Politics & Policy

Not Black and White

Debating who qualifies as an "African American" misses the deeper point.

It appears that all the major debates within the black community have been resolved. Education, economic development, jobs, civil rights, and war and peace are no longer pressing concerns for blacks–at least that’s the impression one might get from reading the headline and the opening paragraphs of a recent New York Times story “‘African-American’ Becomes a Term for Debate” by Rachel Swarns.

Many black immigrants who are currently U.S. citizens but who emigrated here from countries in Africa, such as Kenya or Ethiopia, are also calling themselves African Americans–that is, someone born in Africa but now a citizen of America. According to native-born blacks, however–blacks who are descendants of enslaved Africans–the term “African American” should not be applied to black immigrants. The debate becomes even more complicated when whites born in African countries, such as Mozambique, Zimbabwe, or South Africa, become naturalized U.S. citizens. They too can claim that they are African Americans.

The difficulties inherent in the use of such an imprecise term as African American should have been obvious in 1988 when Jesse Jackson decided to publicly urge Americans to use the term when referring to blacks. The reason for the switch was to provide a connection to a place and something of an ethnic identity for black Americans akin to what most blacks believed was the case for most whites. According to this thinking, everyone who wasn’t black in America was a hyphenated citizen–that is, they were Irish-American, Italian-American, or Chinese-American. This was somehow thought to be one of the keys to developing a healthy identity in this country.

But Africa is not a country. There is no African ethnicity, or African language, or African culture. Africa, like Europe and Asia, is a continent and home to a multitude of countries, cultures, languages, social systems, and ethnic groups. To be called an African American–or an African, for that matter–is to provide little real insight into who you are, where you come from, or what you believe and value.

To be fair, blacks have struggled with the question of how to refer to themselves since their first arrival on America’s shores. Most blacks were brought here against their will and were often thrown together with people from very different ethnic and cultural backgrounds. For many, the only thing they had in common was that compared to the whites who’d enslaved them they were dark skinned. Black Americans were forced to develop a brand-new identity and culture–an amalgam that drew on influences from a variety of African ethnic and cultural groups, as well as from Europe and from local Native American cultures. As a result, the majority of native-born black Americans cannot trace their roots back to a single African culture or ethnic group. While it is useful to acknowledge the various influences that helped to shape black America, it seems silly and a bit naïve to attempt to create an ethnic identity based on some tenuous historical connection to Africa.

So what then is the debate about defining “African Americans” really about? It is about racially motivated public polices such as affirmative action. For many native-born blacks, especially the black civil-rights and political establishment, racial identity is critical to having a voice and influence over public policy and access to resources. Racially based policies are thought to provide native-born blacks with some reparations for the racial injustices of the past. These policies should result in giving the victims of past racial injustice–the descendants of enslaved Africans–access to better jobs and places at America’s elite public and private colleges and universities. Until recently, “African American” was just another way of defining native-born blacks. But what happens when others also make a case for being part of the group–in this case, black immigrants from Africa and the Caribbean?

Those who supported racially based remediation policies are now faced with the fact that black immigrants appear to be surpassing and even displacing native-born black Americans. A tangible example of the problem is cited in Times article. According to Harvard University officials, up to two-thirds of black students attending the school are actually black immigrants from Africa and the Caribbean. Thus, for native-born blacks, affirmative action may now be producing the wrong outcome. If the definition of African American is not limited to native-born blacks that claim slave ancestry, these blacks may find themselves displaced by immigrant blacks.

The debate also creates problems for liberal black politicians. These politicians’ success depends on invoking a sense of racial solidarity. Even a politician like Barack Obama, whose racial and ethnic background clearly places him apart from most native-born blacks, feels it important to embrace the term African American as a way to engender that sense.

But the actual interests and agenda of black immigrants and native-born blacks may not be the same. As the Harvard example illustrates, native-born blacks and naturalized black immigrants could actually find themselves competing against each other for a limited number of opportunities. Black politicians like Obama may have to choose between the competing interests of black immigrants and native-born blacks.

Moreover, the success of black immigrants points out the fundamental flaws of race-based policies and makes it more difficult to justify them. If race is the real issue, then why are black immigrants from Africa and the Caribbean gaining an advantage over native-born blacks in employment and in access to prestigious educational institutions?

Black immigrants are very similar to other successful immigrant groups. They see a range of opportunity far greater than that available to them in their home countries. This perception helps them see and believe in the connection between hard work and success; it encourages them to take jobs native-born blacks may reject and to push themselves and their children to excel. As a result, according to U.S. Census data, black immigrants are earning more than native-born blacks and their children are better prepared to enter prestigious public and private educational institutions such as Harvard.

The difference between the immigrant and native experiences brings to the surface a longstanding debate within the black community. During the early 20th century, Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. DuBois went head to head on the question of whether blacks should devote their efforts to self-reliance, skill development, and the creation of mediating structures within their community or focus instead on using political power to force the government to improve their lives.

But these days the space for debate is limited. While today’s intellectual and political black elite accepts some aspects of the Washington legacy, it has primarily embraced the earlier positions of DuBois. And as this elite has become more and more tied to one political party–the Democratic party–it has become increasingly difficult to challenge that dominant view.

Meanwhile, we find black immigrants succeeding in America in a way that would be very familiar to Booker T. Washington. Given this reality, debating who should be called an “African American” is a diversion. A more productive undertaking would be to consider that perhaps the success of black immigrants supports Washington’s ideas and underscores the limitations of public policies backed by the contemporary heirs of DuBois.

J. A. Foster-Bey was formerly a senior researcher and director of the Program on Regional Economic Opportunity at the Urban Institute.

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