Diverse Pathways: Race and the Incorporation of Black, White, and Arab-Origin Africans in the United States

Diverse Pathways: Race and the Incorporation of Black, White, and Arab-Origin Africans in the United States

by Kevin J. A. Thomas


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Diverse Pathways: Race and the Incorporation of Black, White, and Arab-Origin Africans in the United States by Kevin J. A. Thomas

Africans are among the fastest-growing immigrant groups in the United States. Although they are racially and ethnically diverse, few studies have examined how these differences affect their patterns of incorporation into society. This book is the first to highlight the role of race and ethnicity, Arab ethnicity in particular, in shaping the experiences of African immigrants. It demonstrates that American conceptions of race result in significant inequalities in the ways in which African immigrants are socially integrated. Thomas argues that suggestions that Black Africans are model-minorities who have overcome the barriers of race are misleading, showing that Black and Arab-ethnicity Africans systematically experience less favorable socioeconomic outcomes than their White African counterparts. Overall, the book makes three critical arguments. First, historical and contemporary constructions of race have important implications for understanding the dynamics of African immigration and settlement in the United States. Second, there are significant racial inequalities in the social and economic incorporation of contemporary African immigrants. Finally, Arab ethnicity has additional implications for understanding intra-racial disparities in incorporation among contemporary African immigrants. In general, these arguments are foundational for understanding the diversity of African immigrant experiences.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781611861044
Publisher: Michigan State University Press
Publication date: 06/01/2014
Series: Ruth Simms Hamilton African Diaspora Series
Edition description: 1
Pages: 162
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.50(d)

About the Author

Kevin J. A. Thomas is an Associate Professor of Sociology, Demography, and African Studies at the Pennsylvania State University, and a Research Associate at Penn State’s Population Research Institute.

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Diverse Pathways

Race and the Incorporation of Black, White, and Arab-Origin Africans in the United States

By Kevin J. A. Thomas

Michigan State University Press

Copyright © 2014 Kevin J. A. Thomas
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-61186-104-4


Race, Ethnicity, and African Immigration to the United States

History was made when the winner of the Oscar for best actress was announced in 2004. Before then, no African had won the coveted Oscar for best actress at the Academy Awards ceremony. Given the limited number of African actors in Hollywood, the chances of having an African-born Oscar winner were indeed very small. For her performance in the movie Monster, however, Charlize Theron won the Oscar for best actress in 2004 and was able to do what no African had done before. Interestingly, though, as she celebrated with her colleagues that evening, equally illustrious celebrations were being planned on the other side of the Atlantic. A few weeks later, Theron traveled to her native South Africa, where the celebrations continued. These celebrations included events in which she was the special guest of fellow South African native Nelson Mandela and then South African president Thabo Mbeki (Silverman 2004).

Theron's story exemplifies the hopes of many Africans who desire to migrate to the United States. Declining living standards and the possibilities for advancement provide the right mix of circumstances driving recent increases in African migration to the United States. Africans are not unique in their desire to pursue higher living standards in the United States. As the world's leading country of immigration, the United States traditionally attracts migrants from the major world regions. In an international survey conducted by the Gallup Organization between 2007 and 2009, the United States was found to be the most desired destination of potential migrants among respondents in 135 countries (Esipova and Ray 2009). Tellingly, the greatest desire to migrate to the United States was found among respondents in sub-Saharan Africa. In recent decades, African nationals have increasingly been able to translate these desires into actual migration decisions. Consequently, in the last thirty years, significant increases have occurred in the size of America's African-born population. Towards the end of the previous century, for example, Africans were among the fastest-growing immigrant groups in the United States (Rumbaut 1994). These trends suggest that contemporary African migration flows have profound implications for understanding how recent immigrant groups are incorporated into US society.

In many ways, Charlize Theron, who is White, represents the complexities involved in describing the new face of African immigrants living in the United States. Compared to the racial homogeneity that characterized America's African-born population for much of the past four centuries, contemporary African immigrants are more racially diverse. Like Theron, many of them are racially White. Yet, as in previous centuries, Black Africans continue to feature prominently in the dynamics of contemporary African migration to the United States. Recent waves of African immigrants also include people of Arab ethnic origins, who mainly come from northern and eastern Africa and have social and cultural attributes that are distinct from those of non-Arab Africans. Arab immigration from African countries has also contributed to the increased growth and transformation of the Arab American population. According to US census estimates, the total Arab-origin population of the United States increased by about 40 percent between 1990 and 2000; this growth was partly driven by an 82 percent increase in Arab immigration from Egypt, in North Africa, during this period (De la Cruz and Brittingham 2003).

