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'Are You, Like, African-AMERICAN Or AFRICAN-American?'

President Obama spoke to young Africans who were held up as future leaders during this week's Africa Summit.
Charles Dharapak
President Obama spoke to young Africans who were held up as future leaders during this week's Africa Summit.

Over at NewsOne, Donovan X. Ramsey contrasted two approaches President Obama has taken with black audiences: 1) the finger-wagging, pull-up-your-pants approach that he often takes with African-Americans, like the graduates at all-male Morehouse College ("We've got no time for excuses ... nobody is going to give you anything you haven't earned"), and 2) the laudatory tone he took with young African leaders who traveled to D.C. this week for the Africa Summit. ("So the point of all of this is we believe in you. I believe in you. I believe in every one of you who are doing just extraordinary things.")

Ramsey said that as a black American, the president's different approach to the young African luminaries made him "a little jealous." Weren't the young men from Morehouse poised to do extraordinary things for their communities, too?

This bifurcation, Ramsey argued, illustrated the difference in how folks see and treat native-born blacks and how they perceive and interact with blacks from elsewhere. One often-cited data point is this: While first- and second-generation black immigrants compose a tiny percentage of the American black population, they're overrepresented at top universities and annals of commerce. So, the thinking goes, blacks who aren't "from here" are harder-working and less entitled than American-born black folks.

Ramsey pointed to research done by the political scientist Christina M. Greer that showed how widespread this native-black/immigrant-black schema seems to be.

"In a survey of Black New York City public service workers, she found Africans were deemed the most industrious of all Blacks. Afro-Caribbeans were ranked nearly as favorably. Black Americans, however, were perceived to be the least hard-working — even by native-born Blacks.

"Greer explained her book's findings by saying, 'There are whites and elites and people in power who do see a distinction. They may not necessarily understand the distinction but they are seeing Caribbeans as immigrants, who may necessarily work harder, or Africans as immigrants who have greater aspirations than this — quote, unquote — last-place category of Black Americans. Essentially, I argue it's no longer whites versus non-whites but this category of Blacks versus non-Blacks.' "

In the United States, black folks index at or near the bottom of a whole lot of metrics for outcomes, and there's a whole lot of ugly history piled on top of that. But outside of our context here in the States, things get a little tricky.

A few months back on an episode of the very dope Call Your Girlfriend podcast, Aminatou Sow, whose family is from Guinea and who was educated in France, was telling her good friend Ann Friedman that in Europe, the hierarchy of social cachet for black groups seemed to be inverted.

Aminatou: My family is not super-psyched that I live here [in the United States]. They're like, "when are you coming home?" — "home" being Europe writ large. They just don't understand that I can't handle it anymore. ... In Paris, people say awful things on the streets to me, still. Like, hello, it's the 21st century.

Ann: Too real to ask what?

Aminatou: ... So in Brussels where my family lives, for example, getting on the bus in my neighborhood that is predominantly Dutch is a big hassle. If I'm the only person on the bus, I would say eight of 10 times the bus doesn't stop. And that's this really complicated thing, right? That's because I present as an African person if I speak French. If I speak English, they assume that I'm American — and French-speaking people, at least, are obsessed with African-Americans. It's so weird. You are like this evolved kind of black person as opposed to an African person. I would say that a little bit is true — of the reverse — here [in the United States].

In a New Yorker essay from 1996, Malcolm Gladwell — born in Canada, of Caribbean descent, and now an American — considered how Caribbean immigrants in New York were considered in their new city. He noted a large body of research that found an elaborate schema for determining which blacks were more likely to be hard workers, and that schema was shaped by country of origin.

"The Harvard sociologist Mary C. Waters conducted a similar study, in 1993, which looked at a food-service company in Manhattan where West Indian workers have steadily displaced African-Americans in the past few years. The transcripts of her interviews with the company managers make fascinating reading, providing an intimate view of the perceptions that govern the urban workplace. Listen to one forty-year-old white male manager on the subject of West Indians:

" 'They tend more to shy away from doing all of the illegal things because they have such strict rules down in their countries and jails. And they're nothing like here. So like, they're like really paranoid to do something wrong. They seem to be very, very self-conscious of it. No matter what they have to do, if they have to try and work three jobs, they do. They won't go into drugs or anything like that.'

"Or listen to this, from a fifty-three-year-old white female manager:

" 'I work closely with this one girl who's from Trinidad. And she told me when she first came here to live with her sister and cousin, she had two children. And she said I'm here four years and we've reached our goals. And what was your goal? For her two children to each have their own bedroom. Now she has a three bedroom apartment and she said that's one of the goals she was shooting for .... If that was an American, they would say, I reached my goal. I bought a Cadillac.' "

But in Toronto, Gladwell found that the perceptions were reversed. It was the Caribbeans who were seen as shifty and lazy and dangerous.

"This was during the early nineteen-eighties, when West Indians were immigrating to Canada in droves, and Toronto had become second only to New York as the Jamaican expatriates' capital in North America. At school, in the dining hall, I was served by Jamaicans. The infamous Jane-Finch projects, in northern Toronto, were considered the Jamaican projects. The drug trade then taking off was said to be the Jamaican drug trade. In the popular imagination, Jamaicans were — and are — welfare queens and gun-toting gangsters and dissolute youths. In Ontario, blacks accused of crimes are released by the police eighteen per cent of the time; whites are released twenty-nine per cent of the time. In drug-trafficking and importing cases, blacks are twenty-seven times as likely as whites to be jailed before their trial takes place, and twenty times as likely to be imprisoned on drug-possession charges.

"After I had moved to the United States, I puzzled over this seeming contradiction — how West Indians celebrated in New York for their industry and drive could represent, just five hundred miles northwest, crime and dissipation. Didn't Torontonians see what was special and different in West Indian culture? But that was a naive question. The West Indians were the first significant brush with blackness that white, smug, comfortable Torontonians had ever had. They had no bad blacks to contrast with the newcomers, no African-Americans to serve as a safety valve for their prejudices, no way to perform America's crude racial triage."

The wild thing about this Gladwell essay? It's almost 20 years old, yet so many of these same perceptions persist.

The tricky thing about "foreignness," though, is that it sunsets — eventually, maybe one or two generations in, the kids will have lost their accents. The way they dress, the things they eat, the way they talk, will be like their peers. Black Americans from elsewhere, despite their more recent vintage, will simply become black Americans. But will perceptions of black Americans have changed, too?

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Gene Demby is the co-host and correspondent for NPR's Code Switch team.