It was a six-second clip that sent Black Twitter into a frenzy.
President Obama, while on a visit to Jamaica last year, greeted a gym packed to the brim with students with a few words in Jamaican patois.
“Greetings massive! Wha gwaan Jamaica?” the president asked.
After a round of applause, and another few words in patois (“big up!”), Obama chuckled to himself. “Yeah, I’ve been making myself at home here,” he said.
It was a feel-good cultural moment, reflecting a major shift that is quietly sweeping across black America.
On one side, there was President Obama, the son of a Kenyan immigrant and the leader of the most powerful nation in the world. On the other, a growing Caribbean-American population watching at home, happy to see the president talking to them in their vernacular, in their own language.
The black immigrant is on the rise in America. Likewise, so are their children and grandchildren. A full 9% of black Americans are immigrants, according to a Pew Research Center study published last year. That’s nearly triple what it was in 1980.
By 2060, the Census Bureau projects that number will rise to 16.5%. In other words, in the not-too-distant future, nearly 1 in 5 black Americans will have been born abroad.
Across the country, this shift is already reshaping huge chunks of black culture. In the Miami metro area, about 34% of the black population is foreign born. In the New York metro area, it’s about 28%, and in Washington D.C., it’s about 15%.
It means that we have to move away from this view of ‘monolithic blackness’ in this country- Onoso Imoagene, assistant professor of Sociology, University of Pennsylvania
“It means that we have to move away from this view of ‘monolithic blackness’ in this country,” Onoso Imoagene, a Nigerian-born assistant professor of Sociology at the University of Pennsylvania, told me. “With the continuing immigration out of Africa and the Caribbean, we’re seeing groups that are holding onto their ethnic identities very strongly — not just in the first generation but the second generation, and their children.”
As a group, foreign-born blacks outperform native black Americans in key categories. They are more likely to hold a bachelor’s degree (26% versus 19%), have higher household income, are more likely to be married (48% for those 18 and older versus 28%), and are less likely to live in poverty (20% versus 28%), according to Pew.
“You cannot conflate race and ethnicity for black people any more,” Imoagene said. “These groups are chipping away at that notion all the time.”
But that’s easier said than done. Official data of second- and third-generation immigrant groups relies on self-identification, and often, the children of black immigrants just assign themselves into the black category, said Imoagene.
One way to track the rising influence of black immigrants is by considering their contributions to culture, politics, and academia in the U.S. over recent years.
Former Attorney General Eric Holder’s family emigrated from Barbados, before he became the first black man to hold the position. Former Secretary of State Colin Powell’s parents are from Jamaica. He too was the first black man to serve in that position. Barbados native Rihanna and Trinidad-born Nicki Minaj are running the pop charts. The president of Howard University, the nation’s most prestigious historically black university, is Trinidadian. President Obama’s origin tale also fits into this narrative.
Another way to track the spread of immigration from the West Indies in particular is to look at the growing prevalence of steelpan drum groups in the U.S., suggested William Howard, president of the West Indian Carnival Association, which organizes over 60 Carnival parties around the country every year.
“It’s the only instrument of this century,” Howard told me of the quintessential West Indian instrument, which came into its modern form in Trinidad and Tobago, in the early 1900s. “And right now, there are steel bands at Ivy League schools, they’ve got them at NYU, Rutgers and Northwestern; it’s just flourishing.”
By his estimate, there are currently over 3,000 steel pan bands across nation, from Washington state to Florida.
Another marker of a population that’s growing: the West Indian Carnival celebrations that Howard’s nonprofit helps to organize. “We just had the carnival here in New York, and now all of a sudden we have a Carnival in New Jersey, a Carnival coming up in Babylon, Long Island, and another Carnival coming up in Nassau,” he said, speaking during this month’s celebrations. “These Carnivals weren’t here five years ago, but all of a sudden we have Carnivals everywhere.”
In Miami, the metropolitan area with the largest percentage of its black population born abroad, the cultural impact of largely Haitian immigration is prevalent in the city’s daily life. Almost every Friday, a traditional Haitian marching band– called a Rara– parades through the city’s Little Haiti neighborhood for hours at a stretch. As the band passes, residents come out of their homes, joining in on the parade.
“People think that when you come to Little Haiti, that it’s like a ghetto side where everything bad is happening,” said Emile Wilnord, while preparing his band Rara Lakay for a march through the neighborhood on a recent Friday. “That’s why we do it, we do it to make everybody happy, give them some of the ambiance like they know back home.”
With him was eleven-year-old son Armani, who has been marching with the band since he was about 4 years old, and who is now an official member of the group. “He got that in his blood,” his father said.
When asked what instruments he played, Armani smiled. “All of it. Drums, horns and some other things,” he said.
In some ways, a foreign influence has long been present in mainstream American black culture and politics.
