African Immigrants in the United States: Implications for Affirmative Action
Sociology Mind
2014. Vol.4, No.1, 74-83
Published Online Junuary 2014 in SciRes (http://www.scirp.org/journal/sm) http://dx.doi.org/10.4236/sm.2014.41010
African Immigrants in the United States: Implications
for Affirmative Action
Abdi M. Kusow
Department of Sociology, African and African American Studies Program,
Iowa State University, Ames, USA
Email: kusow@iastate.edu
Received September 29th, 2013; revised November 23 rd, 2013; accepted December 17th, 2013
Copyright © 2014 Abdi M. Kusow. This is an open access article distributed under the Creative Co mmons At-
tribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the
original work is properly cited. In accordance of the Creative Commons Attribution License all Copyrights ©
2014 are reserved fo r SCIRP and the owner of the intel lectual property Abdi M. Kusow. All Copyright © 2014
are guarded by law and by SCIRP as a guardian.
For more than half a century, an extensive literature has consistently reported that first-and second-gen-
eration black immigrants are more educated and economically successful than African Americans. This
literature has also suggested that black immigrants are benefiting from affirmative action more so than
African Americans without having been the direct objects of slavery and historical discrimination. An
important shortcoming of this literature, however, is that it presumes an undifferentiated black immigrant
success story and obscures important differences across black immigrants from different countries of ori-
gin. Using data from the three census years (1980, 1990, and 2000), I examine the extent to which the
black immigrant success story is directly relevant to African immigrants from different countries of origin
in the United States. The findings of the study reveal that African immigrants are represented in the entire
continuum of the American class structure, and therefore, any representation of a uniform experience is
not empirically defensible. Empirical and theoretical implications of affirmative action are also discussed.
Keywords: African Immigrant Diversity; Black Immigrant Success; Affirmative Action
Introduction
For more than half a century, an extensive literature has con-
sistently reported that first- and second-generation black immi-
grants are more educated and economically successful than Af-
rican Americans (Reid, 1939; Sowell, 1978; Glazer & Moyni -
han, 1963; Moynihan, 1965). In his classic publication, The Ne-
gro Immigrant: His Background Characteristics and Social Ad-
justment, 1899-1937, the late Ira Reid made the seminal obser-
vation that “high schools and colleges in New York City have
an unusually high foreign-born Negro (sic) representation
(1937: p. 416), and that nearly one third of New York’s black
professionals, including physicians and lawyers, are foreign-
born. More than three decades later, Thomas Sowell (1978)
confirmed Reid’s observation and concluded that Caribbean im-
migrants outperform African Americans in almost all indicators
of socio-economic achievement (Moynihan, 1965; Glazer &
Moynihan, 1963).
The most recent and widely reported finding regarding the
achievement of black immigrants was provided by Logan and
Deane (2003; see also Kent, 2007). In a report titled, “Black Di-
versity in Metropolitan America,” Logan and Deane compared
socio-economic attainment levels among African immigrants,
Afro-Caribbeans, and African Americans with a comparative
sample of major US ethnic groups. According to Logan and
Deane, median household income for Afro-Caribbean immi-
grants and African immigrants was $43,650, and $42,900, re-
spectively, compared with $33,700 for African Americans.
Moreover, the average number of years of education completed
by African immigrant s (14) is higher tha n not only Afric an Ame-
ricans (12.4) and Afro-Caribbeans (12.6) but also that of whites
(13.5) and Asian Americans (13.9) as well.
The higher-than-average socioeconomic and educational at-
tainment of black immigrants has been extended to the observa-
tion that first- and second-generation black immigrants are over-
represented in Ivy League colleges and universities as well. In
an article, “Top Colleges Take More Blacks, But Which Ones?”
The New York Times reported a discussion that took place at a
gathering of Harvard University’s alumni where two prominent
African American scholars, Henry Louis Gates and Lani Gui-
nier, noted that more than half of the black students at Harvard
are of first- and second-gene ration West Indian and African im-
migrant families, or children of multi-racial couples (Rimer &
Arenson, 2004; see also Banerji, 2007; Glenn, 2007; Johnson,
2005).
Empirically, much of the Ivy League overrepresentation ar-
gument is informed by the results of two sociological studies.
The first, Haynie (2002), on Harvard’s black student population
and, despite its limited scope, provided an important insight
into the ethnic background of black students at Harvard. Based
on a sample of 170 students, Haynie found those who identified
as African or Afro-Caribbean made up nearly one third of the
student population. When the multi-racial category was includ-
ed in the figures, the number jumped to more than two thirds of
the black student population. Comparing the ethnic background
of Harvard’s black student population as a proportion of the
total US black population, she found that while first-, second-
OPEN ACCESS
74
A. M. KUSOW
and third-generation black immigrants represented only 10 per-
cent of the total US black population, they accounted for more
than 55 percent of Harvard’s black student body. In contrast,
fourth (and plus) generation African Americans who repre-
sented nearly 90 percent of the total population accounted for
only 45 percent of Harvard’s black student body.
The second and perhaps most important sociological study
on this topic was that of Douglas Massey and his colleagues
(2006). Using data from the National Longitudinal Survey of
Freshmen (NLSF), they examined the extent to which first- and
second-generation black immigrants are overrepresented in se-
lective colleges a nd universities as compared with Afric an Ame-
ricans. They found that black immigrants are overrepresented
throughout elite academia and that this overrepresentation was
the greatest in the most exclusive colleges and universities. Ac-
cording to the authors, students of immigrant background made
up 41 percent of entering black freshmen in Ivy League institu-
tions. Despite this immigrant overrepresentation, however, the
authors found very few differences between immigrant and Af-
rican-American students, except that fathers of black immigrant
freshmen were more likely to be college graduates and hold
advanced degrees than those of African-American students.
