Black Immigrants, 'Model' Minority? Plus: Don Imus

| Mon Feb. 25, 2008 8:38 PM EST

In my interview with Don Imus last Wednesday, I finally got around to talking about something I rarely get to - black immigrants. More on that in a minute.

It's amazing how much we fawn over Senator Obama's being 'black' without displaying any interest in that blackness, as if being a half-Kenyan mostly ex-pat tells us all we need to know about him. All that's interesting. That's what I was trying to get at generally in my book, The End of Blackness, and in this infamous piece. I finally got to it on, of all places, the Don Imus show.

That interview with Imus was so unbelievable, you simply have to listen to it. Here's part 1 and part 2.

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Damned if Imus hasn't been doing yeoman's work in moving America's neurotic race obsession forward. I've been talking and writing about race for 12 years now, but I was gobsmacked on the air. Imus schooled a sister. When he said he was through apologizing for Rutgers, I took that to mean he was through talking about it. But he's certainly not through thinking about it, and he's been doing his homework.

Usually, people have me on for conversations that go like this: "I'd really like to know what you think about X race topic." [I attempt to address the question]. "Uh, excuse me, I don't mean to interrupt and I really want to know what you think, but what I think is _." Then the person orates for a long time on the dusty, pre-conceived, self-justifying notion they (black or white, liberal or conservative) have no intention of changing. The 'question' always turns out to be, "Haven't I just brilliantly ended the whole race thing?"

With rare exceptions, I've long known I'm invited on by "enemies" (liberals and conservatives, blacks and whites) as a mere visual aid "proving" their open-mindedness. I might as well be wearing an evening gown, smiling and vamping in the background like Vanna White. I'm just window dressing for a soliloquy. All I can do is hope that somewhere in the audience someone is actually listening, and will actually go back and read what I said and might have talked about if allowed to.

Print interviews with 'liberal' black journalists (they're really quite conservative; you must be black in exactly the way they demand) are the worst. They already 'know' I'm a Tom and talking to me serves two purposes, none of them reportorial: it proves they're 'objective' even though nothing I say or write ever makes a difference and it gives them fodder to dine out on with the other 'real' black people. "You wouldn't believe how self-hating she is." They call me names but they don't engage in actual debate. Kneejerk doesn't begin to cover it. Don seems to have done the impossible and moved beyond that.

Of course, it must be said that Imus sandbagged me.

I was, let's say, surprised' by the invitation and mulled it over for a week. When I thought I could be professional and said yes, it was supposed to be about the election and it was supposed to be short. It was neither; homey went straight to Black History month, everything I'd ever written about race, everything in the black canon about race and—unbelievably—Rutgers. See how The Man is always setting us up?

Two kids, two books, two cities, and about 15 jobs ago, I wrote a Washington Post column that I can't now find, pleading for someone in public life to admit to sexism or racism or immorality so that the rest of us could. Two of my examples where Justice Thomas admitting to having been a pig towards Anita Hill and Rev. Sharpton admitting that he'd been wrong about Tawana Brawley and paying what he owed to the man whose life and career he'd ruined with his ultimately false accusations. Until someone in public life manned up in that way, we'd all just have to go on lying about our all too human failings, waiting in vain for an example of confession and atonement.

Until then, no one could be forgiven, publicly or privately, for our momentary -ism's and we all are guilty of something sometime. Never thought that person in public life would be Don Imus and damned if the whole forgiving thing isn't much, much harder than I could have possibly imagined. What is it they say about being careful what you ask for? Offended as I initially was to be asked, I'm glad I did the show. He made a mistake, he took responsibility, he asked for forgiveness. Done, Don.

Now, black immigrants.

At The Root, a new black site from the Washington Post, Meri Danquah, a Ghanaian immigrant, writes all too briefly about the invisibility that black immigrants face in America. When, that is, they are not facing outright hostility, mostly from slave-descended blacks. She writes:

...Excited by the fact that I, a newly naturalized citizen, was about to vote for the first time, I asked my editor if he would be supporting Sen. Barack Obama, my chosen candidate.

