Spring 2010, Vol. 18, No. 2 (requires Adobe Acrobat)

Racial Americanization: Conceptualizing African Immigrants in the U.S.

by Jemima Pierre


Jemima Pierre

In October 2008, while in Washington, D.C., I attended a networking event sponsored by the group, African Diaspora for Obama (ADO). Billed as a “happy hour cocktail” party, it was a place for young African immigrants and “Diaspora Africans,” and presumably supporters of Barrack Obama’s candidacy for president of the United States, to come together to meet, mingle, and learn more about the organization’s cultural and political goals. When I arrived at the venue— a restaurant-bar in the Northwest, D. C. area—I quickly found myself surrounded by a lively group of young professionals with culturally diverse backgrounds spanning histories from North America, the Caribbean, and Africa. This was modern-day African America: a group of Black people who self-identified simultaneously as native to the U.S., as second- and third- and first- generation immigrants, and as recent migrants. Yet, the diversity found in this type of gathering—a social networking event among young Black professionals in a large U.S. city—is not altogether remarkable, even while it is rarely acknowledged. Its recognition is crucial, I argue, when considering African immigrant community and identity formation in the U.S. Nevertheless, ADO’s self-conscious deployment of a particular African immigrant and diasporic condition in the U.S. as both identity and constituency for domestic political organizing is a significant development.

According to its website, ADO organizers considered African (immigrant) communities in the U.S. as a “unique and an important voting block,” and sought to tap its human resources through a series of programs and events that ranged from voter registration drives and community forums to campaign fundraisers. As citizens and residents, these young people made clear that their primary loyalty is to domestic over foreign policy, insisting, as one woman did, that “a lot of us are African, but a lot of us are also Americans.” The duality of the “African” and “American” identities clearly emerges in the group’s recognition of its positioning alongside, and its overlapping experiences with, members of the broader U.S. Black community. For example, within its corpus of political activities are also cultural events dedicated to understanding the Black experience in the U.S., including celebrations of Black History Month, town hall conversations about African-African diaspora relations, and programs to address stereotypes about Africa and people of African descent in the U.S. In my research, I am interested in the implications of ADO’s activities for understanding the politics and dynamics of both African immigrant identity formations, and U.S. social, cultural, and political structures of incorporation.

While political organizing among immigrants is not new, ADO’s activities provide scholars with insights into a distinct, if unknown, world of postcolonial African immigrant communities in the U.S. To be sure, a look around U.S. public life and culture reveals the very bold if commonplace (albeit unacknowledged) presence of Black immigrants in U.S. society—from popular culture figures such as rap artists Akon, Chamillionaire, and Wale, to the growing number of prominent NCAA college athletes who are first generation immigrants, to well-known movie stars such as Idris Elba and Chiwetel Ejiofor, to politicians and even academics. Yet, I am suggesting that the experiences and activities of ADO and other organizations of young first- and second- generation African immigrants may offer a qualitative shift in the ways that scholars have understood the complex process of (Black) immigrant incorporation. Specifically, the key issues that emerge are not only on what it means to be simultaneously African, American, and immigrant in a race-conscious society, but also how young Black immigrants are deliberately constructing community and identity and, in turn, inevitably forcing the reshaping of the national and international terrain. For me, the starting point of any analysis of postcolonial African immigrants in the U.S. should begin with the following baseline understanding of: (1) the inextricable relationship between racialization and “Americanization”; and (2) the recognition that U.S. Black populations have always been ethnically and culturally diverse.

