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Natives and Nativists, Migrants and Immigrants in an American City

Wednesday, September 28, 2022

Nancy Cantor
Rutgers University – Newark[1]

I am delighted to say a few words of welcome as this terrific Sawyer Seminar series, funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, begins and I want to first congratulate Belinda Edmondson, Sean Mitchell, Kornel Chang, and Bernie Lombardi for their creativity and commitment in conceiving and bringing to fruition this most timely seminar, as we sit today amidst a flood of anti-immigrant sentiment, under-girded by rampant racism and xenophobia, and sustained by vicious pitting of communities by race, religion, language and heritage. We live in a time reminiscent of the nativism of Nazism (when white supremacists chant Jews will not replace us on a college campus); a time when that nativism is transported to distinguish “real” white Americans (a group whose heritage has broadened over decades to include the Jews and Italians and Irish once excluded as impure) and to contrast them with a broad collection of “others”; a collection of others that covers a wide diaspora, full, sadly but inevitably, of its own inter-group conflicts (for example, within diasporic communities over issues such as religion, class, language, and/or color).  We witness the horrendous targeting and beatings of Asian-Americans under the guise of blame for a global pandemic, and then we watch as a governor of a state that once welcomed Cuban refugees (albeit a specific type of Cuban), uses blatant trickery to transport Venezuelan refugees seeking asylum (and covered under TPS) to another state where, apparently, he believes they better fit.  Indeed, to borrow a phrase from my fellow social psychologist Rupert Nacoste, our “hibernating bigotry” is not hibernating, and it knows no geographic boundaries and shows no shame in assigning a diverse membership to the “other,” repeating the sins of historical exclusion and racist discrimination, as if we haven’t learned a thing from Native American genocide, Atlantic slavery, the Chinese exclusion Act, forced internment of Asian-Americans, and the list unfortunately goes on.

Now, as the title of this seminar series, Natives and Nativists, Migrants and Immigrants in an American City suggests, we add the dimension of urbanization, as so much of the world’s population now reside in urban centers that carry their own history up to this day of inclusion and exclusion, gentrification and displacement, vibrant perseverance, and persistent systemic racism. And this brings us to Newark, NJ’s largest city, one that to this day, as Ryan Haygood and our partners at the NJISJ say, exemplifies what Martin Luther King, Jr. meant by “Two Americas,” calling on us all to “Say the Word”—“reparations”—as we think about what reparative justice looks like.

Indeed, I would say there cannot be a more relevant, emblematic place for this seminar’s critical and timely dialogue to be held than right here, in a 350+ year old global city, where from its very start the complexities of the all-too simple binaries of Natives and Nativists, Migrants and Immigrants, took shape as settler colonialists overran the Lenape homeland, beginning a repeatedly fraught narrative about rightful “ownership,” a narrative then repeated across centuries of migration and immigration, up to this very day, setting the stage for the related and equally complex contested territory of who really belongs. This is a city brought to life by waves of African-descended families migrating South to North, riding in many cases the underground railroad to “freedom” (including through what is now our Rutgers-Newark Frederick Douglass field) only to land in the last northern state to abolish slavery in 1866.[2] Then came multiple generations of immigrants migrating here, from Jews and Italians and Irish challenging nativist conceptions of whiteness, to Newark’s Chinatown, growing on Mulberry Street starting in the late 1870s, thriving up until the depression, and declared dead by newspaper headlines in the 1950s. And central to the evolving complexion and complexity of this global city, of course, are decades upon decades of a highly diverse population of immigrants from the Global South, including, for example those 73,000 labelled in the census as born in “Latin America,” covering a wide span of geography from Brazil and Ecuador to the Dominican Republic and beyond, and often presumed (sometimes incorrectly) to be Brown, or those coming from Africa and the Caribbean who are distinguished from their African-American neighbors, complicating the reductionist vision of a “Black City.” Likewise, among the 108,670 Newark residents labeled in the U.S. Census as born outside of the United States, we are challenged to reach beyond yet another reductionist understanding of Newark’s 6,500 residents labeled as born in “Asia,” which similarly obfuscates the broad array of ethnicities, religions, social classes, and cultural traditions that first-generation residents of our city are bringing here.

