Neighborhood-level ethnic tensions are a funny thing. They’re usually stressful, frustrating and embarrassing – even to observers. But in America, they’re also incredibly dependable.

So predictable are they that I can write a template article to be used for the clash between established residents and immigrant newcomers in any neighborhood during any point in history. It would go something like this:

Residents of _____________ (name of locality) are up in arms over the recent arrival of a wave of ____________ (ethnicity/race) immigrants.

Beginning in the _______ (decade), pockets of __________ (ethnicity/race) have been popping up across the nation. Here in ___________  (name of locality), they’ve started planting their roots, much to the disturbance of long-time residents who see them as upending the neighborhood character.

“They just wont adapt to the American way of life,” said longtime resident. “They don’t learn English, they _______ (insert relevant stereotype). It’s not good for the neighborhood.”

There are also concerns that the new immigrant community is cheating taxpayers by (suggestion of welfare scheme)

“They’re getting money from our taxes,” said longtime resident. “But I see them in their (nice car/fur coat/expensive sneakers/all of the above).”

But _______ (ethnicity/race) say they’re here to stay, and just want a piece of the American dream.

“I came to escape ________ (relevant problem of host nation),” said immigrant. “I want what every American wants: to own a business, own a home and provide for my family.”

The immigrant community is already showing signs of integration. They ______________ (checklist of “American” things the immigrants do).

The arrival of new immigrants to any neighborhood sparks off hostilities with those that have lived there for years. But the case of ________ (name of locality) is unique. Unlike other immigrants, _____________ (insert generalizations about economic, education, cultural or perceptive differences between the immigrants and the long-time residents, usually without attribution or relevant statistical data). And that stands in stark contrast to the neighborhood’s traditional demographic makeup.

_______ (ethnicity/race) say the tensions are unjustified, and are caused by ________ (bigotry if newcomers are not white/jealousy if white).

“America is about diversity,” said academic/activist/immigrant/anyone not objecting. “In time ______ (race/ethnicity) will become part of this great melting pot society.”

There are hundreds of ways to tailor this, whether it’s in an analysis in the wake of a hate crime, an “around the neighborhood” piece, or examination of opposition to a business or institution proposed by the newcomers. Seriously – I could take this template on the road and make a career out of rewriting it for local news outlets across the country and never want for work.

But why am I mentioning this now? Because the New York Times just did a piece about the supposedly budding resentments long-time Staten Islanders have towards the “newly-arrived” Eastern Europeans. Though the reporter insists the Eastern Europeans there are different than Brooklyn’s Eastern Eur- okay, I give up – Russians, and thus it’s a different situation, the same article could have been (and probably was) written for Sheepshead Bay 15 years ago, or Brighton Beach 25 years ago.

The New York Times piece hits all the hot points. Really. The controversy was sparked over a proposed daycare center to be operated by an Eastern European, and residents say it will be “another Russian thing.” Residents also say the state gave them money, but “you see them coming out of the center with their expensive cars and their mink coats.” The Russians counter by saying they live there because they want the American dream, or, to quote, “looking for something with a backyard, like an American family.”

My favorite part, of course, is the reporter’s demographic breakdown of Staten Island’s Eastern Europeans. So desperate is he to make this seem like a unique story, and not – really, it’s not, he promises – like Brighton Beach or Sheepshead Bay.

The reasons he gives – jealousy over the group’s wealth, education, and rapid ascension in American society – are the same ones I frequently hear for Russians in this part of Brooklyn. I’ve also heard it for Chicago’s Russians. It’s just so unique that it can be used anywhere Russians are.

Make note of this part. It’s the reporter’s money shot. This “unique angle” is what he tells the editor in order to justify the story, his paycheck, his existence, and the perception he may actually have talent.

Of course, none of this is to suggest that ethnic tensions don’t exist or are meaningless. Or that they don’t deserve some sort of coverage. But if every story can be boiled down to a Mad Libs-style report, is it helping to give an understanding of the situation? Is it helping mend fences and bring sides together? Or is it just another gross simplification that will lead to further cultural divisions?

There’s got to be a better way to report on these issues. What do you suggest?

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  • http://www.flickr.com/photos/lisanne001 Lisanne!

    Your template is scary. It’s so on target that I am actually considering the idea that there is one actually being used by some publications.