It was DJ Kool Herc, a Jamaican immigrant, who is credited as the founder of hip-hop. Louis Farrakhan, the leader of the Nation of Islam, a black nationalist movement, was the son of a woman from St. Kitts and Nevis and a Jamaican father. Marcus Garvey was Jamaican. Politician Shirley Chisolm, whose parents were from the Barbados and British Guiana, and who spent much of her childhood in the Caribbean, became the first black woman elected to U.S. Congress in 1968, going on to become the first major-party black candidate for the President, as well as the first woman to run as a president for the Democratic party.
But historically, these stories are a relatively new phenomenon.
Ever since the slave trade was outlawed in 1808, black immigration to the U.S. was very low, explained scholar Mary Mederios Kent in a 2007 report called “Immigration and America’s Black Population.” But in the 1960s, a major immigration reform was passed only a year after the Civil Rights Act marked the largest victory of the Civil Rights era. The dual result, said Kent, was that black immigration to the U.S. immediately began to spike. “The foreign-born black population rose nearly seven fold between 1960 and 1980,” she noted.
The first wave of those black immigrants were overwhelmingly from the nearby Caribbean, sponsored by family reunification programs, through the few immigrants who were already in the U.S. Others came as part of skilled immigrant labor programs. Of these nations, Jamaicans by far made up the highest numbers. Today, there are around 682,000 Jamaica-born immigrants in the U.S., according to Pew, making up 18% of the black immigrant population.
Following closely are the Haitian-born immigrants, who number around 586,000, making up 15% of the demographic.
Third on the list are 226,000 Nigerian immigrants, an outlier group that is marking the sharpest shift in black immigration to the U.S. While immigration from the Caribbean still makes up the majority of black immigrants in the U.S., Africans are fueling the most recent growth, with Nigerians heading the pack.
In 1980, Africans only made up 7% of black immigrants. By 2013, that number had risen to 36%.
The Africans are different. While immigration from the West Indies mostly ran through family reunification programs, most Africans arrivals are either coming as refugees, or as highly selected professional or student groups. Nigerians, in particular, are becoming nationally renowned as a successful immigrant group.
“Their educational profile far outpaces the United States average, it outpaces that of African-Americans in the US, and far outpaces the education rates that you find in Nigeria,” said Imoagene, the sociologist at University of Pennsylvania. Overall, about 61% of Nigerian immigrants have college degrees, she estimated.
Cultural arguments have been made as to why this is the case, the most notable being the theory that Amy “Tiger Mom” Chua and fellow author Jeb Rubenfield presented in their book “The Triple Package: How Three Unlikely Traits Explain the Rise and Fall of Cultural Groups in America.” According to their claims, the “Triple Package” comprises a mix of 1) a superiority complex — a deep-seated belief in the group’s inherent excellence, 2) a feeling of insecurity, and 3) impulse control. Together, Chua and Rubenfield believe it can explain why some immigrant groups outperform.
Some of the success of Jamaicans, Ghanans, and Haitians are also attributed to these three traits, in much the same way as traditional “model minority” groups like Iranians, Cubans and the Chinese have climbed the social ladder. “But perhaps the most prominent are Nigerians,” wrote Chua and Rubenfield.
We may share the same African ancestry, but circumstances have driven us to be able to be successful in very different ways- Kalé Kponee, student president, Harvard Nigerian Student Union at the school of public health
“We may share the same African ancestry, but circumstances have driven us to be able to be successful in very different ways,” Kalé Kponee, student president of the Harvard Nigerian Student Union at the school of public health, told me. She moved to the U.S. at 8 years old, after spending two years in a refugee camp in Benin.
She estimates that there are more Nigerians and other West Africans at the school of public health than there are black American students.
“We have had different routes, and different environmental things pushing us,” she said of immigrant culture and the differing worldview black immigrants have, which emphasizes education above all else. “While some African-Americans are able to be successful, there are systematic factors that are clearly handicapping people from being academically, financially successful because of the way the American system was built.”
But the purely cultural argument for why black immigrant groups are succeeding compared to their black American counterparts is flawed, said Christina Greer, associate professor of political science at Fordham University, who has written about race and immigration.
“Let’s be clear– we’re looking at the creme de la creme of a particular nation that’s coming here,” she said, specifically about highly educated West African immigrants who often come with a college education and J1 job-sponsored visas. Comparing their starting points to each other is like apples to oranges, she said, noting that our immigration system is designed to bring the brightest into the country. “With black Americans it’s the entire group, A to Z. It’s not just A through G.”
More interesting than the stories of the current wave of black immigration is playing out in big cities — places that have “always been these major locales for diversity and immigration” — Greer told me that the real interesting cultural shifts are playing out in “second- or third-tier cities” across the nation. Some, like Lewiston, Maine, have black populations that are almost completely made up of immigrants and their children. In the case of Lewiston, it came in the form of about 1,000 mostly Muslim Somali refugees who began arriving in the town about 15 years ago.
It is a black community in the whitest state in the nation, almost completely cut off from mainstream black American culture, and which still largely retains its cultural signifiers.
“You have white Americans, and you hear about the Greeks, the Italians, the Poles, the Irish, and so on,” mused sociologist Imoagene.
“Why should it be any different with blacks?” she asked.