Posted on October 19, 2018

Who Is Black in America? Ethnic Tensions Flare Between Black Americans and Black Immigrants.

Valerie Russ, Philadelphia Inquirer, October 18, 2018

As soon as it was announced that filming would start for a Harriet Tubman biopic with British Nigerian actress Cynthia Erivo as the lead, a social media fury erupted.

An online appeal went up demanding that an African American woman be cast as Tubman, who, after escaping slavery, made more than a dozen trips to lead others to freedom on the Underground Railroad.

In the petition, which garnered 1,123 signatures by Oct. 17, organizer Tyler Holmes wrote: “We will boycott the film ‘Harriet’ until you hire an actual black American actress to play the part.”


Such arguments, dubbed by some “the diaspora war,” reveal more than preferences over movie roles and pop culture. The rancor provides a peek into a debate about identity in America, raising questions about how a changing black population — increasingly diverse with immigrants and refugees from Africa, the Caribbean, Britain and elsewhere — sees itself and is seen by the majority.

Although there is more nuance to the arguments, the sides often go like this: Black immigrants are respected more than black Americans, all the while benefiting from reparations meant to right evils of America’s past. That’s led to some black Americans redefining themselves as “American Descendants of Slavery” to spotlight their claim on America’s promises. Meanwhile, immigrants discover they’re newly identified as “black” in a white nation — an unnecessary distinction in Nigeria, Ghana, or Jamaica — and say that when pulled over by cops, no one cares whether they have a charming accent.

These identity issues are showing up at universities, during marches, and at theaters, and raise questions of whether these diverging groups can, or want to, build coalitions for political change.


One source of contention is who benefits from ‘diversity’ efforts.

For decades, researchers have studied how universities are increasing the numbers of black students at majority-white colleges. But some of the current tensions between immigrants and African Americans can be traced to a theory that the nation’s most selective universities have shifted away from racial-justice remedies — things like affirmative action that were put in place to right the wrongs of slavery and Jim Crow segregation — by using diversity as a goal instead.

A study published in the American Journal of Education in 2007 found that immigrants or children of immigrants, while making up 13 percent of the nation’s black 18- and 19-year-olds — accounted for 41 percent of blacks admitted to Ivy League schools.

“If it’s about getting black faces at Harvard, then you’re doing fine,” Mary C. Waters, the former chair of Harvard’s sociology department, told the New York Times about a need for a philosophical discussion on affirmative action. “If it’s about making up for 200 to 500 years of slavery in this country and its aftermath, then you’re not doing well.”

Compounding the tension is a five-fold increase in the black immigrant population in recent decades. There were 4.2 million black immigrants living in the United States in 2016, up from 816,000 in 1980, according to a Pew Research Center report. As more black immigrants experience success, they get what Fordham University professor Christina M. Greer calls “elevated minority status.”

“Foreign-born blacks are often perceived by whites and even black Americans as different and ‘special’ — as harder-working and more productive citizens than their black American counterparts,” Greer wrote in her book Black Ethnics: Race, Immigration and the Pursuit of the American Dream.

It’s a phenomenon that academics started noticing decades ago — that immigrants generally are “strivers” who work hard to better their lives.


Immigrants don’t carry the same racial trauma as Americans, experts say.


“If you are educated in Ghana, your level of education will be different from what you get in the Bronx,” said Yeboah, who grew up in New York and earned her undergraduate and doctoral degrees from Temple University. “Students who apply from Ghana compared to those who are born here will do better, because they are prepared better.”

Harvard professor Lani Guinier told the Washington Post that immigrants have an added benefit.

“In part, it has to do with coming from a country … where blacks were in the majority and did not experience the stigma that black children did in the United States,” she said.

Immigrants are not oblivious to discrimination in their home countries, said Imoagene. It’s just that those experiences haven’t involved skin color.

“We have our own axes of stratification, when you think of ethnic lines [in Nigeria] — whether you are Yoruba or Igbo, or Christian or Muslim,” she said. “Then you come here and find out you’re [also] black, and have to learn the racial meanings attached to that status.”


Some black Americans want to redefine themselves as an “American Descendant of Slavery,” or ADOS, rather than African American.

Antonio Moore, a lawyer in California, and Yvette Carnell, a former journalist and congressional aide, appear to be leading the charge. The two make regular YouTube videos arguing that people whose ancestors were enslaved have a “justice claim” that black immigrants don’t.


On her videos, she has often criticized former President Barack Obama for saying this is a nation of immigrants. “We were not immigrants. We were property, we were chattel slaves. That’s a difference.”

Neither Americans nor immigrants are a monolith.

Michelle Saahene’s voice was heard around the world when she spoke in April at the Center City Starbucks where a manager called the police on two black American men because they asked to use the bathroom without placing an order.


{snip} But at Pennsylvania State University and other places, she felt she got the cold shoulder from African American students.

Michelle Saahene is the child of Ghanaian immigrants.


“To me, this feud between Africans and African Americans, it’s terrible and it needs to stop.”

Earlier this year, Rosita Johnson, a retired Philadelphia teacher, was honored by the South African government for her efforts starting in the ’80s to support a school for children who fled to Tanzania after the Soweto protests of white rule.


“It’s a divide-and-conquer tactic,” said Johnson, “because African Americans are Africans. These are our cousins. If you’re African American, you’re related to somebody over there. Unfortunately, because of slavery and colonization, all people of African descent have suffered from racism. I call it a mental illness.”