The black immigrant success story, particularly of those im-
migrants from the African continent, has figured in one of
America’s longest-standing issues, race, and intelligence. On
one hand, the educational achievement of black immigrants has
been used as an indicati on that racialized stereotypes regarding
blacks in general are not based on solid empirical grounds. Us-
ing census data gleaned from both the United Kingdom and the
United States, the Journal of Blacks in Higher Education re-
cently reported “The powerful performance of Britains African
blacks puts a solid nail into the coffin of scientific racism
(1996: p. 29, emphasis added), and in the case of America, the
journal reported,and their educational attainment appears to
drive another nail in the coffin of scientific racists who consis-
tently hold the position that blacks are intellectually inferior to
whites” (1996: p. 61, emphasis added). The most revealing exam-
ple of the celebration of the African immigrant educational
achievement is found in a Chicago Tribune article by Clarence
Page (2007), one of the most famous African American editori-
al writers, when he asked,Do African immigrants make the
smartest Americans?” The African immigrant success story,
according to Page, “defies the usual stereotypes of Asian Amer-
icans as the only model minority,’” and that “the traditional
American narrative has rendered the high achievement of black
immigrants from Africa and the Caribbean invisible, as if it
were a taboo” (2007: p. 4, emphasis added). Simila r comments
and discussions have been carried in public radio stations, local
newspapers, not to mention the blogosphere. On the other hand,
the undifferentiated black immigrant success story, particularly
the group’s supposed overrepresentation in Ivy League colleges,
has been used to suggest that the current application of affirma-
tive action is inconsistent with its original target group, African
Americans whose experience has been punctuated by a long
history of slavery, on one hand, and Jim Crow segregation, on
the other. In fact, the discussion that black immigrants are be-
nefiting from affirmative action more so than African Ameri-
cans without having been the direct objects of slavery and his-
torical discrimination has recently led to an increasing number
of legal scholarships attempting to rewrite affirmative action
policies.
The two most important and comprehensive legal notes re-
garding the African American disadvantage in affirmative ac-
tion proceedings due to the overrepresentation of black immi-
grants in Ivy League colleges are provided by Onwuachi-Willig
(2007), and Brown and Bell (2008). Kevin Brown and Jeannine
Bell defined affirmative action as primarily historical and re-
sulting from the “struggle undertaken by the black community
to overcome racial oppression in the United States,” and is,
therefore, a part of the strategy for the uplift of the black
community in the United States” (2008: p. 1231, emphasis add-
ed). Consequently, Brown and Bell divided the contemporary
black community in the United States into three groups: multi-
racial individuals, black immigrants, and ascendants. The au-
thors define multiracial individuals as those born after the Su-
preme Court opinion in Loving v Virginia in 1967. Black immi-
grants are defined as individuals who entered the United States
after 1968, the ef fective date of th e 1965 Immigration Act; while
ascendants are defined as the rest of the black population in the
United States. Given that a very small number of black immi-
grants entered the United States before 1968; and that the mul-
ti-racial population was very small before Loving v Virginia,
the authors exclude all black individuals except those the au-
thors defined as ascendants in their definition of blackness, and
therefore, from participating in affirmative action programs.
Moreover, the authors suggested a new race question for the
college application form. Unlike the current form, which does
not distinguish one black group from another, the authors sug-
gested a question that asks black applicants to specify the coun-
try of birth of the father and/or mother not born in the United
States; and in the case of multi-racial individual s, a question that
asks applicants to specify ancestry of the nonblack mother or
father.
Onwuachi-Willig (2007) takes a more nuanced approach, one
that argues affirmative action policies should incorporate ways
of increasing participation of African Americans, or “legacy
blacks,” as she refers to them, in more selective colleges and
institutions without disadvantaging first- and second-generation
black immigrants at the same time so as to satisfy both diver-
sity and social justice aspects of affirmative action.
An important question that has never been particularly ex-
plored in this literature is the extent to which the perceived
higher socioeconomic achievement levels of black immigrants
is applicable to immigrants from different African regions and
countries of origin. One exception is the work of Kusow (2006).
Using country of origin-based census data from 1980 to 2000,
he compared immigrants from Kenya, Uganda, Tanzania, Ethi-
opia, Somalia, and Sudan and found significant socioeconomic
and racial/ethnic differences. He specifically found immigrants
from Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda to have much higher so-
cioeconomic achievement levels than those from Ethiopia, So-
malia, and Sudan. The author’s work, however, was geograph-
ically limited to the East African region and therefore does not
capture achievement patterns of immigrants from western and
Southern Africa, which collectively contribute to more than two
thirds of Sub-Saharan African immigrants in the United States.
By using a direct intra-African immigrant comparison de-
rived from a sample of 15 African countries of origin selected
from the three main sub-Saharan African regions, Eastern,
Western, and Southern Africa, my primary objective in this stu-
dy is to examine the extent to which the black immigrant suc-
cess story is applicable to African immigrants across different
countries of origin. Such a comparison represents an important
theoretical and methodological caution against the undifferen-
OPEN ACCESS 75
A. M. KUSOW
tiated black immigrant success story. Theoretically, it builds on
Suzanne Model’s (2008: p. 12) suggestion that one way to cir-
cumvent these difficulties is to undertake an intra-African com-
parison (see also Kim & Kemeque, 2007). Empirically, it pro-
vides preliminary descriptive examination of the nature of so-
cioeconomic, ethnic, and immigration status diversity among
African immigrants across different countries of origin. The
emphasis on the exploratory and descriptive is extremely im-
portant in that the primary purpose of the present study is to
start the conversation about black immigrants and affirmative
action by providing descriptive analyses of the socioeconomic,
ethnic, linguistic, and immigration status among African immi-
grants across different countries of origin. African immigrants
are represented in the entire continuum of the American class
structure, and therefore, any representation of uniform expe-
rience is not empirically defensible. Consequently, the assump-
tion that black immigrants are uniformly benefiting from affir-
mative action more so than African Americans is not defensible
either.