Notwithstanding this increase, Arab immigrants are particularly overlooked in the scholarly discourse on African immigration to the United States or the African Diaspora in general. As a result, little is known concerning whether there are variations in incorporation processes of Africans of Arab and non-Arab ethnic origins. Hochschild and Cropper (2010) use the term incorporation to describe the process by which immigrants are absorbed or merged into the larger US society and become better able to engage in its activities. In this book, this definition is employed with several caveats in mind. Heisler (1992) suggests, for example, that the process fails to capture the realities of domestic minorities such as Native Americans and African Americans, whose colonization experiences have exposed them to a long history of systematic exclusion from society. Thus, she argues, despite recent improvements in their welfare, they have not been fully integrated into society based on traditional notions of incorporation. Based on the work of Portes and Borocz (1989), the process should also be considered as a general derivation of the functionalist paradigm in sociology that is typically applied to foreign minorities. Essentially, the dynamics of incorporation do not precisely capture the experiences of domestic minorities; they are more useful for examining the social realities of immigrant groups. It is in this sense that the incorporation processes of Arab and non-Arab Africans into US society are examined here.

Complicating the analysis of Arab incorporation, however, are the peculiar and diverse racial characteristics of Arab immigrants. Although there is a lack of consensus on how to racially classify Arabs, the US census indicates that about 80 percent of Arabs identify themselves as White (De la Cruz and Brittingham 2003). A smaller proportion of Arabs identify themselves as Black or as members of other racial groups. Despite these racial variations, however, the implications of Arab racial diversity for understanding African immigrant incorporation processes have not been systematically examined. Furthermore, although most Arabs identify themselves as White, similarities and differences in incorporation between White Arab immigrants and White immigrants of non-Arab origins have not been extensively investigated.

Other differences found among African immigrants in the United States relate to their degree of social and economic achievement. One picture of African immigrants featured in American popular culture is that related to their successes. Like Theron, for example, sports star Hakeem Olajuwon, a member of the Basketball Hall of Fame, and Arab American, Nobel Prize–winning professor Ahmed Zewail, are also African natives. Americans have also become familiar with another successful African who immigrated to the United States in the late 1950s: Harvard-educated economist Barack Obama Sr., father of President Barack Obama.

For many other African immigrants, in contrast, success has been elusive. Refugees from conflicts in Africa as well as African immigrants in poor inner-city neighborhoods face some of the most severe constraints on social mobility (A. Hughes 2006). In some cases, poverty rates among these groups exceed the US national average (Wilson 2008). Significantly, however, the studies examining the welfare of disadvantaged African immigrant groups generally suggest that these socioeconomic constraints are more likely to be concentrated among Black than non-Black Africans (A. Hughes 2006; Wilson 2008). Furthermore, African immigrants, especially those who are Black, experience issues related to racism, discrimination, and other indicators of disadvantage that characterize the lives of US-born Blacks (Arthur 2000; Portes and Zhou 1992). Apart from the fact that these limitations have negatively affected the social mobility of Black Africans in Western societies, they also have negative implications for their health and psychological adjustment, as has been observed among USborn Black populations (Danso and Grant 2000; Gee and Laflamme 2006).

Overall, disparities in social and economic achievement among African immigrants, especially those defined by race, suggest that there is considerable variation in their prospects for social and economic mobility. However, studies documenting these differences or investigating systematic differences in African immigrants' pathways of incorporation are generally lacking. As a result it has been difficult to make definitive statements concerning whether these disparities are a product of variations in the opportunities available to African immigrant subgroups. Similarly, in the absence of such studies, little is known concerning how attributes such as ethnicity and human capital influence the types of resources available to Africans as they assimilate into society.

In this book, therefore, the underlying basis for understanding the socioeconomic mobility patterns of African immigrants in the United States is a sociological analysis of the ways in which race and ethnic characteristics influence their incorporation processes. Accordingly, a major argument presented in the analysis is that racial and ethnic differences among African immigrants are important for understanding the constraints and opportunities available to them as they assimilate into US society. When possible, this argument is reinforced using empirical evidence using recent data from the American Community Survey (ACS). These data are particularly useful because they contain information respondents' self-identified race and ethnic ancestry.

Consistent with research underscoring the fact that African immigrants are recent immigrants (Thomas 2011a), the overwhelming majority of immigrants in the study (96 percent) arrived after the 1965 immigration reforms. In fact, their median year of arrival is 1997. One implication of these patterns is the fact that most of the African Arabs immigrants found in the analysis arrived before the events of September 11, 2001. On average, their incorporation process started before these events, but these processes still occurred within a pre–September 11, 2001, context in which an Arab identity was associated with social inequalities. At the same time, it is not unreasonable to expect the post–September 11, 2001, racial context to have had additional negative implications for their patterns of social mobility. Consequently, the effects of these more recent influences are not necessarily discounted.

In general, however, the book's central arguments are presented from a number of critical viewpoints. For example, perspectives on racial and ethnic minority disadvantage in both Africa and the United States are used as foundational bases for understanding why African racial and ethnic differences are likely to influence the types of barriers and opportunities available to them. A major portion of the book also highlights racial and ethnic inequalities in specific outcomes relevant for understanding variations in the social and economic attainment of Africans. We examine, for example, whether Black Africans experience patterns of occupational incorp oration similar to those of White African immigrants. The consequences of these differences for economic indicators such as earnings are also assessed. The book also investigates educational attainment patterns across race and examines variations in marital incorporation in order to make inferences about disparities in the disappearance of cultural barriers between Africans and US natives.

