Ties that Bind? Emerging Race-Conscious Alliances Between African Immigrants and Black Americans

By R. Drew Smith July 7, 2020, Black Perspectives

Photo: Black Lives Matter Protest Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

The atrocity of George Floyd’s killing by police has stoked anger over systemic racism while also helping redraw geographic, demographic, and conceptual lines of antiracism advocacy.

Encompassing young and old, urban and rural, and a diversity of nationalities, religious orientations, sexual and gender identifications, and racial and ethnic backgrounds, the antiracism movement is being infused with new energy and perspectives.

Certainly, the enlargements of interracial and international antiracism alliances are a very welcome development, but the past few weeks have also witnessed expansions of intraracial solidarities between African Americans and African immigrant populations in the U.S.

Given African immigrants typically have not accorded racism the same social importance as U.S.-born blacks, the noticeable rallying of Africans in the U.S. around a “Black Lives Matter” call for justice in response to George Floyd’s death represents a significant development.

Could new levels of political connection between African Americans and African immigrants be emerging that signal justice-oriented alliances capable of bridging diverse black vantage points on race?

Africanness not Blackness

In a study of racial and ethnic dimensions of black identity in the U.S., Haitian-American scholar, Patrick Oray points out that defining blackness within the U.S. has become a process of “ongoing negotiations among the growing diversity of black peoples residing in the U.S.”1 Within those diverse trajectories of social construction, negotiations  between African immigrants and U.S.-born blacks have had their unique challenges.

Race has been baked into African American social life and consciousness—a legacy of the tragic and tortured history of America’s genocidal racial history not always appreciated by persons not forged in that racial cauldron. Aspects of African American internalizations and externalizations of race are captured in recent Pew Research Center data on racial identification among Americans. The data show black adults more likely than persons from other groups within the U.S. “to see their race or ethnicity as central to their identity,” with 74 percent of blacks indicating such identity markers were extremely important or very important, as opposed to 59 percent of Hispanics, 56 percent of Asians, and 15 percent of whites. Moreover, 81 percent of blacks surveyed said they feel very or somewhat connected to a broader black community in the U.S.  While some may feign colorblindness, often as a cover for social privilege, African Americans remain explicit about their racial framings.

A common perception has been that African immigrants in the U.S. have tended not to place so strong an emphasis on race, either in their personal or group identification, or in explanations for social challenges encountered within the U.S. Instead, according to scholarship by Katha Guenther et al, “black immigrants often strive to assert the primacy of ethnic identity over racial identity,” both in “an effort to maintain ethnic group solidary and self-esteem, and to increase their chances of upward mobility.”2

Scholars have also drawn attention to connections between black immigrant concerns with upward mobility and a reluctance to become associated with black political or cultural expressions that appear too racially explicit, confrontational, or outside the American social mainstream. As religion scholar, Jacob Olupona points out, African immigrants have often pursued identities separate from African Americans in the hopes of avoiding the racist treatment and constricted social prospects suffered by many U.S.-born blacks. The result, says Olupona, is both a dilemma and a tension for African immigrants, as they seek to ensure the best possible life for their families and the communities with which they most immediately identify while at a broader level being drawn by camaraderie or compulsion alongside African Americans in “a common goal of fighting racism.”3

Moreover, African immigrants often bring with them a strong religiosity that has tended to emphasize a religious claim on private more than on public life, while according value to the public realm for its facilitation of the free practice of religion more than its facilitation of social justice or integrous governance. The lower priority on governmental facilitation of social goods is not surprising though within contexts where there may be lower overall confidence in the ability of government to deliver on these goods.

Recent Pew Research Center data are instructive on these points, providing revealing contrasts in the importance Africans assign to principles defining private vs. governmental life. For example, while 87 percent of survey respondents in Mozambique and 82 percent in Democratic Republic of Congo said religion is very important in their lives and only 2 percent in the former and 5 percent in the latter said it was not at all important,  a full 25 percent of respondents in the two countries stated it did not matter or that they had no opinion as to the form of government within their country.