The first part of the paper will provide brief history of Afri-
can emigration to the United States and population numbers.
The second part will examine variations in socioeconomic achi-
evement across different countries of origin within each region
and across the different regions, Eastern, Western, and South-
ern Africa, overtime. The third section will follow the same or-
ganizational structure and compare ethnic and racial variations
among immigrants from different African countries of origin
and within and across different regions of Africa. In the fourth
section, I will discuss the theoretical implications of the find-
ings on affirmative action.
Method
Data for this study were derived from the 5 percent Public
Use Micro Samples of the 1980, 1990, and 2000 US Censuses.
African immigrants between the ages of 25 and 64 who were
identified as being born in any of the selected African countries
as listed in the census are included. In other words, the data do
not include second- and later-generation African immigrants.
For purposes of regional comparison, 15 countries were divided
into the following regional clusters: East Africa, West Africa,
and Southern Africa were included in the study. These coun-
tries were selected due to several methodological reasons. The
sample represents the countries with the largest immigrant pop-
ulation in the United States. This is because the 5 percent
PUMS cannot capture countries of origins with less 1000 indi-
viduals, and therefore, those countries with less than 1000 indi-
viduals in any of the census periods are not included in the
analysis.
All data were weighted, but the 1980 and 1990/2000 were
weighted differently. The 1980 data were equally weighted by
20 since the data are based on the 5 percent sample. The 1990
and 2000 5 percent PUMS were pre-weighted both at the indi-
vidual and household levels. Some variables such as household
income and household linguistic isolation were weighted at the
household level, and specific notes are made at the bottom of
the tables. It is important to note also that some variables were
calculated based on specific parameters as opposed to other
variables. For example, the variable citizenship status was
based on all persons in the sample. Other variables such as
education were based on a sample of individuals from the ages
of 25 to 64. The sample parameter of each variable will be
noted at the bottom of the table in which it appears.
Background: African Immigration
to the United States
The history of voluntary African emigration to the United
States goes as far back as the Reconstruction Era when a small
number of Cape Verdean immigrants settled in Massachusetts.
About thirty Cape Verdean immigrants arrived each year from
1860 to 1876, and by the 1940s, more than 20,000 Cape Ver-
dean immigrants settled in Bradford, Massachusetts (Halter,
1993). After the end of the Second World War, a small number
of mostly young male African students enrolled in several pre-
dominantly black colleges and universities across the nation.
For example, in the 1938-1939 school years, Lincoln Univer-
sity enrolled about 16 students from Africa. By 1958, estimated
1600 - 2000 African students were enrolled in colleges and
universities across the United States. Most of these students
were sponsored by the American government and other interna-
tional organizations and planned to return home after finishing
their studies to participate in the development of their soon-to
become independent countries, which they did. A survey car-
ried by the Phelps-Stokes Foundation found that out of the 173
students interviewed, 163 responded they intended to return
home after completing their studies (Phelps-Stokes Fund, 1949).
Thus, besides the Cape Verdean community in Massachusetts,
and the relatively few students and later diplomats in the na-
tion’s capital, the history of voluntary African immigration is a
very recent phenomenon.
As we can see from Table 1, over the past 30 years, Afri-
can immigrants in the United States have experienced a dra-
matic growth rate. Except a few cases-Tanzania, Uganda, Cape
Verde, South Africa, and Zimbabwe, the growth rate of immi-
grants from all countries of origin was more than 400 percent
from the 1980 to 2000. The increase in the number of immi-
grants from some countries-Somalia, Liberia, and Sierra Leone-
was in the thousands. For example, immigrants from Somalia
increased by more than 4000 percent from 1980 to 2000 while
those from Senegal and Liberia increased by 1176 and 1055,
respectively. This dramatic increase was confirmed by Kent
(2007), who pointed out that, in fact, more African immigrants
arrived in the United States during the six years from 2000 to
2005 than during the entire decade of 1990 to 1999. This was
also confirmed by the fact that only four out of the fifteen
countries shown in the table (Ethiopia, Cape Verde, Nigeria,
and South Africa) had population of more than 10,000 in 1980.
Immigrants from Senegal, Somalia, Cameroon, and Sierra
Leone had 2000 or fewer individuals in 1980.
Variations in Socio-Economic Achievement
Table 2 presents variations in educational attainment, me-
dian household income, and poverty among African immigrant
from different countries of origin in the United States. Besides
the relatively recent history of immigration and demographic
similarities, the level of structural assimilation patterns of Afri-
can immigrants is as varied as the many countries and regions
from which they came (see also, Dodoo, 1997; Dodoo & Takyi,
2002; James, 2002).
Starting with the 1980 figures, we see that immigrants from
certain East African countries recorded high percentage of col-
lege graduates, Kenya: (55), Tanzania (54), Uganda (52), Sudan
OPEN ACCESS
76
A. M. KUSOW
Table 1.
Percent population change: African immigrants, 1980-2000.
1980
1990
2000
Percenta ge Population Growth
N
N
N
1980
-1990
1990
-2000
1980
-2000
East Africa
Ethiopia
10,460
38,577
71,254
268.8
84.7
581.2
Kenya
7380
15,473
43,799
109.7
182.9
493.2
Somalia
760
2070
36,595
172.4
1667.9
4715.1
Sudan
2920
5582
18,567
91.2
232.6
535.9
Tanzania
3380
6828
11,764
102.0
72.3
248.0
Uganda
3940
7891
12,214
100.3
54.8
210.0
West Africa
Cameroon
1600
3699
12,827
131.2
246.8
701.1
Cape Verde
10,440
15,948
27,059
52.8
69.7
159.2
Ghana
8340
20,863
68,122
150.2
226.5
716.8
Liberia
3700
12,356
42,754
233.9
246.0
1055.5
Nigeria
27,000
60,423
140,929
123.8
133.2
422.0
Senegal
800
2426
10,215
203.3
321.1
1176.9
Sierra Leone
2100
7193
21,944
242.5
205.1
945.0
Southern Africa
South Africa
18,180
37,713
67,733
107.4
79.6
272.6
Zimbabwe
3920
5222
12,148
33.2
132.6
209.0
Source: 2000 US Censu s, 5% IPUMS Sample, weighed data.