Indeed, movement, in and out of Newark has defined its soul and culture and economic trajectory, especially when the Black and Puerto Rican Rebellions, of 1967 and 1974, respectively, gave cover for decades of so-called “white” flight, which included many of the successful residents of Newark’s former Chinatown, that dispersed to NJ’s many suburbs. In turn, these movements in and out of Newark turned NJ’s largest city on the one hand, into a diverse mecca for nuanced and vibrant cultural, linguistic, and religious representation, and on the other hand, a transportation hub for thousands of suburban, mostly white employees of fortune five hundred companies and universities and hospitals commuting in and then out of Newark every day. Yes, in so many ways, as our dear late City Historian and revered Rutgers-Newark colleague, Clem Price always said: “All roads lead to Newark,” and I echo that sentiment today in order to emphasize how dynamic the landscape is and has always been, even as the external labelling is typically reductionistic, glossing over the ever-present pluralism characteristic of the residents and the commuters who populate most urban centers.  Nevertheless, at the heart of so much of the tensions of urbanization, evident in Newark and other comparable cities, is the age-old question of who owns the city – to whom does it belong; alongside the question of who profits from its economy versus who has built its soul.

Who owns Newark? Who owns America? As simple as the question may seem, I see it as the door to be opened as this seminar considers the fundamental tensions of race, inequality, and immigration that confront us and animate us all so urgently today, and that scholars and students at Rutgers-Newark have been studying and living for decades. I see it in the questions that our undocumented students – our Dreamers – ask as we work to ensure their belongingness here.  I hear it in the voices of our 480 and more students speaking 48 languages and interning in our Immigration Rights Clinic as part of their Lives in Translation program. I watch it in the multimedia stories of the Newest Americans produced as the Story Bus travels the neighborhoods of Newark and the maps that connect local to global in the Mediterranean Displacement Project.  I move to it in the Jazz/Poetry of Newark’s legacy, as our creative writing faculty and students and our Institute of Jazz Studies archivists collaborate with the NJPAC’s jazz musicians in City Verses, reminding us in sounds and words exactly who has been in Newark for so long. And speaking of being in and of Newark, I nod my head and heart to our public historians working to underscore the rightful presence of the underground railroad in Newark, as our socially-engaged artists define the sights and sounds of the newly named Harriet Tubman Square, after the removal of the Columbus statue – again reminding us of centuries of contest over who owns and who belongs. And speaking of ownership and belonging and urbanization, I read with sadness the latest report from our CLiME (Center on Law, Inequality and Metropolitan Equity) scholars entitled “Who Owns Newark,” documenting the destructive influence of outside investors buying up Newark’s homes and displacing “real” Newarkers by charging exorbitant rents. Yes, the story of systemic racism creating two Americas goes way back in our city (and country), as our scholars in The Inclusion Project studying school segregation by race and class remind us that NJ has the sixth most segregated public schools in the country, and as we see in every corner of every neighborhood in our Crafting Democratic Futures project – a collaboration between our public historians and community partners at NJISJ, Newark NAACP, and NCDN, committed to the campaign to “say the word,” for reparations and reparative justice must be spoken as part of this dialogue too.

I mention all of these ways that we must interrogate, from so many angles, disciplines, viewpoints, communities, as this series will do, the pressing questions – pressing now but rooted in history – of how and why and to what end have we pitted and reduced and excluded so many peoples under the rubric of discriminating between and amongst those seen as belonging and those to whom the door of equitable growth is closed. Having these conversations will sometimes be difficult and always challenging, as we confront contested pasts and equally fraught presents. Yet, as this series goes forth and complicates the binaries of Natives and Nativists, Migrants and Immigrants, it will also possibly open some doors to a better way to answer the question of who owns America, a way perhaps a bit more genuinely representing the American ethos of E pluribus unum – even as that feels today a long way off.  In this regard, I turn to a quote from Frederick Douglass that Eboo Patel used to begin his book, Out of Many Faiths: Religious Diversity and the American Promise.  In the words of Frederick Douglass: “There is but one destiny…left for us, and that is to make ourselves, and be made by others a part of the American people in every sense of the word.” I see the dialogue to come here as asking a bit of that question – how can we be us and still be we, here?


[1] Welcome remarks given at the opening event of the Sawyer Seminar at Rutgers University – Newark, September 28, 2022. The seminar is generously sponsored by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

[2] Marcus L. Ward of Newark signed a constitutional amendment that brought an end to slavery in the state as his first official act as Governor.