Many Africans have looked to the U.S. as a beacon of good governance, both in its ability to preserve religious freedom and to make good on its democratic and social promises. African immigrants have tended to bring with them a view of America’s favorability in these respects, and have found it difficult to align with critics who call into question these popular conceptions of American religious and political ‘exceptionalism.’ As Olupona points out, African immigrants have struggled with reconciling how the United States can be “both a Christian and a racist nation.”4

Consequently, African immigrants have resisted more than embraced race-conscious critiques and strategies advanced by longstanding racial justice organizations such as the NAACP, and by more recent organizations such as Black Lives Matter (BLM) and Black Alliance for Just Immigration (BAJI).

That now may be changing, however, amidst a drumbeat of black death at the hands of police.

Africanness and Blackness

BAJI since 2006, and BLM since 2013, have been prominent organizational lightning rods recently on race within the U.S., sparking both insurgent action and public ire in their demands for justice. …African immigrants have been strategically engaged with BLM and BAJI since their organizational formations.

Before the BLM movement irrupted in 2013 in collective outrage over the acquittal of Trayvon Martin’s killer and the racist law-and-order zealotry the case represented, a wave of younger-generation black civil disobedience in support of black immigration justice had already been sweeping across major U.S. cities via BAJI’s organizing efforts. With the foreign-born black population in the U.S. currently numbering around four million (out of an overall U.S. foreign-born population of 44 million), BAJI has been on the front lines of documenting and drawing attention to U.S. policies bearing-upon black  immigration and naturalization, with an eye specifically toward racial injustices built into these processes. For example, BAJI has challenged and staged large-scale protests against the Trump Administration’s cancellation of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), and against incarcerations of black undocumented immigrants and asylum-seekers upon arrival at the Mexico border and within the U.S.

There has been both thematic and leadership crossover between these immigration-oriented and police reform-oriented mobilizations, as embodied for example in the high-profile leadership of Nigerian-American activist, Opal Tometi, a principal co-founder of BLM and a leader and once executive director of BAJI. Just as  BLM’s initiators were a team of immigrant and U.S.-born black activists (Tometi, Patrisse Khan-Cullors, and Alicia Garza), BAJI was initiated by South African immigrant Kelvin Sauls and civil rights activist Phillip Lawson, two clergymen who mobilized San Francisco Bay Area black activists and African cultural bridge-building networks in pursuit of BAJI’s objectives.

The BLM movement has swept across the nation and the world via its 15 formal U.S. and Canadian chapters and its many informal networks extending across the globe, but a major center of BLM activism since at least 2014 has been Minneapolis.

In December 2014, BLM Minnesota drew more than a thousand protesters to the Minneapolis-area’s celebrated Mall of America to generate local support for justice in the August 2014 killing of 18-year old Michael Brown by a white policeman in Ferguson, Missouri. When in November 2015, Minneapolis police killed 24-year old Jamar Clark (who, like Brown in Ferguson was unarmed), BLM Minnesota protested outside a police station at the center of the storm for 18 days. BLM also staged major protests that year at Mall of America to disrupt Thanksgiving and Christmas season shopping and at the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport to disrupt Christmas season travel. Despite the attention brought locally and nationally to the Clark case, no charges were filed against the policemen responsible for Clark’s death—(who reportedly was killed while lying on the ground in handcuffs).

Activists in Minneapolis, therefore, were a strategic part of BLM’s growing influence long before George Floyd became a more recent case of black execution by police. One of BLM Minnesota’s most prominent organizers, Miski Noor, who is part of Minneapolis’ large Muslim African immigrant community, had this to say in 2017 about the importance of the Minneapolis context to global antiracism work:

“Our city has served as one of the major battlegrounds for the sanctity of Black life over the last four years . . . Like other cities in the U.S., poor and young Black women and femme activists in Minneapolis have created space over the years for people to take action, organize their communities and change the material conditions of Black folks. Their work has created a national platform for Minneapolis . . ..”