  • Athena

    I have to disagree! This article is not really going by the template you have created. The old story you’re describing is about how residents look at incoming immigrants and complain that they dont assimilate and that they are somehow cheating the system. In contrast, this article is showing how even wealthy immigrants, ($100,000 plus a year income) who are very much trying to assimilate, are looked upon with hostility and suspicion. Although you’re right that the SI Russian immigrants are ethnically the same as those living in Brooklyn, the SI Russians are more educated and wealthy, which, like it or not, makes them different from those living in Brooklyn. Also, the article’s statistical data comes from the Census Bureau; not exactly made up! Plus, it’s not necessarily the job of the journalist to mend fences.

  • Eitan

    The _____________ (ethnicity/race) are only interested in taking over and destroying our way of life, says Bob, resident of __________ (name of locality). They only want to build their ________________ (religious or community institution) as a way of spreading their anti American propoganda. They hate this country, and they would love to see everyone become like themselves. Why dont they just go back to _______________ (native ethnic homeland – usually gotten wrong).

  • gene

    “the SI Russians are more educated and wealthy” is that a fact?

  • Athena

    According to 2008 Census Bureau info–yes.

  • Gene2

    From what I know Census is held ones every 10 years.. so I dont know where the hell did they get 2008 data.

    But your comment all together stinks! Property values in SI are lower than in Brooklyn so… I would not say they are wealthier. I would say poorer. lol hahahaha

  • Guest

    SI is garbage dump

  • Septembergirl03

    The Russians in Staten Island tend to be alot classier than the trash/Medicaid scammer and lowlifes found in Brighton and the dumping grounds around it.

  • Tripnotized

    There is another way of looking at it. Being an immigrant myself, upon arriving to USA our first priority was to get educated and get a good job. Many immigrants from Russia share our goals, and achieved them quite successfully. And probably overachieved them. Perhaps that’s pissing everyone else off that we, Russians, achieved as much and more as the people that already live here for generations? I know that I have paid in taxes enough to support a family of those who are on welfare. But I am not walking around insulting other ethnic groups who are here to make a good living for their families.

  • Jack the Rabit

    It is, but people like it! Low property value makes it possible for people to own a house with a backyard and a garage for less money than one bedroom in brooklyn.
    And I have considered it many many times. But simple fear of being on the island and that I dont feel like standing in traffic for 40 min every time I want to go over the bridge drive me back from SI. Other then that.. whats up with all the hating? You are scared of your Russian neighbors? Hey! Get a pie and knock on their door, chances are you will have a best time of your life drink some vodka make some friends. On the other note.. Unlike what it says in the article, not all russians are jews. But I have to say… some parts of the article are true, like the one that states that get support from the government and drive a 750.

  • Kon

    What he said. The Oceana Condos cost 600k+ and is mostly owned by Russian immigrants.

  • Anonymous

    I know when to bite my tongue.Ouch…….Ooouch!

  • http://www.flickr.com/photos/lisanne001 Lisanne!

    Sometimes exercising discretion actually feels good.

    Look, your tongue is healed!

  • Gene

    What I don’t like are people who don’t know much about their country and yet they believe that they have the right to govern who comes into this country. I myself am a immigrant and I even know that the census is every ten years. The reason some of us are more sucessfull is because we have to work harder to not be judged unfairly. Birthplace or religon has nothing to do with how succesfull people are.

  • Anonymous

    there are surveys done by the census bureau. every 10 yrs its the decennial census and then there are various surveys done.

  • Anonymous

    lets call the “russians” – soviets or ex- soviets, because many are not ethnically russian and would never be considered russian in russia.
    besides that, sadly i see the point the americans of staten island are making. considering what is going on in the news today. granted this sort of corruption and scheming has been going on for years, but has never been so blown up in the public. but you know something, same could have been said about italians, due to the association with the italian mafia. or how all muslims are now seen as monsters due to 9/11. and yeah, you could probobly switch the russians and the businesses out of the article replace it with muslims and mosque and you’ve got yourself the same situation.

  • Rberke

    Great social/news media comment Ned! I get your point and have lived through these reactions in Brighton Beach & Sheepshead Bay. I don’t have a solution but you are right to ask the question.

  • http://www.flickr.com/photos/lisanne001 Lisanne!

    Yes, and besides Federal surveys the State of New York also gathers demographic information at various times.

  • http://www.flickr.com/photos/lisanne001 Lisanne!

    I think it needs to be said. People can become what other make them out to be. Now bigotry certainly exists, but there are some people are exist on the border of that definition. Reading articles about the divisions in a community, especially ones that repeat the dirt, can send people over the edge. And if I was Russian, this (the Times article) would make me somewhat distrustful of other Americans.

