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What do all these people have in common? They are African, not born in America.

Black, but not like me: African-Americans and African immigrants often have uneasy bond

by Mariana Mora
March 08, 2010


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Percent of non-U.S born black population: Within the 2 percent portion of Africans, Nigerians and Ethiopians make up the largest percentages.


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Theresa Christopher, registrar at DuSable Museum of African American history in Chicago, stares at the mural  that shows the history of the black race in one of the museum's walls. "The conflict between blacks," Christopher said, "is that we don't know who we are."

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What is the origin of this tension and why does it persist? Listen to Mosi Ifatunji, writer of "Are Black Immigrants a Model Minority? Race, Ethnicity and Sociopolitical Inequality in the United States."

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A slideshow of two Africans assimilating in America

By the numbers: Being black in America

The 2000 Census counted more than 35 million black people, which represents more than 12 percent of the U.S. population.

This number increased by 7 million since 2006, according to the Census Bureau American Community Survey.  

Surprisingly, although the percentage of U.S.-born white people in the population has been decreasing over the last century, the percentage of black people in the population remains almost constant.

From 1900 to 2000, the black population has accounted for 10 to 13 percent of the population.

In Illinois, black people account for 14.6 percent of the population.

According to the Census, in 2000 nearly 94 percent of the American black population was born in the U.S.

The remaining 6 percent were categorized as “Afro-Caribbeans,” about 4.4 percent, and “Africans,” about 1.7 percent.

The largest representation of black people in United States is found in New York, Boston, Washington, D.C., and Atlanta, where more than 20 percent of the population is black.  

Africans are dispersed throughout the country and only a quarter of them live in one of the 10 largest metropolitan regions.

Girmai Lemma is from Ethiopia. He has lived in Chicago for many years. He does not consider himself to be African-American: He is African.

Lemma is not alone. Constant tensions between African-Americans and non U.S.-born Africans refute the notion that the term African-American is interchangeable with black.  In the eyes of many native-born blacks and African immigrants, it isn’t.

“It would have been nice if we had a good relationship with African-Americans, but we don’t,” Lemma said. 

 How Lemma defines himself may be irrelevant to the larger American society.

But within the black community, less than 2 percent are Africans. Lemma said that in the United States all black people are put in the same group. “When we came from Ethiopia, we never thought we would be discriminated here,” Lemma said.  

“[The police] follow you all the way until your house. It is a suburb, not too many blacks living there,” Lemma said. “When they see you, what is black is black, until they hear your accent.” 

While that might make police look favorably on African immigrants, it also cuts the other way. 

Eugene Peba, originally from Nigeria, believes his accent causes African-Americans look down upon him.  

“We don’t sound like they sound,” Peba said. “It is a little bit weird. We think that they would say, ‘This is my brother,’ but there is a little bit of resentment.” 

 But Garrard McClendon, who hosts a show on CLTV that often focuses on African-American issues, said those feelings of resentment go both ways.   

“I think that sometimes African-Americans are disrespected by immigrants because immigrants don’t see us taking advantage of the [opportunities] we already have,” McClendon said.  

 McClendon also said he blames the media for perpetuating stereotypical images of black people as criminals, underemployed or womanizers.   

One academic said African immigrants pick up on those cues.

David O. Stovall, who teaches African-American and education studies at the University of Illinois-Chicago, agrees that Africans have preconceived notions of African-Americans, some positive, some negative. “When people come to the States they already have an image of what black life is,” Stovall said.   

Some African immigrants, Stovall said, see black people in the U.S. as a source of community, but others wish to distance themselves from them.  

The source of the tension, Stovall said, is that Africans don’t understand the history of oppression that black people in the United States have faced. Additionally, many American black people are unaware of the turmoil that Africans have faced back home. The problem, Stovall said, “is our inability to communicate our history, to engage our histories.”  

Though both groups have roots in the same continent, their histories and experiences differ significantly. To some, the American black community and the African immigrant community sometimes segregate themselves. 

“Most of the African people seem to group among themselves,” said Alice Ogbarmey-Tetteh, a Ghanaian who has been living in Chicago for more than 30 years. “They have to learn how to socialize outside their community. If you want to survive in America you have to learn the system.” 

From a sociological point of view, it is not simply a matter of integration between both groups. Mosi Ifatunji, race and ethnicity professor at UIC explained African immigrants are unable to understand why African-Americans are still upset about racial discrimination: The immigrants arrived at a point when it was formally over. “African immigrants are seeing a different America and therefore have a different set of expectations,” Ifatunji said. “African immigrants are not upset with American whites about slavery.” 

For black people in the United States it is still hard to not have resentment against whites. “To simply forget about the past for African-Americans is sort of to throw their ancestors under the bus,” Ifatunji said.  

Even the American-raised children of African immigrants may feel distanced from the African-American community.   

“When you come from Africa to United States, your identity is formed by the African-American experience,” said Oluwabukola Adeyinka, who arrived from Nigeria when she was 5. “But I’m African. I have been my entire life.”  

Adeyinka explained that older generations of Nigerians like her father have stereotypes of African-Americans as lazy and dangerous, despite having lived in the U.S. for years.  

The distance between the American black and African immigrant communities is particularly apparent for immigrants during the census. Although they may not identify themselves as being part of the same group as African-Americans, they have only a single choice to select to identify their race on the census: “Black, African-American or Negro.”  

Other races and ethnicities have several categories from which to choose.

This category is particularly troubling for Africans who don’t consider themselves black. “Ethiopians are a little lighter-skinned than black,” Lemma said. 

Despite the tension and distance between Africans and African-Americans, there are some like United African Organization Director Alie Kabba, who think that both groups should work together to empower themselves as minorities in the United States.  

“I think that in terms of electoral processes, Africans and African-Americans can generally work together,” Kabba said. “The same issues that [affect] the African community, also have an impact on the African-American community.”  

There are also organizations such as Washington D.C.-based National Coalition on Black Civil Participation, whose objective is to eliminate the barriers among black communities to promote social and economic justice, according to its Web site.  

Ifatunji thinks that the discussion shouldn’t be whether black groups could merge culturally, but instead enhancing their common political interest as minorities.  

“Your cultural traditions, let it be your cultural traditions. Your history, let it be your history. But political, if nothing else, we have a common interest across all lines of color against white supremacy,” Ifatunji said. “Until we can be clear about that we’ll continue to suffer from white supremacy.”