George Floyd’s recent killing has magnified attention on Minneapolis and amplified the influence of Minneapolis’ front-line activists, including its strongly mobilized African Muslim immigrant community. The fact that George Floyd’s death occurred in a neighborhood where Minneapolis’ Somali community is heavily concentrated clearly contributed to the active involvement of Somalis (especially younger-generation Somalis), already highly mobilized on racial justice issues. Commenting upon recent Somali activism, Minnesota journalist Mukhtar Ibrahim reports: “The younger generation clearly came out this time. Probably they have more interactions with the police than their parents or they can relate more with the African American experience than their parents . . . I saw a lot of young Somalis participating, especially young females, wearing the hijab . . ..” Many within the Somali business community also were very supportive of the protests, reportedly donating food and supplies to the protesters.

Congresswoman Ilhan Omar (D-MN), who represents this district in the U.S. Congress, has also been a high-profile representative of a politically activated Somali Muslim community, while increasingly forming strategic political alignments on race matters with African American communities. She has teamed-up legislatively with Congresswoman Ayana Pressley (D-MA) on more than one recently introduced racial justice bill, including the Student Debt Emergency Relief Act, and the National Police Misuse of Force Investigation Board Act.

These illustrations of expanded front-line racial justice activism by African immigrants display a potential (too often unfulfilled) for broadening and deepening African immigrant alliances with black racial justice undertakings.

Indeed, the glaring injustice of George Floyd’s killing further galvanized broader alliances, but the fires of intercultural black protest have fed and must continue to feed off the fresh commitments to social justice being cultivated among new generations of activists, including among new generations of Africans born into immigrant households within the U.S. Lifelong socialization by U.S.-born Africans into the American racial experience increasingly makes possible their fuller appreciation of the psychic dissonances imposed by racism. Also, reevaluations of the adherence within their communities to mainstream ideas of respectability and American exceptionalism are eroding conceptual barriers to wider African defiance of prevailing American racism.

These developments bode well for efforts to more fully realize potential for intercultural Black racial justice alliances.

  1. Patrick B. Oray, “Another Layer of Blackness: Theorizing Race, Ethnicity, and Identity in the U.S. Black Public Sphere,” PhD. Dissertation for the University of Iowa, December 2013: 14 
  2. Katja M. Guenther, Sadie Pendaz, and Fortunata Songora Makene, “The Impact of Intersecting Dimensions of Inequality and Identity on the Racial Status of Eastern African Immigrants,” Sociological Forum, 26/1, March 2011: 103 
  3. Jacob K. Olupona, “Communities of Believer: Exploring African Immigrant Religion in the United States), in African Immigrant Religions in America, edited by Jacob Olupona and Regina Gemignani, New York University Press, 2007: 35-36; see also Janel E. Benson, “Exploring the Racial Identities of Black Immigrants in the United States,” Sociological Forum,  21/2, June 2006: 233) 
  4. Olupona, 36 

George Floyd: Race, Injustice And Hope A Personal Reflection

by R. David Muir (Roehampton Univ. and National Church Leaders Forum)

Langston Hughes’ poem was uppermost in my mind when I saw the tragic death of George Floyd and thought about racial injustice in America. In his A Dream Deferred, the poet captures the great disappointment, the constitutional and cultural contradiction, and illusion of the American Dream for the African:

What happens to a dream deferred?
Does it dry up
Like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore
And then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over
like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.
Or does it explode?

 On Monday 25 May, George Floyd lost his life as a white police officer kept his knee on his neck, asphyxiating him, strangling him, choking the life out of another black body. Thanks to the near universal technology, ownership and use of the mobile phone and its democratic distribution and dissemination of messages and images through social media, the world saw the public and brutal murder, execution, assassination of an unarmed black man by a law enforcement officer in Minneapolis, Minnesota. He was unarmed; he was not resisting arrest; he was compliant. Thanks to this new form of citizen’s journalism and reportage we witnessed the meaning of America; a sign and symbol of what it is, has been and continues to be for many African Americans.

