When Mkawasi Mcharo Hall, an African immigrant from Kenya, was teaching in New York City, she played this game with her “mostly black” students where she wrote the word “Africa” on the board and then had them call out whatever words came to mind.
The students’ responses left her bewildered.
“[T]he volley of uncensored words the students contributed,” Hall says, “were all negative.”
She had just recently arrived in America and was dismayed to discover the overwhelmingly dismissive attitude toward a people with whom she believes black Americans should find a natural affinity. Having come from Kenya, she was, at the same time, also aware that “black [American] identity [is] equally troublesome for many Africans,” and wondered whether these attitudes—which in her mind were self-defeating, solidarity-defying, and served only to frustrate the need for a unifying identity in overcoming their ultimately interrelated struggle—could ever be reconciled.
That’s the central question that Hall explores in her recent CityLab article, Fortress: ‘Black in America’: Closed to Africans?, a personal reflection on the writer’s experience of being an African immigrant in the U.S., and her anxious, multi-city search to find a “feeling of being stitched into the tapestry of the black identity.”
That feeling, described less abstractly, is one of group-belonging. And for Hall—who came to America with the belief that common ancestry is something that de facto confers one’s rightful place inside the group—it was a feeling she believed she’d doubtless be met with among native-born blacks.
However, after a set of experiences in black America that only reinforced for her the “complexities of American race relations,” and the limitations of having understood racism as a “concept that existed only in books,” Hall eventually had to concede that the “shared historical and cultural experience” of black America is something that ultimately places the African immigrant at a remove from ever fully identifying with the particular struggle(s) in the day-to-day realities of native-born blacks.
And while she is certainly correct in suggesting that the primacy of native-born blacks’ ‘shared historical and cultural experience’ (i.e. one defined exclusively by being the victims of American racism) precludes any easy claim to group identity by outsiders, Hall frames the distance imposed by that experience as being a predominantly social, or cultural, one.
“I watch and learn and laugh the loudest when I catch that one joke that almost got away, just to make up for all the others that went right over my head,” Hall writes, as she gazes from the outside onto what she calls the “inner sanctum of blackness.”
Insulting enough should be the implication that one’s ability to truly identify with native-born blacks is apparently through some being-in-on-the-joke aspect of black identity and American racism. Far more problematic, though, is the way in which Hall fundamentally misunderstands—or deliberately ignores—how the function of that racism as it relates to native blacks in American society has always been to effect a particular economic outcome.
Racism in America does not, as she argues, operate as simply a “caste system [that] puts melanin-rich humans at the bottom of the social hierarchy.” To describe it in those terms is not only a dishonest assessment of the actual, observable variation in melanin content that appears throughout the most subordinate group in American society, it evinces the sort of impoverished conception of U.S. racism that could only come from a member of a group whose arrival in this country postdates centuries of the most economically destructive policy geared specifically toward native-born blacks.
From slavery to Jim Crow, red lining and discriminatory federal loan policies, all the way up to the contemporary models of black disadvantage manufacturing like mass incarceration, the story of racism in America is not one of merely being perceived as inferior because of skin color, as Hall suggests. It is fundamentally one of native-born blacks being made inferior, lesser than, and deficient in the most dramatic and enduring sense possible. In the context of American society, this meant enacting laws and terrorizing that group out of the opportunity to create wealth, and—as naturally follows from that condition—permanently assuring native-born blacks’ compromised ability to participate as equals in American social, political, and economic life.
Hall’s overly simplified—and easily disproved—calculus on racism and social positioning crucially omits the ways in which a person’s place in the social hierarchy of U.S. society directly corresponds to their economic condition. The economic condition of native-born blacks is, and has always been, one that was designed to be the most destitute of opportunity, the most resource-deprived, and the most unstable. She affirms as much when she recognizes the singularity of the ‘shared historical experience’ of native-born blacks; namely, the centuries-long exclusion from wealth-building opportunity. However, she elides any discussion of that aspect of their experience for the sake of her argument that foreign-born blacks are, as a group, as socio-economically dislocated as the native black community by virtue of their black skin.
In fact, no.