Table 2.
Educational attainment, household income, and poverty rate: 1980-2000.
1980
1990
2000
1980
1990
2000
1980
1990
2000
Median Household Income ($)
East Africa
Ethiopia
42.9
33.4
30.0
14,620
26,203
38,400
12.4
8.4
7.0
Kenya
55.2
53.8
51.4
22,495
41,291
43,600
6.4
5.3
7.0
Somalia
23.8
35.0
15.3
19,195
16,000
19,700
23.0
25.2
23.4
Sudan
51.1
53.1
41.1
7,4202
8000
27,600
20.6
5.6
20.8
Tanzania
54.4
50.7
53.5
23,365
42,000
60,800
6.8
1.6
7.3
Uganda
52.3
49.4
51.8
23,010
38,297
56,200
8.4
6.2
1.7
West Africa
Cameroon
54.8
57.9
58.2
13,113
18,720
46,200
12.5
19.4
6.2
Cape Verde
11.1
5.9
7.8
15,195
32,732
41,200
6.3
5.5
7.9
Ghana
48.0
45.0
32.5
13,010
34,750
50,000
6.2
4.2
6.2
Liberia
31.5
39.0
34.6
12,900
29,066
46,500
10.5
5.3
5.1
Nigeria
62.4
63.8
58.4
8010
27,600
51,000
13.1
6.4
5.6
Senegal
44.4
28.7
30.8
18,865
35,000
38,000
14.2
5.6
6.5
Sierra Leone
50.0
47.7
31.3
14,010
32,000
48,100
11.9
5.5
5.3
Southern Africa
South Africa
51.7
54.9
57.4
27,000
54,470
72,800
4.2
3.1
2.5
Zimbabwe
46.1
57.4
50.3
19,158
40,734
60,000
7.4
3.4
4.5
Source: 1980, 1990, 2000 US Census, 5% IPU MS Sam ple , weighte d data. (a) basic education distribution, pers ons ages 25 - 64; (b) median household inc ome in 19 99, all
households; (c) poverty status dis tri b ut ion, all pe r son s.
OPEN ACCESS 77
A. M. KUSOW
(51), and Ethiopia (42). The lowest percentage of college gra-
duates (23) is observed for Somali immigrants. Looking at the
2000 census figures, however, we see that immigrants from
Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda maintained the same level of
educational achievement: 51, 53, and 51 percent, respectively.
However, the percent of college graduates among immigrants
from Sudan decreased from 51 to 41, and that of Ethiopian
immigrants from 43 to 30 percent from 1980 to 2000. The per-
cent of college graduates among Somali immigrants decreased
from 23 to 15 percent during the same time period. Data for
median family in-come show a similar pattern, in which immi-
grants from Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda recorded higher me-
dian family income than did those from Ethiopia, Somalia, and
Sudan. In 1980, for example, median family income for immi-
grants from Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda were roughly
$22,000, $23,000, and $23,000, respectively. Conversely, me-
dian family income for Ethiopian and Somali immigrants was
$14,000 and $19,000, respectively. Immigrants from Sudan re-
corded the lowest median household income, $7000 in 1980.
For the 2000 figures, we see again that median family income
for immigrants from Kenya ($43,000), Tanzania ($60,000) and
Uganda ($56,000) was much higher than those from Ethiopia
($27,000), Sudan ($38,000), and Somalia ($19,000). It is also
clear that immigrants from Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda had
lower poverty rates than did immigrants from Somalia and
Sudan. The poverty rates for immigrants from Somalia and Su-
dan were 23 an d 21 percent, respectively, in 1980; and again 23
and 20 percent in 2000, respectively. Conversely, the poverty
rate for immigrants from Uganda was 8.4 percent in 1980 and
1.7 percent in 2000.
The general trend is that, for the East African region, immi-
grants from Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda significantly and
consistently scored higher on all indicators of socioeconomic
status than those from Ethiopia, Somalia, and Sudan. It is,
therefore, clear that country of origin is an important factor for
the observed socioeconomic differences between immigrants
among different countries within the East African region (see
also Kusow, 2006).
A slightly less diverse but equally important socioeconomic
achievement variation exists within immigrants from the West
African region. Among West African immigrants, Nigerian im-
migrants posted the highest percentage of college graduates,
median household, and the percentage of people below poverty
across time, while immigrants from Cape Verde recorded the
lowest overall socioeconomic achievement levels over time.
The overall picture, however, shows that immigrants from Ni-
geria, Ghana, and Cameroon had higher levels of socioeco-
nomic achievement than did those from Liberia, Senegal, and
Sierra Leone.
Immigrants from South Africa, and Zimbabwe, report the
highest level of socioeconomic achievement compared to the
rest of the African immigrant groups. Except in the case of
Nigeria, immigrants from South Africa and Zimbabwe have the
highest median family income, $70,000 and $60,000, respec-
tively; the highest percentage of college graduates, 57 and 50,
respectively; and lowest percentage of people below the pover-
ty level over time. In fact, the median income for immigrants
from South Africa and Zimbabwe was arguably the highest in
the nation in 2000 (Logan & Dean, 2003).