  • http://twitter.com/nicktherat nick the rat

    i do not trust in the census, its only good for a very general spectrum

  • http://twitter.com/nicktherat nick the rat

    brighton and gerritsan beach are the only two places in town where the white people can really terrify me

  • http://twitter.com/nicktherat nick the rat

    everyone thinks they are better than everyone else. in america you are only really better than someone if you make more than 10 million dollars. :D screw the times!

  • Anonymous

    People are not underachievers, just content with a simple quiet life style.
    Not greed possessed. No need to be bigger than the neighbor.
    Quaint, cozy? Noooo, huge resource eaters.
    Did you ever think some of the rich persons greed keep the poor people poor?

  • Eitan

    I call bullshit. Content is the word people use to soothe themselves once they realise they will never, ever make more, live better, have better, look better than someone else.

  • Helen

    Check out this article. Looks like NY Times does have a template. Right on point Ned!
    http://www.nytimes.com/1993/08/08/nyregion/a-slow-boil-in-the-melting-pot.html?fta=y&pagewanted=1

  • http://www.nedberke.com Ned Berke

    Rudyard Kipling, giving a commencement address at McGill University in Montreal, said there was one striking thing that deserves to be remembered. Warning the students against an over-concern for money, power, or popularity, he said, “Some day you will meet a man who cares for none of these things. Then you will know how poor you are.”

    Eitan – you’re a New Yorker through and through, that much can be said.

  • Eitan

    That man Kipling talks about never had kids, I’ll tell you that. :-)

  • Anonymous

    How do you call B.S. and how long does it take to get to YOU?

  • Shamil Benyaminov

    Nick..you are right I would not trust census either,,,,the bull shit that i wrote there you might think I am a minority with many kids in the household…..in reality its something else…go figure whats fact or what is a BS

  • Helen

    Check out this article. Looks like NY Times does have a template. Right on point Ned!

    http://www.nytimes.com/1993/08/08/nyregion/a-slow-boil-in-the-melting-pot.html?fta=y&pagewanted=1

  • http://LongIslandWins.com Ted Hesson
  • http://www.nedberke.com Ned Berke

    My template also has the “they’re different and trying to assimilate, but people are suspicious” graf. Usually the articles tackle both angles (and the NY Times one did, too). And the census data is comparing them to the locals in the neighborhood they’ve moved into, not BK Russians. In BK, the paradigm is the same – they’re wealthier and more educated than the traditional residents of the neighborhood. The reporter is justifying the story’s uniqueness when it’s the same story elsewhere. And, by the way, the census data is only used to attribute one thing he said in a list of many.

    As for it being the journalist’s job to mend fences – well, we’d need to start a whole new thread to get into that. Should I bother?

  • http://www.flickr.com/photos/lisanne001 Lisanne!

    Someday you should. It’s part of an important cornerstone concept. Publishers (rather than journalists, because POV can be edited out) need to decide what they intend to accomplish in their work. Shall they imbue their output with consistency of principle or is the result merely to be considered product?

    One might argue that it’s more complicated than that, and it is. But this single either/or is a starting point.

  • Shimon Rinkovsky

    We will see good and bad people in any society, race, religion and etc.. Good and Bad

  • Guest

    who cares who lives there, it’s still a garbage dump…

    “it was formerly the largest landfill in the world, and was also New York City’s principal landfill in the second half of the 20th century”

    garbage dump is a garbage dump

  • Anonymous

    13 U.S.C. § 221 : US Code – Section 221: Refusal or neglect to answer questions; false answers

    (a) Whoever, being over eighteen years of age, refuses or willfully neglects, when requested by the Secretary, or by any other authorized officer or employee of the Department of Commerce or bureau or agency thereof acting under the instructions of the Secretary or authorized officer, to answer, to the best of his knowledge, any of the questions on any schedule submitted to him in connection with any census or survey provided for by subchapters I, II, IV, and V of chapter 5 of this title, applying to himself or to the family to which he belongs or is related, or to the farm or farms of which he or his family is the occupant, shall be fined not more than $100.

    (b) Whoever, when answering questions described in subsection (a) of this section, and under the conditions or circumstances described in such subsection, willfully gives any answer that is false, shall be fined not more than $500.

  • http://www.flickr.com/photos/lisanne001 Lisanne!

    The federal government could certainly use the revenue.

    Thank you Shamil.

  • Alex

    let’s not generalize, please. There’s trash among all groups, residing in all places.
    However, we could say that “Russians” living in Staten Island are not, for the most part, “off the boat”, so they are more assimilated into American culture / speak English for the most part.