My book project, which is tentatively titled, “Racial Americanization: Conceptualizing African Immigrants in the U.S.,” is an ethnographic examination of how postcolonial Africans, as Black immigrants, are negotiating the dynamics of life in a society structured by changing processes of racialization. By racialization I mean the historical processes that give race its social, cultural, and political meaning and that determine how such meaning is deployed ideologically and through various practices and institutions. It is the ongoing (re)creation of new meanings, groupings and associations between a racial hierarchy and the categories it comprises, and an undeniable dimension of new immigrant experiences in the U.S. While it is true that racialization, though global, pervades U.S. society and shapes identities, contemporary research both on Sub-Saharan Africa and on Black immigrants suggests that racial identity is often tied, or subordinated to, other identifications such as nation, culture, and religion. How does migration to the U.S., then, impact postcolonial African identity formation? And, given the unrelenting diametric positioning of “whiteness” and “blackness” in the U.S.— manifest particularly through the unresolved and incomplete incorporation of formerly enslaved Africans against the consolidation of whiteness through absorption of early twentieth- century European migration—how does the racial structuring of these contemporary Black immigrants affect individual and collective ideas about citizenship and identity in this country? Moreover, how does the voluntary migration of Africans impact theorization of the African diaspora that place the Transatlantic Slave Trade at the center of Black diasporic identity? I contend that a multi-dimensional study of contemporary African immigrants provides an important case study for exploring both U.S. racial and cultural dynamics and the transnational politics of the African diaspora. Indeed, postcolonial African immigration into a society structured through the complex histories of race- and diaspora-formation presents new theoretical propositions for the ways we approach immigration and the American experience. I am spending my residence year at the Robert Penn Warren Center engaging directly with these ongoing discussions of race, migration, (U.S.) national identity formation, and diasporic belonging.

This project provides an important response to the dearth of critical investigation into the experiences of postcolonial Africans in the U.S. who, along with Caribbean immigrants, currently constitutes the largest flow of foreignborn Blacks to the U.S. (Dodoo 1997; Dodoo and Takyi 2002). Although there has been voluntary migration of Black people to the U.S. since the end of the slave trade, Black immigrants have only recently begun to receive scholarly attention. I believe that this relative lack of attention has two sources. First, more than any other factor, there are the political and cultural contours of U.S. racial formations that prevent recognition of ethno-cultural diversity among the Black population. U.S. Blacks were (and are) primarily identified by their racial identity, an identity that is framed by the historical “onedrop rule” and maintained through various institutions and practices, including knowledge production. It is through this “racial knowledge production” (Goldberg 1994) that we find the second source of the difficulty is exploring Black immigrant experiences in the U.S.: the theoretical and epistemological framing of “immigration” studies where “Blackness” is taken as the particular (and peculiar) test case for new (primarily non-Black) immigrant incorporation.

In strategies implicit and explicit, new immigrants in the U.S. are invariably compared to native Blacks—presented as the ever inassimilable Other—to determine capacity for “assimilation.” Under such circumstances, it becomes epistemologically and methodologically difficult to address both intra-racial Black diversity and explore Blacks as immigrants. This was exactly Roy Bryce-Laporte’s (1972) concern when he referred to Black immigrants as virtually “invisible” in U.S. society as well as in the migration and sociological scholarship. Thus, while the presence of Black immigrants has been well-known among U.S. Black communities over the past century, and even documented within early twentieth-century African American fictional and non-fiction texts (see Reid 1939; McKay 1928; Cox 1948), this historical and sociological fact remained unacknowledged within broader academic discussions.

Most of the social science interest on Black immigration came after the passage of the Hart-Cellar Immigration Reform Act of 1965, which partially abolished the quota system that gave preferences to northern European immigrants. This Act also numerically mitigated the flow of immigrants from North and South America and the Caribbean. In turn, preference was given to highly-skilled professionals primarily to Asia, but also to Africa. This change in U.S. immigration policy drastically shifted the racial and cultural composition of immigrants. African immigrants indeed benefited from this liberalization of U.S. immigration policy, although those from the Caribbean saw the largest increase in numbers beginning in the late 1970s because of natural growth and family reunification laws. In the past two decades, however, the number of postcolonial African immigrants has outpaced those from the Caribbean, growing exponentially with estimates in population now in the range of more than 1.4 million (Terrazas 2009). Significantly, African immigrants continue to make up the lowest number of immigrants allowed in the U.S. (3.7% of all immigrant groups in the country). At the same time, postcolonial African immigrants have been said to be distinct from all other immigrant groups—they are the most highly-educated group of immigrants, with two of every five adults with a bachelor’s degree or higher; yet, they have not generally followed the trajectory of “assimilation” as other (most notably early twentieth-century European) immigrants.

