethnic community and as students—and how their interactions and experiences were shaping or forming their self-identification.

In both schools she visited, Richards said her West Indian respondents described African American friends who felt pressured to identify as West Indians—a reversal of earlier trends. One school was multi-ethnic and one was predominantly black, but the majority of black students in both were West Indians.

Previous sociologists have found that because West Indians were in predominantly African American schools, they learned what it meant to be American from their African American peers. The idea was that this could sometimes lead to negative consequences for academic achievement, Richards said.

Richards argues that this depiction is no longer accurate because there are a number of neighborhoods in Brooklyn where West Indians are the majority, not African Americans. Her research identifies what assimilation looks like in environments where the immigrant group is actually the majority.  She also says that the academic outlooks and behaviors of West Indian youth are best explained by how they are treated by teachers, rather than attempts to fit in with African American peers as some sociologists have suggested.

Because American society is so divided by race, Richards said, one of the prominent sociology discussions relates to how some—but not all—Asians and Hispanics are making it “into the mainstream” through economic success. Yet there isn’t the same level of acceptance of black immigrants and African Americans within predominantly white spaces, she said.

“So even though West Indians make up a smaller percentage of immigrants today, you’re not going to have a complete picture … unless you look at black immigrants’ experiences.” she said. “We can’t make predictions about how they will adapt to American society by only looking at the Asian and Hispanic experience.”

Originally printed in the fall 2011 issue of Artes Liberales.