As the Obama Administration takes tentative steps towards addressing immigration, right-wing commentators and mainstream media alike have been jumping at the opportunity to sensationalize the divide between Blacks and immigrants.
Taking a different approach, community organizers in Oakland, California have begun what they’re calling the African Diaspora dialogues—informal conversations between Black Americans and Black African immigrants about immigration, race and economic globalization. They’re hoping to use what they learn from these talks to build a Black Immigration Network that will advocate for immigration policies that are good for both communities.
Two of the organizers—Nunu Kidane, network coordinator with the Priority African Network, and Gerald Lenoir, coordinator of the Black Alliance for Just Immigration—sat down with me to talk about their work.
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Leticia Miranda: What were your thoughts about the dialogues before they began and did the process change your thinking?
Nunu Kidane: We came into this under the assumption that as Black people the primary factor that brings us all together is that we’re all under attack, under assault as Black people.
Once we got into the conversation, it became very apparent that the use of the word “African” was disputed: “You know I’m Nigerian. Why do you say ‘African?’”
The term “Black” was disputed—just because you came to the United States doesn’t mean now you’re Black.
Gerald Lenoir: What we learned from the African Diaspora dialogues was the source of tensions between African immigrants and African Americans and how they played out.
For example, many Africans come here and do not identify as being Black because they identify as being Igbo or Nigerian or Eritrean or whatever, and they try to preserve their culture, their language, their customs and pass down that to their children. So African Americans sometimes feel like many African immigrants come here and don’t want to be associated with [them].
On the other side, people come here from African countries with these preconceived notions of African Americans. We’ve heard from some Somali refugees who say that their sponsoring organizations tell them stay away from those African Americans because they’re trouble.
Miranda: You thought race would be the unifying factor, and instead you found a lot of disconnections based on race. Did you hear about any connecting experiences?
Lenoir: Sooner or later, African immigrants have to deal with race in America, and it happens in a few ways. One, a person gets stopped by the police and you realize that you’re Black.
One man who I think was from Cameroon reported that in his country when you’re confronted by authority you stand. So when he was pulled over and he got out of the car to stand up, the policeman draws a gun on him and tells him to get on the ground, and he didn’t understand what was going on.
Another man, [who] came from somewhere in West Africa, was climbing the corporate ladder, and he had hit a glass ceiling, [not realizing that it was] because he was Black.
Kidane: There was a young man from Côte d'Ivoire who lives in the corporate world and drives a Mercedes and had gotten used to being pulled over by cops. It had happened to him so many times. [H]e said: “I have to say in all truthfulness to their credit, they stop me, look at my ID, talk to me and let me go. They don’t ticket me.” An African American said: “Have you considered the minute you open your mouth they realize you’re different?” And he responded, “I never thought of that.”
[T]his has been a…space that enables them to unpack and decipher those experiences. In the case of the man who stood up when he got pulled over, the advice he got in that conversation could save his life—a brother said: “Next time the cops stop you, put both your hands on the wheel. Don’t move until they tap on the window. Don’t move, just sit there.”
Miranda: How do you talk with Black folks about why immigration matters to them?
Lenoir: We try to put it into a broader context of how racism and economic globalization have impacted immigrants of color and African Americans. We look at the racial content of attacks on immigrants and say to African Americans that first we have a moral responsibility to immigrants because we’ve experienced that kind of racial attack.
Second, we have a self-interest because those same forces are not just against immigrants—they come out of a white supremacist background, and many of those forces are now coalescing. Ward Connerly, Mr. Prop 209, is now teaming up with FAIR [a right-wing group working to halt immigration]. Now FAIR is sponsoring anti-affirmative action measures. [T]hese racist forces are not only coming after immigrants, but also some of the gains of the civil rights movement.
Another thing we try to raise is economic globalization and how in the 1970s [that] meant companies picked up and moved to Latin America. And just as we, as African Americans, were gaining union jobs as part of the civil rights movement, some of those factories that were in East Oakland and South Central LA were all gone and left our communities devastated. This round of economic globalization means that [governments] create free trade agreements…and undermine economies and force people to migrate. So we also have common cause on that issue of larger economic forces that are displacing all of us. Making these connections doesn’t resolve all the issues, but it puts it in a broader context.
Miranda: What critiques do you have of the immigration reform movement as a whole?
Lenoir: The mainstream immigrant rights movement is really narrow. We feel like there’s a lack of an African American and Black immigrant perspective on these immigration bills. Because of that, the impact of immigration on Black communities isn’t discussed.
A lot of the migration is coming into and displacing largely African American communities and creating social unrest because let’s face it: we do live in an economic system where there is competition for jobs and geographic space. So let’s figure out how to mitigate some of that. That’s not happening within the immigrant rights movement and some of the major groups that are pushing immigration reform.
And in some of these national coalitions, Black immigrants aren’t represented. For example, the stories of West Africans who are being deported are never told. It’s always the stories of Mexicans or Central Americans that are told. So the goal of the Black Immigration Network is to address these issues and change the broader immigration movement.
Kidane: We’re looking for a broader human rights framework that doesn’t pit us against each other.
The next steps are learning ways of using these lessons from the dialogues to create a new framework. How do you help communities hold these conversations? There’s a lot to learn from them, and how do you build them up to affect policy and systemic changes we want to see? It is daunting. There is no short cut, and it takes keeping the conversations going and building a stronger Black immigration network.
Leticia Miranda is an editorial intern for ColorLines.