Variations in Language and
Citizenship Acquisition
Another important measure of assimilation is language and
citizenship acquisition. US citizenship is derived from the cen-
sus question, “Is this person a naturalized citizen of the United
States?” The 1980 census allowed three options, “Yes, a natura-
lized citizen,” “No, not a naturalized citizen,” and “Born abroad
of American parents.” The 1990 and the 2000 questionnaires
read, “Is this person a citizen of the United States?” and ex-
panded the option to include, “Yes, a naturalized citizen” and
“Yes, born in Puerto Rico, Guam, the US Virgin Islands, or
Northern Marianas.” The data for this paper were derived from
the 1980, 1990, and 2000 mean of those who selected the “na-
turalized citizen” option.
Linguistic isolation is derived from the 1990 and 2000 cen-
sus question, “How well does this person speak English?” Both
the 1990 and 2000 census questionnaires use the same question
and provide four options, “very well,” “well,” “not very well,”
and “not at all.” According the census, linguistic isolation is a
measure of English-speaking ability in a household. A linguisti-
cally isolated household is one in which no person age 14 or
over speaks English at least “very well.” That is, no person age
14 or over speaks only English at home, or speaks another lan-
guage at home and speaks English “very well”. A linguistically
isolated person is anyone living in a linguistically isolated
household
(http://www.census.gov/hhes/socdemo/language/about/faqs.htm
l). As shown in Table 3, immigrants from the Southern African
region, South Africa, and Zimbabwe had the lowest percentage
of linguistically isolated individuals in the entire sample. The
percent of linguistically isolated among South African immi-
grants was 1.6 in 1990 and 1.4 in 2000, while that of immi-
grants from Zimbabwe was 6 and 2.5 percent in 1990 and 2000,
respectively. Among those from the East African region, Kenya,
Tanzania, and Uganda also had very low levels of linguistically
isolated individuals, while those from Ethiopia, Somalia, and
Sudan had the highest levels of linguistic isolation. The percent
of linguistically isolated among, for example, Ugandan immi-
grants was 10 and 6.9 percent in 1990 and 2000, respectively,
while that of Somali immigrants was 18 and 45 percent in 1990
and 2000, respectively. In the case of West Africa, those from
Cape Verde and Senegal have high levels of linguistically iso-
lated individuals followed by those from Cameroon, while
those from Nigeria, Ghana, Liberia, and Sierra Leone have very
low percentage of linguistically isolated immigrants. Even though
the percentage of African immigrants who are citizens is com-
paratively low, there are still observable variations across coun-
try of origin. An important note is that immigrants from Soma-
lia, Sierra Leone, Sudan, and Cameroon have low levels of citi-
zenship compared to other immigrant groups.
Racial and Ethnic Diversity
The most important piece of data regarding the heterogeneity
of African immigrants in the United States is their ethnic and
racial diversity.
Tables 4 through 6 present variations in racial and ethnic
diversity among African immigrants from different regions and
countries of origin. Starting with the 1980 selection, we see that
the entire immigrant population from South Africa selected one
or another European-driven ethnic identity: 26 percent English,
7 percent German, 5 percent Dutch, 4 percent Scottish, and 23
percent South African. Both the 1990 and 2000 ancestry selec-
tion among South African immigrants shows a similar pattern.
In 1990, 12 percent selected English, 6 percent selected German,
OPEN ACCESS
78
A. M. KUSOW
Table 3.
Linguistic isolation: African immigrants in the United States: 1980-2000.
Linguistically Isolated
Naturalized US
Citizen
East Africa
1980
1990
2000
1980
1990
2000
Ethiopia
-
22.6
20.8
21.2
20.3
31.6
Kenya
-
9.0
7.8
19.2
23.3
25.7
Somalia
-
18.9
42.1
24.3
11.8
Sudan
-
20.5
30.8
23.3
22.4
22.3
Tanzania
-
7.9
8.3
24.3
34.8
37.3
Uganda
-
10.0
6.9
23.4
27.9
36.0
West Africa
Cameroo
-
16.7
10.0
17.5
15.1
21.6
Cape Verde
-
31.9
28.4
49.4
32.6
31.6
Ghana
-
6.2
8.3
14.9
24.8
30.8
Liberia
-
1.9
3.3
16.8
18.9
25.4
Nigeria
-
5.4
4.8
11.2
16.9
35.0
Senegal
-
31.3
21.2
20.0
20.3
19.4
Sierra Leone
-
4.9
6.2
6.7
12.4
28.5
Southern Africa
South
Africa
-
1.6
1.4
27.3
35.8
33.9
Zimbabwe
-
6.0
2.5
16.8
27.3
26.0
Source: 1980, 1990, 2000 US Census, 5% Public Use Microdata Sample, weighted data.
Table 4.
Top 5 ancestry choices selected, 1980.
