September 27, 2004,
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.