New York’s Shifting Demographics: What Does It Mean for City Politics?

December 17, 2010

For many, many years, New York City politics have centered on ethnic identity. In 1963, Nathan Glazer and Daniel P. Moynihan published one of the most popular books of sociology, even, on ethnic groups in New York, Beyond the Melting Pot, and in it, they argued, “The ethnic groups in New York are also interest groups. This is perhaps the most important fact about ethnic groups in New York City.” In their introduction to the 1970 edition of the book, they reiterated: “Ethnic considerations have always been primary in New York City politics.”

The question then, which is also a question now, is how long this will hold true, and if it will hold true in the same ways it has in the past.

Data released this week by the Census Bureau, gathered from the American Community Survey since 2005, showed that in the New York metropolitan area, increasing numbers of immigrants are living outside of the city itself—in northern Jersey, Long Island, and Connecticut.

In a way, these places are still part of New York City. In the past few decades, cities around the world have metastasized, and it’s only arbitrary political boundaries that exclude a place like, say, Hoboken, NJ, which has a relationship to Manhattan not unlike some place in Brooklyn, from being part of the city proper. These places are connected to New York City through public transportation, and their residents work in New York City, shop in New York City, eat in New York City.

But they don’t vote in New York City, and it’s unclear how New York politics will change if the city continues on its current path of increasing wealth and education. (Another tidbit from the Census data, as reported in The New York Times: more than half of Manhattanites over 25 have, at least, bachelor’s degree. It’s only one of 17 counties in America where that’s true.)

In the 1960s, when Glazer and Moynihan wrote their treatise, they could identify the five most important ethnic groups in the city: African-Americans, Puerto Ricans, Jews, Italians, and Irish. Even that’s not so straightforward these days. Before this last round of elections, The New School’s Center for New York City Affairs convened a panel discussion on the state of immigrant electoral power, and John Rudolph, the director of Feet in Two Worlds, noted there that immigrant communities in New York now include Dominicans, Ecuadorians, Mexicans, Indians, Pakistanis, Africans, Brazilians, Russian, Poles, Chinese, and more.

This proliferation of interest groups means, for starters, that politicians can no longer always depend on a base in one ethnic community to vault them into office.

“In New York City, ethnic politics is already giving way to a new generation of young “politerati,” who are not running away from their ethnicity, but not necessarily running on it,” says Sayu Bhojwani, who heads The New American Leaders Project, which helps immigrants and their children run for office. “The new political way in New York City will have to emphasize coalition building with other ethnic groups and the ability to transcend ethnic politics to reflect a vision for New York’s neighborhoods and communities.”