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Wendy Roth Award Statement

The Committee is proud to award the 2007 Outstanding Dissertation Prize to Wendy Roth, Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of British Columbia for her thesis, “Caribbean Race and American Dreams: How Migration Shapes Dominicans and Puerto Ricans’ Racial Identities and its Impact of Socioeconomic Mobility.”  Completed under the direction of Mary Waters in the Harvard doctoral program in Sociology and Social Policy, Roth’s thesis is a pathbreaking study of the racial and ethnic identities of Latino immigrants to the United States.

Based on fieldwork in the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico and New York City, Roth investigates how race is conceptualized in the sending and receiving cultures.  She explores the social remittances that migrants transmit in the form of new kinds of racial identities, creating an anticipatory understanding of the racial landscape on the U.S. mainland that alters local conceptions in durable ways. 

Roth finds that far from simply accepting the US classification system based on phenotype, migrants from the islands turn to national origin as a powerful source of racialized self conception.  Even non-migrants - people who live in the sending societies and have never left -  understand their race in terms of nationality. When asked what race they are, they respond with “Puerto Rican” or “Dominican” as opposed to moreno, indio or a continuum of racial labels.  Hence for both “movers” and “stayers,” a new racial landscape has emerged that competes with a phenotype-driven classification system or the U.S. tendency to classify Latinos as Black or White.

Roth argues that education plays a role in the ways these competing conceptions play out. For non-migrants, education shapes the conception of race they evoke when they identify with their nationality. Education also positions migrants in different streams of social interaction, permitting those at the upper end of the class spectrum to interact with a wider variety of racial and ethnic populations than those at the lower end.  Lower SES migrants are likely to think of themselves in national/ethnic terms (as Puerto Rican or Dominican), while the higher SES groups are attracted to the pan-ethnic identifier, “Latino.” 

It makes sense that these configurations would emerge on the mainland, born of the interaction patterns that migrants experience.  Roth’s remarkable and ambitious research agenda makes it possible to see that these experiences are transmitted back to people who have never moved, but are influenced by friends and relatives who have.  Interestingly, though, it appears that this process of pan-ethnicization is more widespread in Puerto Rico and resisted in the Dominican Republic.  To explain this divergence, Roth explores the political and historical relations between sending and receiving societies, which have left their tracks in the variable nature of contact, the support new identities receive from local institutions and media representations, and the timing of migration streams. 

If identity were merely a subjective orientation, this dissertation would have been interesting, but it’s implications for life chances would have been unclear.  One of its most remarkable features, however, is its emphasis on economic incorporation.  Past research has already established that Latinos who self-identify as white or who have light skin are more likely to find their way to higher education, high status occupations, higher incomes and less segregated neighborhoods.  What is the process by which these outcomes unfold? Is it simply a question of discrimination, or are more subtle patterns of association playing a role as well?  Roth’s dissertation provides the first data to measure of the color composition of migrant and non-migrant social networks.  She does not find that migrants networks become more homogeneous “in color” by virtue of moving to the U.S., but she does see that dark-skinned “movers” are more likely to associate with Black Americans, while light skin migrants have more white American contacts. 

The substance of Roth’s dissertation alone would justify this award, but the dissertation is also notable for its methodological innovations and the sheer sweep of the ethnographic work that accompanied her interviews.  She developed a photographic instrument that permitted her to elicit racial and ethnic categories systematically in all three societies.  This photo technique was coupled with interviews of 120 individuals and nearly 18 months of fieldwork.  This level of ambition is unusual in a dissertation, but the payoff for the discipline has been enormous.  Caribbean Race and American Dreams provides us with the first systematic examination of the role of migration in the transmission of racial and ethnic categories and a deep understanding of the ways in which skin color impacts social association and economic mobility.