All of the available data indicates the sheer fallacy at the core of that claim. To use but one example, the pronounced disparity in rates of admission into colleges and universities among native-born blacks and African immigrants is one which is frequently cited in order to demonstrate the systemic obstacles faced by the former group. Those hindrances—as Harvard Law professor Lani Guinier wrote in a 2004 op-ed for the Boston Globe—are decidedly absent among children of African immigrants: “Like their wealthier white counterparts,” Guinier writes, “many first- and second-generation immigrants of color test well because they retain a national identity free of America’s racial caste system and enjoy material and cultural advantages.” In that same vein, Angela Onwuachi-Willig, a professor at the University of Iowa College of Law, points out in her study, The Admission Legacy of Blacks, how the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 limited visas to “exceptional professionals.” The ways in which such a proviso more favorably positions foreign-born blacks to succeed in America relative to their native-born counterparts should be obvious enough.
Beyond the imprecise understanding of racism’s function in America, Hall’s argument completely fails to take into account how African immigrants—while apparently having a ‘troublesome’ relationship with black identity—have traditionally felt little to no compunction about being the beneficiaries of policy crafted specifically to try and meliorate the consequences of that black identity in American society. And whether it be through African immigrants fulfilling affirmative action requirements, corporate diversity initiatives, or minority set-asides in government contracts, the protest movements of the civil rights-era have seemingly paved the way for a group of foreign-born blacks and their children to capitalize on the gains won in the name of native-black descendants of slaves. This warped outcome is owed to precisely the kind of mentality—like Hall’s—that prefers to see all oppression of black people as essentially equal, and which then encourages those victims to adopt a shared identity based on skin color. That identity is one that assumes exactly none of the tension that has marked the relationship between native-born blacks and African immigrants in America’s resource-driven society, and is one that is wholly disinterested in the obvious fact that not all melanin carries the same historically specific consequences.
To the extent that Hall is able—or willing—to acknowledge that fact, she nonetheless clearly extols the virtues of a black politics that identifies all black people of the world as collectively responsible for each other’s uplift. She cites the ways in which “[t]he black American has been actively engaged in emancipation on the Motherland,” and uses this to encourage her fellow African immigrants in the U.S. to act in kind and to take up the cause(s) of native-born blacks. “Melanin identity goes beyond skin,” she writes, “It courses through our separate histories and through a collective unconscious that causes blacks to reach out across continents for each other. It is wise for Continental Africans to figure out how to become black politically and economically in America.”
The fact is, though, a person cannot become economically black in America. This is the whole point. It is not something a person can “figure out” how to be; it is something that a person is made to be. Being economically black in America was figured out for native-born blacks from the very outset of the United States’ trajectory toward its status as the richest country in the world. It was then something that was continuously reconfigured throughout the country’s ascendancy in order to guarantee that the failure of being economically black in America would continue to perform that same function so that the rest of capitalist America might have the opportunity to succeed. That is, in effect, what it means to be ‘economically black’ in America.
And so despite Hall’s directive to her fellow immigrants to exercise allyship with native-born black descendants of slaves—to become politically black, as she says—it’s extremely difficult to see how without that group’s insistence on a separate identity of native-born blacks—and of what is owed to them as a result of having borne the consequences of being made economically black—African immigrants can participate in the sort of political advocacy that will meaningfully bring about their material uplift.
“Let there be only lineage,” Yvette Carnell of Breaking Brown once said. And if that command feels prophetic and almost biblical in nature, it’s because the story of native blacks in this country is also fundamentally a creation story. As a group, in respect of origin, there can be no doubt that they were a people who were principally created on American soil; dragged here for the express purpose of being used as chattel slaves to churn out profit for a national—and then eventually globally dominant—economy.
Following centuries of laboring in that wretched condition—and several decades of an all but equally degraded existence as victims of lynch mobs, convict leasing, and being forced to live in crowded urban slums amid abject poverty—they have since struggled from an unfathomable disadvantage to try and create for themselves an improved status, one more in keeping with the basic promise of freedom and well-being that is supposedly conferred upon all citizens of this country as a matter of right, but which in fact all observable evidence seems to confirm only follows from one’s economic means of securing them.
As both Yvette Carnell and Antonio Moore continuously emphasize, it is lineage and lineage alone that unites native blacks in both their history and present state of being excluded from acquiring those economic means. And as we enter further into an era of national decline in which opportunities for prosperity are steadily receding from the reach of working class America, it is now—more than ever—urgent that native blacks heed their call to recognize how lineage must form the foundation of the group’s political identity. Only that will illuminate the way forward and enable them to create their next chapter in the struggle for reparative justice. Because before native blacks can, as a group, meaningfully make themselves—before they can be asked to identify with and take up the separate plight of the global black—they must be made whole in return for how in the same way they were originally made incomplete.