By focusing on these issues we expect to identify key differences in the possibilities for social mobility available to African immigrant subgroups. In the process, the analysis contributes to the development of a nuanced portrait of African immigrant experiences. More importantly, the issues examined in this book have profound implications for our overall understanding of how African immigrants are becoming American. In other words, among African immigrants, racial and ethnic inequalities provide a unique understanding of the essential question of what it means to become an American of African origin. Answers to this question will vary considerably depending on factors such as skin color and human-capital differences. Beyond these issues, the analysis is also important for illuminating the dynamics of broader disparities within US society. For example, it will demonstrate how the disparities observed among African immigrants reinforce patterns of racial inequality found in the overall US population.

African Migration in International Perspective

The historical and contemporary dimensions of African migration provide an important contextual basis for understanding the recent surge in African immigration to the United States. Africans, in general, have always been migratory. A number of studies indicate that the oldest evidence of migration among modern humans is found in Africa (Osborne et al. 2008; Quintana-Murci et al. 1999). Migration, as a social process, therefore, has its origins within African societies. Historically, Africa has also served as an origin country of immigrants to what is now the United States for much longer than most other regions of the world. Evidence suggests that the first enslaved Africans arrived at the San Miguel de Gualdape colony, in what is now the United States, in 1526 (Pickett and Pickett 2011). Another set of Black Africans is also believed to have arrived in the United States about a year before the pilgrims reached Plymouth Rock in 1620 (Kollehlon and Eule 2003). For the next two and a half centuries, Africans dominated migration movements at the global level, as more than ten million slaves were forcibly transported from Africa to the United States and the New World. This first wave of mass migration from Africa to the United States generally ended after slavery was declared illegal in 1808. Subsequently, Africa was replaced by Europe as the most important source of migrants across the globe; European domination of world migration continued for much of the nineteenth century and into the first two decades of the twentieth century (Massey 1990).

At the end of European domination of world migration flows, Africa and other developing countries again emerged as major sources of international migration movements. Estimates for the period between 1965 and 1990, for example, indicate that Africa experienced larger increases in international migrants than other world regions during this period (Zlotnik 1998). These increases were driven by declining economic fortunes, political instability, and social and demographic transitions in African countries in the postindependence era (Hatton and Williamson 2003). By the second half of the twentieth century, the United States had once again become the leading destination country for Africans migrating to more industrialized countries.

Apart from the United States, developed countries in Europe, South America, and other regions also became attractions to African nationals migrating after the 1960s. At the start of the twenty-first century, for example, Africans accounted for at least 10 percent of the foreign-born population of Finland, Denmark, Netherlands, and Iceland (Salt 2005). Likewise, in Canada, the Africanborn population experienced a fifty-fold increase between the late 1950s and the end of the twentieth century (Konadu-Agyemang and Takyi 2006). Beyond Europe and North America, however, Asia, South America, and the Middle East have also become important destinations for African international migrants (Adepoju 1991; Massey et al. 1998). Among the consequences of this new wave of African international migration is the emergence of new African Diaspora populations in an increasing number of countries across the globe. Most of these countries were previously considered to be nontraditional destinations for African migrants.

With regard to the US experience, the recent growth in its African-born population is somewhat similar to what was observed during the early period of the slave trade. More generally, the growth patterns seen among recent African immigrants are unprecedented on three important dimensions. First, they represent the first large-scale arrival of voluntary African migrants in the history of the United States. In fact, some estimates indicate that since 1990 the number of African immigrants arriving in the United States has exceeded the total number of Africans who arrived during the period of slavery (Roberts 2005). Second, contemporary African immigrants to the United States are more diverse in terms of their racial, social, and cultural characteristics. In contrast to African migration during the period of slavery, which involved exclusively Black African populations, recent African immigrants include Blacks, Whites, and even a small number of African-born Asians. These Asians are primarily from countries such as Uganda, Kenya, and South Africa that attracted migrants from Asia for significant periods in their history.


Excerpted from Diverse Pathways by Kevin J. A. Thomas. Copyright © 2014 Kevin J. A. Thomas. Excerpted by permission of Michigan State University Press.
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments vii

Chapter 1 Race, Ethnicity, and African Immigration to the United States 1

Chapter 2 Theoretical Perspectives 19

Chapter 3 Educational Attainment and Postimmigration Schooling Progress 35

Chapter 4 Occupational Status, Human-Capital Transfer, and the Incorporation Process 53

Chapter 5 Earnings, Self-Employment, and Economic Incorporation 77

Chapter 6 Race, Ethnicity, and Marital Incorporation 97

Chapter 7 Conclusion 115

Appendix: Data and Methods Used in the Analysis 127

References 135

Index 149

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