Choice 1
Choice 2
Choice 3
Choice 4
Choice 5
East
Africa
Ethiopia
Ethiopian (39.0)
African (8.8)
English (6.3)
Italian (5.5)
Eritrean (5.0)
Kenya
Asian Indian (43.6)
Kenyan (15 .2)
African (12.2)
English (8.9)
Not Reporte d (1.9)
Somalia
African (23.7)
Somali (18.5)
Italian (13.2)
English (10. 5)
America (7.5)
Sudan
Sudanese (44 .5)
Greek (12.3)
Arabian (8.2)
Armenian (7.5)
African (7.5)
Tanzania
Asian Indian (55.0)
African (5.9)
Tanzanian (12.4)
American Indian (3.0)
English (2.4)
Uganda
Asian Indian (46.7)
Ugandan (23.4)
African (8.1)
English
(4.6)
American Indian (3.6)
West Africa
Cameroon
Cameroonian (35.1)
African (
8.5)
Mexican (8.8)
Egyptian (6.3)
Afro
-American (5.0)
Cape Verde
Cape Verdean (25.9)
Portuguese (25.9)
Polish (10.0)
Afro
-American (7.7)
Not Reporte d (4.6)
Ghana
Ghanaian
(56.6)
African (27.3)
Afro
-American (3.4)
English (2.9)
Nigerian (2.2)
Liberia
Liberian (41.6)
African (20.0)
Afro
-American (16.2)
English (3.2)
Not Reporte d (3.2)
Nigeria
Nigerian (72.6)
African (10.5)
Afro
-American (3.9)
Not reported (1.9)
English
(1.6)
Senegal
Cape Verdean (20.0)
Senegale se (17.5)
Lebanese (10.0)
English (7.5)
French (7. 5)
Sierra Leone
Sierra Le onean (44.8)
African (32.4)
Lebanese (4.8)
English (3.8)
Afro
-American (3.8)
Southern Africa
South Africa
English (26. 3)
South
African (23.0)
German (6.8)
Dutch (5.1)
Scottish (3.9)
Zimbabwe
English (20. 9)
African (19.4)
Rhodesian (17.9)
Irish (5.1)
Asian Indian (4.6)
Source: 1980 US Census, 5% IPUMS Sample, All persons. (a) Due to confidenti ality cons traints in the const ruction of the 5% IPUMS sa mples, any cate gory repr esenting
fewer than 10,000 people was combined with a larger, more generalized category. One such category is “Uncodable” and another isUncode d”, which includes various
reported ancestries, such as Ang olan, Burundian, Djibou ti, Gambian, Ivory Coast, Senegale se Afrikaner, Nuer, etc.
OPEN ACCESS 79
A. M. KUSOW
Table 5.
Top 5 ancestry choices selected, 1990.
Choice 1
Choice 2
Choice 3
Choice 4
Choice 5
East Africa
Ethiopia
Ethiopian (70.3)
Central A fr i can (10.1)
Not Reporte d (4.3)
Afro
-American (4.2)
German (1.3)
Kenya
Asian Indian (32.6)
Kenyan (25 .0)
Central African (9.3)
American Indian (6.7)
Afro
-American (5.3)
Somalia
Somali (58.5)
Central A fr i can (12.0)
Italian
(10.9)
Samoan (8.3)
Not Reporte d (4.1)
Sudan
Sudanese (42 .6)
Ethiopian (10.5)
Armenian (9.6)
Central African (9.4)
Greek (4.2)
Tanzania
Asian Indian (51.5)
American Indian (8.0)
Tanzanian (7.5)
Central African (7.2)
Not Reporte d
(4.3)
Uganda
Asian
Indian (32.2)
Ugandan (31.8)
Central A fr i can (13.0)
American Indian (8.2)
Afro
-American (3.4)
West Africa
Cameroon
Cameroonian (32.8)
Central African (
28.4)
Afro
-American (8.5)
Mexican (6.7)
Not Reporte d
(5.7)
Cape Verde
Cape Verdean (77.2)
Portuguese (11.3)
Not Reporte d (9.1)
Afro
-American (.9)
Mixed (.3)
Ghana
Ghanaian (64.2)
Central A fr i can (20.3)
Afro
-American (6.7)
Not reported (3.8)
English (.8 )
Liberia
Liberian (50.6)
Central A fr i can (19.8)
Afro
-American (13.6)
Not Reporte d (4.3)
German (2.4)
Nigeria
Nigerian (77.9)
Central African (7.8)
Not Reporte d (5.4)
Afro
-American (4.2)
English (.2 )
Senegal
Central A fr i can (31.6)
Senegale se (23.6)
Not reported (12.2)
Lebanese (8.0)
French (6. 9)
Sierra Leone
Central A fr i can (37.6)
Sierra
Leonean (37.4)
Afro
-American (8.9)
Not Reporte d (5.3)
Lebanese (2.7)
Southern Africa
South Africa
South African (30.1)
English (12. 3)
German (6.2)
British (6.0)
Not Reporte d (5.0)
Zimbabwe
English (15. 6)
Zimbabwean (14.6)
British (12.3)
Central
African (6.8)
Scottish (5.2)
Source: 1990 US Census, 5% IPUMS Sample, All persons. (a) Due to confidentiality constraints in the construction of the 5% IPUMS samples, any category representing
fewer 10, 000 peop le was combined with a larger, more ge neralized catego ry. One such category is “Uncodable” and another is Uncoded,” which includes various reported
ancestries, such as Angola n, Burundian, Djibouti, Gambian, Ivory Coast, Senegalese Afrikaner, Nuer, etc.
Table 6.
Top 5 ancestry choices selected, 2000.