The African American philosopher and cultural critic, Cornel West, would argue that what we saw is far from exceptional in America: it’s normal, black bodies have had the life sucked out of them from the day they arrived in the so-called ‘New World’ whether by extracted labour through chattel slavery, post-Reconstruction Jim Crow laws, practices or public lynching.[1] If I were to ask my friend, the late Professor James Henry Cone, he would respond in his inimitable high pitched voice: ‘David, this was a public lynching on the streets of Minneapolis – extrajudicial punishment sanctioned by centuries of dehumanization of black bodies.’ Doubtless James would point me to what he argued in one of his latest books about the cultural politics of the lynching tree: namely, that it is ‘the most potent symbol of the trouble nobody knows that blacks have seen but do not talk about because of the pain of remembering’.[2]

But let us not be naïve. The defence of ignorance is infantile. What we saw in the death of George Floyd was neither episodic nor singular; it’s institutional structural, perpetual. African Americans have known through their long night of slavery, dehumanization,[3] racial discrimination and death, the experiential, psychological and existential meaning of ‘I Can’t breathe.’ The white officer’s knee on George Floyds’ neck is a visual reminder, a picture and a metaphor that will be etched on our memory for generations to come. It will be one that African Americans (and other diaspora communities) will be unwise to forget. They know all too well how Uncle Sam has kept his knee on their neck for decades, for centuries, strangling their humanity, dignity, hopes, dreams, aspirations. Depriving them of the breath of equal opportunity and justice. Killing them.

And what has it inspired here and globally? In the last couple of weeks, I’ve been speaking with government officials and doing a series of BBC interviews about both Covid-19 and the Death of George Floyd. (Breathing and the lack of breath is the uncanny reality that links the two.) The question I am often asked is, “What has the death of a black man in the US got to do with us here in the UK, surely things are not that bad here?” Whether out of provocation or ignorance, my answer is what was said by Dr Martin Luther King, Jr., more eloquently than I could put it. This American prophet, preacher and public theologian reminds us: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” The tragic death of George Floyd has inspired a global insurrection of solidarity, sympathy, and common decency in the face of a brutal and brazen murder of another black man. If you have blood in your veins and you know the free and divine gift of breath, you cannot watch what happened to George Floyd and remain unmoved. Indeed, on white American commentator writing for a predominantly white Christian audience puts it thus: “If you are not angry and feel deep sadness in this moment, it may be time for a soul check.”[4]

Along with protests, demonstrations and marches, the death of George Floyd has inspired more debate about race and racism in Britain. This is neither the time nor the place to explore this and what we do about statutes and monuments to figures of oppression, slavery, and injustice like Edward Colston that we saw in Bristol over the weekend. However one decides to answer the perennial question as to whether Britain is a ‘racist country’; or whether Stormzy’s response of ‘yes, one hundred percent’ means it’s a 100% racist or merely affirming in the positive that ‘racism’ still exists in the UK could be a good essay question. Whether one listens to David Olusoga, Ben Okri, Nesrine Malik, or the editorial of this week’s Economist, one cannot help but to see the ubiquity of racial injustice in both the UK and the US.

From my experience of working in the criminal justice system and as a special adviser to a number of Home secretaries and Police ministers, I can say that the UK is a less racist place than it used to be decades ago, or when I was growing up. Of course, we no longer have signs saying: “No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs” and we no longer see virulent racist campaigning like the one my parents witnessed in Smethwick by the Conservative parliamentary candidate, Peter Griffith, with the slogan: “If you want a nigger for a neighbour, vote Labour”, or Teddy Boys going “Paki-bashing” and “Nigger-hunting”.

Thankfully, those days are behind us, but racism and White supremacy still kills and poison the body politic; racism find ways of reconstituting itself, morphing in other guises, cultural politics, practices, and iconography. 

Of course, Britain is not America; we have a different history and experience but are subject to the same defective anthropology that stops us from reaching our full potential, that stops us from breathing fully and flourishing in all our institutions. The comparisons with the US will continue to be interesting and instructive. Many of our experiences will be similar. There is no place for complacency or historical amnesia; racism is indifferent to geographical boundaries.