From the early 1980s, Black immigration research focused on the Caribbean population residing in major cities in the U.S. such as New York, Miami, and Boston. With Black immigrants, migration scholars had to contend directly with the significance of an explicit racialization (“Blackness”) for these groups. Earlier migration scholarship emphasized the assimilation options for new European immigrants in the U.S. For these early twentieth-century white European immigrants, this meant a spotlight on notions of “ethnicity,” where the concern with absorbing such immigrants into the “American” nation assumed the rearticulation of distinct immigrant cultures into a putatively integrated “American” society. This direction in research was buttressed by the broader social science deployment of “ethnicity” which emerged at the turn of the century to replace biological notions of race in the age of the scientific positivism and the eugenics movement. Ethnicity appealed to cultural and national differences among European immigrants, stressing the expressive, subjective, and internal cultural processes of group formation. Notably, the focus of ethnicity was to make everyone “ethnic” of some sort, homogenizing the ethnic identity processes and erasing the structural and historical differences between subordinated racial groups and Euro-Americans. What was lost in the fray was the reality that European migration in the early 1900s could not compare to the forced migration through military conquest, violent enslavement, and the combined subjugation of people of color. The celebration of ethnicity blurred these crucial differences and entailed blindness to both structural racism and the reality that “ethnic” identity is circumscribed within processes of racial formation. Also missing in the explanations of immigrant incorporation was the recognition that the ability of European immigrants to become incorporated into United States society was directly linked to the group’s ability to “become white” (or assert whiteness) in a white supremacist society (Allen 1994; Ignatiev 1995; Lipsitz 1998; Roediger 1991; Brodkin 1999).

By the mid-twentieth century, the European immigrant experience soon came to serve as the controlling model for understanding the incorporation of all groups into U.S. society, particularly non-white native-born groups. In this context, U.S.-born Blacks were often taken to be the limit of “Americanization”; as natives, their inability to be fully integrated into the nation was consistently linked to their perceived inability to absorb, as white immigrants did, “American culture.” Here Black Americans could hardly compete. They were considered not to possess the necessary cultural capital (ethnicity) for incorporation. What was often not considered, however, was the broader context of U.S. racial formations where racialization always already shape (indeed, flatten) immigrants’ sociopolitical reality. In other words, it is because options for assimilation are racially structured that different immigrant groups have different incorporation experiences.

Contemporary research and writing on Black immigrants has followed a similar trajectory to earlier migration scholarship with a focus on “assimilation” and incorporation that reflect the theoretical conclusions of that era. Because Black immigrants are “Black” in raceconscious U.S. society, most of the scholarly work on this population has focused on the formation and negotiation of immigrant racial, ethnic, and national identities in the new place of settlement, particularly stressing racial discrimination as a key aspect of life in the U.S. (Foner 1987; Halter 1993; Kasinitz 1992; Vickerman 1999; Waters 1999). Significantly, scholars who focus on Black immigrants do so in ways that generate a particular set of theoretical conclusions. First, there is a tendency to compare Black immigrant groups solely to native Blacks, often with the suggestion that it is immigrants’ cultural distinctiveness— particularly their choice not to assimilate into African American culture— that determines economic success (Kasinitz 1992; Stafford 1987; Vickerman 1999; Waters 1994; 1999). A prominent feature of this scholarship is the comparison of Black immigrants and Black Americans often with the assumption that the relative educational and economic “success” of Black immigrants can be used to measure the significance of race in the U.S. In other words, if race is considered to be the great impediment to the full incorporation of native Blacks into the U.S. nation, then how do we explain the relative success of racialized Black immigrant? Following the logic of earlier scholarship on European migrants, success is often linked to the presumed social capital of the immigrant, the Black immigrant’s ability to maintain his/her cultural distinction against the homogenizing force of assimilation into Black America. Here, immigrant ethno-cultural identity—the cultural attributes brought to bear upon U.S. society—is praised because it prevents assimilation (since assimilation for a group racialized as Black, would have to mean assimilation into native Black America. My research project, however, begins with another question as a point of departure: In a context where to become “American” generally means to become “white”—and where Black immigrant experiences are positioned at the center of (white and non-white) immigrant assimilation and Black American exclusion—what options are available for racially Black immigrants for incorporation into U.S. society?