Choice 1
Choice 2
Choice 3
Choice 4
Choice
5
East Africa
Ethiopia
Ethiopian (69.3)
African (9.2)
Not Reporte d (7.0)
Afro
-American (4.0)
Eritrean (2.6)
Kenya
Kenyan (31 .9)
Asian Indian (20.3)
African (20.0)
Not Reporte d (6.6)
Afro
-American (5.3)
Somalia
Somali (74.7)
Not reported (9.7)
African (7.5)
African American (2.0)
Uncodable (1.1)
Sudan
Sudanese (43 .6)
African (18.3)
Not Reporte d (9.8)
Arab (3.8)
Deferred (3.4)
Tanzania
Asian Indian (42.4)
African (17.5)
-
-
Afro
-American (2.0)
Uganda
Asian Indian (31.2)
Deferred (26.0)
African (22.4)
Not reported (8.1)
Afro
-American (2.4)
West Africa
Cameroon
Not reported (52.3)
African (
23.5)
Afro
-American (8.6)
Not Reporte d (8.1)
Nigerian (1.3)
Cape Verde
Cape Verdean (84.5)
Not reported
(9.4)
Portuguese (2.7)
African (1.1)
Afro
-American (.7)
Ghana
Ghanaian (54.9)
African (24.3)
Not reported 8.2)
Afro
-American (7.1)
Not reported (.9)
Liberia
Liberian (48.4)
African (27.4)
Not Reporte d (9.7)
Afro
-America (7.5)
Afro
-American (.7)
Nigeria
Nigerian (71.2)
African (10.6)
Not reported (7.7)
Afro
-American (5.7)
Afro
-American (1.0)
Senegal
Not Reporte d (38.1)
African (36.0)
Not reported (8.9)
Afro
-American (4.4)
Cape Verdean (3.4)
Sierra Leone
Sierra Le onean (42.7)
African (28.6)
Not reported
(7.9)
Afro
-American (7.3)
Un
reported (4.6)
Southern Africa
South Africa
South African (48.4)
Not reported (6.8)
English (5.8)
Asian Indian (4.0)
German (3.3)
Zimbabwe
Not reported (32.8)
African (19.5)
English (7.6)
Not reported (7.2)
Asian Indian
(4.7)
Source: 2000 US Census, 5% IPUMS Sample, All persons. (a) Due to confidentiality constraints in the construction of the 5% IPUMS samples, any category representing
fewer 10, 000 peop le was combined with a larger, more ge neraliz ed category. O ne such category is “Uncodable” and another is Uncoded”, which includes various reported
ancestries, such as Angola n, Burundian, Djibouti, Gambian, Ivory Coast, Senegalese Afrikaner, Nuer, etc.
OPEN ACCESS
80
A. M. KUSOW
6 percent selected British, and 30 percent selected South Afri-
can. In 2000, 6 percent selected English, 4 percent Asian Indian,
3 percent German, and 48 percent South African. A similar ra-
cial demographic composition was observable among immigrants
from Zimbabwe. In 1980, 20 percent selected English, 18 per-
cent Rhodesian, 5 percent Irish , 4 percent Asian Indian, and 19
percent African. In 1990, 16 perc ent selected English, 12 percent
British, 5 percent Scottish, and 15 percent Zimbabwean, and
only 7 percent selected central African. In 2000, a significant
proportion of the Zimbabwean immigrants declined to report
their ancestry. Still, 8 percent selected English, 5 percent Asian
Indian, and 19 percent African.
Among East African immigrants, we see a significant per-
centage of those from Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda as being of
Asian Indian background. In 1980, nearly 44 percent of immi-
grants from Kenya selected Asian Indian as their primary ethnic
identity and another 9 percent selected English. Only 15 per-
cent selected Kenyan, and about 12 percent selected African.
About 55 percent of immigrants from Tanzania selected Asian
Indian, 3 percent American Indian, 3 percent English, 12 per-
cent Tanzanian, and 6 percent African. Also, nearly 47 percent
of Ugandan immigrants selected Asian Indian as their primary
ethnic identity, 4 percent selected American Indian, and another
5 percent selected English, while 23 percent selected Ugandan,
and only 8 percent selected African. This trend remained con-
stant throughout the 1990 and 2000 censuses. In the case of
Keny a, 32 percent in both 1990 and 2000 selected Asian Indian.
The number for Tanzania remained roughly at 31 percent. The
ethnic and racial demographic distribution among immigrants
from Ethiopia, Somalia, and Sudan was fundamentally different
than those from Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania. Aside from Su-
dan, where in 1980, about 10 percent selected Armenian and 4
percent Greek, in the case of Somalia, where about 13 selected
Italian and 10 percent English, and about 6 percent Italian; and
6 percent English in the case of Ethiopia; the overwhelming
majority of immigrants from Ethiopia, Somalia, and Sudan se-
lected African-derived ethnic identities. This trend continued
into the 1990 census, but in the 2000 census almost all immi-
grants from Ethiopia, Somalia, and Sudan selected African-de-
rived ethnic identities.
The racial and ethnic distribution of West African immi-
grants is primarily African-derived ethnic identities. Aside from
small percentages in certain countries (Cape Verde, Cameroon,
& Sierra Leone) where some of the immigrants selected British,
Portuguese, or Lebanese, the majority of the immigrants from
West Africa selected African or nationality-driven ethnic iden-
tities. What is clear from the preceding discussion is that immi-
grants from the southern and southeastern African regions are
racially diverse than those from the northeastern and western
African regions. The data also show that the majority of Afri-
can immigrants from the southern African region were primar-
ily of European background, while those from the southeastern
region were primarily of Asian Indian and European origin.
A number of interrelated factors accounted for the differenc-
es in the socioeconomic achievement levels between the dif-
ferent regions and countries. In the case of East Africa, for
example, immigrants from Ethiopia, Somalia, and Sudan emi-
grated from a context characterized by a permanent and acute
political instability. Over the past 40 years, Ethiopia, Somalia,
and Sudan have been involved in either internal civil wars or
cross-national conflicts with one neighbor or another. After
thirty years of secessionist war, Eritrea seceded from Ethiopia
and became independent in 1993. Just five years later, Ethiopia
and Eritrea started a border war that resulted in the death and
displacement of thousands of innocent civilians. Ethiopia and
Somalia fought each other at least three times officially since
the 1960s. Since 1991, the Somali civil war has produced one
of the worst human tragedies in the continent. Nearly 500,000,
mostly women and children, died of human-induced starvation
in the first three years of the conflict alone. Another several
hundred thousand were forced to exile in neighboring countries
and in several European countries, Canada, Australia, and the
United States. Almost 20 years later, Somalia remains without a
central government and the country is ruled by warlords who
turned the country into a patchwork of fiefdoms. For more than
40 years, Sudan has been characterized by a combination of
racial, ethnic, and religious conflicts, the most important of
which is what has become generally known as the Arab Muslim
versus African Christian or Animist dichotomy. The political
instabilities in the Horn of Africa led to environmental prob-
lems and several major famines including the 1984-1985 Ethi-
opian famine, the 1986-1988 famine in Sudan, and the 1992 fa-
mine in Somalia. On the other hand, Kenyan, Tanzanian, and
Ugandan, emigrated from a more politically and economically
stable context and therefore did not produce the same type of
political immigrants and refugees. Therefore, immigrants from
Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda can be characterized as econom-
ic immigrants, while those from Ethiopia, Somalia, and Sudan
are viewed as political immigrants.