We remember Eric Garner (repeated ‘I can’t breathe twelve time before he was killed in New York City by the police); we remember Michael Brown who was shot by the police in Ferguson, Missouri); we remember Breonna Taylor, the medical technician shot in her own house by the police); we remember Ahmaud Arbery (the young black jogger shot by the police because he was jogging in the wrong neighbourhood). The list goes on. But in my own borough, the Royal Borough of Greenwich, I know what racism and White supremacy looks like. I remember the young Asian school boy, Rohit Duggal, who was murdered by racist thugs in July 1992; I remember Stephen Lawrence who was also brutally murdered by white youths the following year; I remember Cherry Groce (shot by the police in September 1985) and Joy Gardner: Joy lost her life in August 1993 at the hands of immigration officers who placed 13-foot length of adhesive tape around her head and mouth. Unable to breathe she collapsed and suffered brain damage. A young woman asphyxiated, having the breath of live taken from her by state officials. I knew her Mother Myrna well, she went to our church; her life was never the same again after she lost her beloved daughter.

This too is our history. This too is our shared British history. It is not America, but David Olusoga is right when he says that, like America, we too are disfigured by deep and pervasive racism; and that as a society, we too have to look in the mirror of our history.

I think it was Mordechai Vanunu the Jewish scientist who said: “To know is to be responsible.” That’s the challenge that we all face in times of controversy and crisis. How will we respond to injustice in our institutions and in society? The Vice Chancellor’s statement on Black Lives Matter and the death of George Floyd and Professor Marilyn’s leadership in bringing us together set the tone for our conversation and discussion, affirming the university’s long tradition of standing up for social justice and its commitment to equality and antiracism. Our students and staff have been impacted by the death; many are traumatized, feeling the cadence of desolation.

Some of us feel (and certainly hope) that the death of George Floyd will be a defining moment in American history and race relations; it is a turning point, a tipping point. It has inspired interracial and intergenerational protests on both sides of the Atlantic. The name of George Floyd will be memorialized. Individuals and institutions will remember his name as they reflect and respond to racial injustice and other challenges they face. ‘I can’t breathe’, as Ben Okri says, will become the ‘mantra of oppression’ globally.[5]

Let me conclude by saying that I’m hopeful about the future and the actions we will take together as we respond to injustice wherever we find it. I for one will re-double my efforts and courage to fight injustice wherever I confront it. In our Black Church Political manifesto (link) we will continue to hold ourselves, and the government, to account on our recommendations on criminal justice reform, political engagement, and health inequality in the aftermath of Covid-19 (see our Ten-Point Plan).
On Tuesday, the family laid George Floyd to rest in Houston, believing that that in the presence of the One who gives breath and life has breathed on him again. His breath has been restored. I am perpetually challenged by the great North African Doctor of the Church. “Hope”, says St Augustine, “has two beautiful daughters; their names are Anger and Courage. Anger at the way things are, and Courage to see that they do not remain as they are.” Lord help us all to breathe and remember that this gift comes from you.
Dr R. David Muir
Co-Chair, NCLF

[1] See Gordon S. Wood, The Empire of Liberty: A History of the Early Republic, 1789-1815, Oxford, Oxford University Press: 2009. Wood makes the same argument made by the great Caribbean scholar Eric Williams (Capitalism & Slavery) about the extracted labour of the African in the prosperity of Europe and America.  Wood says: “The prosperity of the European colonies in the New World depended upon the labour of these millions of African slaves and their enslaved descendants (p.509).”

[2] James Cone, The Cross and the Lynching Tree, Maryknoll, New York, Orbis Books: 2011, p.3.

[3] Winthrop D. Jordan, White Over Black: American Attitudes Towards the Negro: 1550-1812, Baltimore, Maryland, Penguin Books: 1969.

[4] John Kingston, Christianity Today, 4th June 2020.

[5] Ben Okri, The Guardian, Monday 8 June, 2020

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