"He doesn't do nothing for me," my editor said. "When I vote for a black man, I want it to be somebody who's really black, somebody who knows the black American experience, somebody whose great-great granddaddy was a slave, like mine. You know, those Africans come over here and just reap the rewards of everything we've worked for. They think they're better than us and white folks love 'em because they're…"

I bit my lip and listened to his diatribe against African immigrants. Surely, I thought, he's forgotten who he's talking to. That didn't come as much of a surprise. I find that a lot of people forget I'm an immigrant; more precisely, an African immigrant.

This, simply, is what I meant when I said Obama isn't black. The way the term is used, all it means is: descendant of West African slaves brought here to labor for whites against their will. How many times can I say this: I'm describing a politico-cultural reality which I reject. Yes, Shirley Chisholm and Malcolm X were of West Indian immigrant stock. They achieved mainstream black power because they kept that side of themselves out of the public eye and focused on the battle with whitey. Had they not, we'd not know their names. (My hero, W.E.B. DuBois, cruelly mocked and isolated the ostentatiously West Indian Marcus Garvey precisely because he was so ostentatiously West Indian.)

I'm critiquing the notion that all that's important about us is our historic relationship of antagonism with American whites, a relationship that immigrant blacks do not have (however similar their histories are to ours). I'm critiquing the notion that knowing someone, at some point, came from Africa provides us any useful information, if they are not descended from slaves. That, we know but we don't know diddly about black immigrants and we don't care to, black or white. I reject this.

What, exactly, do I and an immigrant Nigerian cab driver with a doctorate he can't use here in common beyond the label 'black'? Only they know, because they're not allowed to be 'black' outside of our binary slavery/Jim Crow/police brutality/segregation continuum. Native blacks see to that: when have we ever advocated for immigrant blacks unless they stray into Jim Crow territory (Diallo, etc). Our hostility to immigration is legendary; if we're all 'black,' why haven't we carved out a protective exemption for black immigrants? Because we don't feel a kinship, we don't want them talking outside the box, we don't want them changing the subject to entrepreneurship and immigration reform. And we certainly don't want them taking 'our' jobs and affirmative action slots. Too bad for 'us' they don't need them.

As Clarence Page points out, black immigrants are America's true 'model minority,' not that anyone, outside of admissions offices and hiring offices, cares.

Do African immigrants make the smartest Americans? The question may sound outlandish, but if you were judging by statistics alone, you could find plenty of evidence to back it up.

In a side-by-side comparison of 2000 census data by sociologist John R. Logan at the Mumford Center, State University of New York at Albany, black immigrants from Africa average the highest educational attainment of any population group in the country, including whites and Asians.

That trend continues in their offspring. From The Guardian:

The joint University of Pennsylvania-Princeton report found that although immigrant-origin black students make up only 13 percent of the black population in the US, they now comprise 27 percent of black students at the 28 top US universities surveyed.

And in a sample of the elite Ivy League universities the figures were even more dramatic. More than 40 percent of black students in the Ivy League now come from immigrant families. Overall, however, black students still make up only 6 percent-7 percent of Ivy League students, while 12 percent of the general US population is black. In the non-ivy league selective colleges studied, such as Berkeley, Emory, Stanford, Tufts, Wesleyan, Barnard and Smith, black students make up between 3 percent and 9 percent of the population.

This should cause jubilation at the NAACP, right? Wrong. Also from The Guardian (emphasis added):

"Immigrant and second-generation blacks are over-represented at these schools, while overall black students are still too few," says Dr. Camille Charles, sociology professor at the University of Pennsylvania and one of the report's co-authors, "which means the problem of access for African-Americans - that group which has the longest history of oppression in the US - is of even greater concern than we thought."

Charles doesn't want immigrant black students to have less access, but she is concerned that African-Americans whose families have been in the US since before the civil war and whose forefathers were slaves are doubly losing out. There is a worry that selective, usually private, universities are taking an "any black student will do" approach to diversity.

If we're all 'black', why won't any black student do?

You have to read the piece to have your mind blown. The words don't even cohere as 'black,' 'African,' and 'African American' try to make sense of themselves. Blacks who run affirmative action programs are quoted being incensed by the 'over representation' of immigrant blacks, and that 'blacks' who've fled war and rape in Haiti are seen as having 'sexier' admission essays than 'blacks' who've overcome South Central.

'Black' is simply a label which obscures more than it illuminates. That's all I was trying to say.