Some of the observed variations may be language specific.
Immigrants from the former British colonies-Kenya, Tanzania,
and Uganda, in the East; and Cameroon, Ghana, Nigeria, in the
West-where English is commonly spoken are better off than
those of say, Ethiopia and Somalia, where it is not commonly
spoken. Other scholars found that Portuguese speaking immi-
grants from Cape Verde recorded lower socioeconomic achieve-
ment levels than those from Senegal where French is spoken.
Similar observation was made between Caribbean immigrants
from English speaking countries with those from French or
Spanish speaking countries (Kalmijn, 1996).
The most important finding from this study is that the Afri-
can immigrant community in the United States is more cultur-
ally, ethnically, and racially diverse than the current literature
acknowledges. As shown in the preceding data, African immi-
grants come from diverse ethnic, cultural, and racial back-
grounds. An overwhelming majority of immigrants from the
East African region are of Asian Indian background. Those
from the Southern African region are primarily of European
background. Consequently, the perceived universal success of
black immigrants from Africa, and that they are particularly
overrepresented in Ivy League colleges, is inconsistent with the
data. Substantively, it glosses over the fact that black African
immigrants are represented in the entire continuum of the
American class structure, and therefore, any representation of a
uniform experience in not empirically defensible. And in fact,
this is consistent with Massey’s finding that immigrants from
two countries, Nigeria and Ghana, account for almost all the
black African students enrolled in Ivy League colleges. This
caution is specifically relevant in light of the increasing legal
call to reform affirmati ve action (Onwuach-Willig, 2007; Brown
& Bell, 2008), particularly when these assertions are based on
only two sociological reports (Massey et al., 2006; Haynie,
2002) or on the casual observations of Henry Louis Gates and
Lani Guineir at a Harvard University black alumni gathering.
OPEN ACCESS 81
A. M. KUSOW
Even more revealing is the finding of Massey and colleagues
that, in fact, 38 percent of all first-and second-generation black
immigrants attending selective colleges came from only two
countries, Jamaica and Nigeria (Massey et al., 2006).
Summary and Conclusion
Despite the socioeconomic, racial, and ethnic diversity among
African immigrants, the assumption that black immigrants, par-
ticularly those from Africa, have some of the highest average
educational achievement of any population group in the United
States, and, that they are overrepresented in higher education,
particularly in Ivy League institutions, has become one of the
most hotly debated issues in the news media and among scho-
lars of immigration and affirmative action (Haynie, 2002; Mas-
sey et al., 2006; Mederios-Kent, 2007; Model, 2008).
To speak of an undiffere ntiated African, immigrant group is,
however, to ignore obvious variations within it. Immigrants
from Sub-Saharan Africa exhibit both temporal and horizontal
variations in socioeconomic achievement levels. The findings
of this study will hopefully serve as an important theoretical
and empirical caution against the undifferentiated black immi-
grant success story and the increasingly heated discussion about
whether or not black immigrants disadvantage African Ameri-
cans in issues c oncerning entitlement and a ffirmative action pro-
ceedings.
This intra-African comparison moves us away from the ho-
mogenizing effects that often accompany our understanding of
Africa and African immigrants in general. By analyzing the so-
cioeconomic with ethnic and with racial diversity among Afri-
can immigrants across different countries of origin, we move
beyond the uniform representation of all African immigrants as
overrepresented in higher education as compared with African
Americans, and that such overrepresentation undermines the
ability of African Americans to benefit from affirmative action
and gain access to elite education in the United States.
An important limitation of this study, however, is that a more
comprehensive articulation of the implications of the socioeco-
nomic and ethnic diversity on educational achievement among
black immigrants requires a more robust data than I provide
here. The census data from which my analysis is derived do not
have enough properly designed variables to answer all the nec-
essary questions to fully address the questions at hand. For
example, the implication of black foreign-born immigration for
affirmative action will require variables that are not readily
available in the census. In order to address the implications of
foreign-born black immigrants for affirmative action will re-
quire a mixed-method panel design that includes in-depth inter-
views, ethnographic methods, and survey research capable of
measuring which black immigrant group from which countries
are more likely to enroll in Ivy Leagues colleges.
More importantly, such an endeavor requires both historical
and contextual variables that can address the different social
and political contexts that inform emigration from Africa, and
the context of reception in host communities. We know, for
example, that the motives of immigration among Somali immi-
grants are fundamentally different from those of Ghanaian im-
migrants, political in the former, and economic in the latter, a
context that has been shown to affect levels of assimilation
among immigrants in the United States (Pedraza-Bailey, 1985).
The degree of cultural and racial differences between the immi-
grant and host community is another factor that enters into how
and to what extent immigrants successfully assimilate (see Aj-
rouch & Kusow, 2007). It is important to compare the impli-
cations of country of origin on assimilation experiences among
immigrants who embrace religion similar to that of the host
community, or speak English prior to emigration and those who
do not. Such contextual variables may serve as important con-
trol variables so that the direct effects of context can be statis-
tically ascertained. Despite such limitations, however, I believe
findings presented in the current analysis further our under-
standing that African immigrants are represented in the entire
continuum of the American class structure, and therefore, any
representation of a uniform experience is not empirically defen-
sible.
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