Sunday, August 29, 2004

Identity Politics

An intriguing article today in the New York Times on the vexed question of what it means to be "African-American", especially now that a greater proportion of the US black population is beginning to consist of African immigrants.

SILVER SPRING, Md., Aug. 27 - For a moment, the Ethiopian-born activist seemed to melt into the crowd, blending into the sea of black professors, health experts and community leaders considering how to educate blacks about the dangers of prostate cancer. But when he piped up to suggest focusing some attention on African immigrants, the dividing lines were promptly and pointedly drawn.

The focus of the campaign, the activist, Abdulaziz Kamus, was told, would be strictly on African-Americans.

"I said, 'But I am African and I am an American citizen; am I not African-American?' " said Mr. Kamus, who is an advocate for African immigrants here, recalling his sense of bewilderment. "They said 'No, no, no, not you.' "

"The census is claiming me as an African-American," said Mr. Kamus, 47, who has lived in this country for 20 years. "If I walk down the streets, white people see me as an African-American. Yet African-Americans are saying, 'You are not one of us.' So I ask myself, in this country, how do I define myself?"

That prickly question is increasingly being raised as the growing number of foreign-born blacks in this Washington suburb and elsewhere inspires a quiet debate over who can claim the term "African-American," which has rapidly replaced "black" in much of the nation's political and cultural discourse.

In the 1990's, the number of blacks with recent roots in sub-Saharan Africa nearly tripled while the number of blacks with origins in the Caribbean grew by more than 60 percent, according to demographers at the State University of New York at Albany. By 2000, foreign-born blacks constituted 30 percent of the blacks in New York City, 28 percent of the blacks in Boston and about a quarter here in Montgomery County, Md., an analysis of census data conducted at Queens College shows.

In recent years, black immigrants and their children have become more visible in universities, the workplace and in politics, with Colin L. Powell, the son of Jamaican immigrants, serving as secretary of state, and Barack Obama, born to a Kenyan father and an American mother, leading the polls in the race for a United States Senate seat in Illinois and emerging as a rising star in the Democratic Party.

The demographic shifts, which gained strength in the 1960's after changes in federal immigration law led to increased migration from Africa and Latin America, have been accompanied in some places by fears that newcomers might eclipse native-born blacks. And they have touched off delicate musings about ethnic labels, identity and the often unspoken differences among people who share the same skin color.

This month, the debate spilled into public view when Alan Keyes, the black Republican challenger for the Senate seat in Illinois, questioned whether Mr. Obama, the keynote speaker at the Democratic National Convention, should claim an African-American identity.

"Barack Obama claims an African-American heritage," Mr. Keyes said on the ABC program "This Week" with George Stephanopoulos. "Barack Obama and I have the same race - that is, physical characteristics. We are not from the same heritage."

"My ancestors toiled in slavery in this country," Mr. Keyes said. "My consciousness, who I am as a person, has been shaped by my struggle, deeply emotional and deeply painful, with the reality of that heritage."

Some black Americans argue that black immigrants, like Mr. Kamus, and the children of immigrants, like Mr. Obama and Mr. Powell, are most certainly African-American. (Mr. Obama and Mr. Powell often use that term when describing themselves.) Yet some immigrants and their children prefer to be called African or Nigerian-American or Jamaican-American, depending on their countries of origin. Other people prefer the term black, which seems to include everyone, regardless of nationality.
The article also goes into detail about some possible causes for the friction that exists.
Bobby Austin, an administrator at the University of the District of Columbia who attended the meeting in Washington, said he understood why some blacks were offended when Mr. Kamus claimed an African-American identity. Dr. Austin said some people feared that black immigrants and their children would snatch up the hard-won opportunities made possible by the civil rights movement.

Several studies suggest that black immigrants and their children are already achieving at higher levels than native-born blacks. A study based on 2000 census data conducted by John R. Logan and Glenn Deane at SUNY Albany found that African immigrants typically had more education and higher median incomes than did native-born blacks.

And earlier this year, officials at Harvard pointed out that the majority of their black students - perhaps as many two-thirds - were African and Caribbean immigrants or their children, or to a lesser extent, children of biracial couples. Sociologists say foreign-born blacks from majority-black countries are less psychologically handicapped by the stigma of race. Many arrive with higher levels of education and professional experience. And sociologists say they often encounter less discrimination.

"We've suffered so much that we're a bit weary and immigration seems like one more hurdle we will have to climb," said Dr. Austin, 59, who traces his ancestors back to slavery. "People are asking: 'Will I have to climb over these immigrants to get to my dream? Will my children have to climb?'

"These are very aggressive people who are coming here," said Dr. Austin, who is calling for a frank dialogue between native-born and foreign-born blacks. "I don't berate immigrants for that; they have given up a lot to get here. But we're going to be in competition with them. We have to be honest about it. That is one of the dividing lines."
(emphasis added)
This viewpoint seems to me to be very much mistaken, as the assumption appears to be that there are only so many jobs to be had by black people, and consequently native born blacks and immigrants are necessarily in a zero-sum struggle for them; it seems not at all to occur to Dr. Austin that both groups might be able to flourish simultaneously, which goes to show that the "Crabs in the Bucket" mentality is far from dead.

When all is said and done, I find it difficult to comprehend how anyone can tell African immigrants with American citizenship that the label "African-American" doesn't apply to them, even while the very same label is brandished as a means of identifying with the "motherland"; if you reject the people who come from that land, what exactly are you identifying with in it, the trees and the wildlife?