“Racial Americanization” is based on ongoing ethnographic research and data collected over five years among multi-generational African immigrant groups in Washington, D. C. and Houston, Texas. In addition to participant observation in various community organizations, my research also covers a range of institutional activities—from the Smithsonian Institution’s Folklife Festival on African immigrants and its “Africa Hall,” to local city politics that incorporate immigrants into discussions of such issues as urban racial and economic segregation. I use a multi-method approach to data collecting—including participant observation, open-ended and semi-structured interviews, and archival research—and my research questions incorporated both intra-racial comparisons and immigrant negotiations with broader social and political structures. I structure the research around a set of questions that aim to explore the issues of immigrant incorporation vivid in the migration scholarship: How and when do African immigrants become aware of the assimilation or incorporation “options” available to them? Do African immigrants have differing conceptions of race and identity? How do Black immigrant experiences with race interact with other identities such as nation, gender, class, and sexuality? How do we compare the migration experiences of continental Africans and other Blacks from the Caribbean? How do the children of these migrants negotiate life as both “Black American” and second- and third- generation Black immigrant? Given the racial categorization of Africans as “Black,” how do we analyze the ways this categorization comes into dialogue with the national and cultural diversity of such immigrants? What impact does African immigrant experience have on U.S. processes of racialization? How would such analysis help us better understand U.S. racial processes, as well as the ways those categorized as “Black” respond to such processes? These set of questions rests on the well-known reality that post-1965 African immigrants are the most highly educated group in the U.S. (they are more educated than both White and non-White U.S.-born groups and other immigrant groups) and yet have not received the comparable level of income, nor the social or political capital that would ensure the similar trajectories of “assimilation” as other (most notably early twentieth- century European) immigrants (Cross 1994; Dodoo and Takyi 2002; Pierre 2004; Speer 1995; Takougang 2002).

I hope to provide a critical detailed analysis of the lived experiences of postcolonial Africans that explores quotidian social processes while keeping front and center the structures of racial Americanization. A most important aspect of the project is the attempt to develop analysis of African immigrant experience in the U.S. that both shifts the discussion from the assimilation logic of earlier migration research and moves beyond cultural comparisons of this group solely with Black American identities. This has entailed a different scholarly perspective, one that forces concrete engagement with U.S. racial formations, particularly exploring the contours of “Americanization” for non-white immigrants. My research so far has demonstrated that scholars have to pay detailed attention to the often unequal ways that immigrants, who are seen as “Black” (and non-white, more generally) are inserted into the U.S. racial system. As well, I contend that we need to have a more in-depth exploration of how differences in “racial” and “ethnic” identity interact to impact the experiences of immigrants who are seen—and often treated—as racially similar to African Americans, but are culturally (ethnically) distinct (Pierre 2004). Because African immigrants are assigned a racial identity as “Black,” which places them in direct relation—and sometimes in competition—with U.S.-born Blacks, research on this group needs to move beyond the oneway and narrow intra-racial comparisons to broader issues of immigrant challenge and negotiation of social and political constraints.

I am arguing that contemporary African immigrants to the U.S. provide an important case study for understanding how race—along with its relationship to gender, class, sexuality, and nationality—remains one of the key determinants of immigrant incorporation in this society. My book project explores various levels of African immigrant engagement with U.S. society. This includes, but is not limited to, relationships with African Americans, with state and federal actors and institutions, with other immigrant and native communities, and most importantly within the community itself. Overall, this kind of focus on Black immigrants should allow us to bring together discussions on racial formation, the special positions of Blackness (in relation to whiteness and Americanization), and immigration.

reporter that Obama “is the bridge because [he] combines the immigrant experience—his father was Kenyan, part of the vanguard of a bourgeoning African immigration in the last 30 years—and the American black experience” (Braun 2009). How do migration scholars engage such currently popular sentiment? And what can we learn about exploring its historical and contemporary meanings? My personal experiences as a Haitian immigrant, and my ongoing research, have thus far shown me that understanding Black immigrant identity formation within larger contexts creates the space for a more dynamic discussion of both U.S. race relations in general, and U.S. (and global) Black populations in particular. U.S. Black populations have never been homogeneous and the rise in the number of Black immigrants should no doubt affect the nature of research, particularly as race remains one of the most (if not the most) important aspect of social relations in this country—relations that postcolonial African immigrants have no choice but to confront. How they do so, and the effects of such confrontation, are important issues for migration studies. As one of few detailed ethnographic studies of postcolonial African immigrants in the U.S., “Racial Americanization: Conceptualizing African Immigrants in the U.S.” aims to contribute to the growing scholarship on immigrant confrontation with national and global economic, cultural, and social processes.

Jemima Pierre is the 2009-2010 William S. Vaughn Visiting Fellow and is an assistant professor of anthropology at the University of Texas at Austin.

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