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The initial flow of Africans to North America began as early as the 1500s, with a trickle of Africans coming from Mexico and the Caribbean to the then Spanish territories of Florida and Texas. It generated into a distinct and significant wave in 1607 with the founding of the British colony of Jamestown. These African immigrants came not as slaves but willfully as bonded or indentured servants, a status held by many whites who also immigrated to the New World. Indentured servants were sought as laborers to work in the southern regions of Virginia, Maryland, North Carolina, and other colonies where labor-intensive tobacco, rice, and indigo production was a major source of income. As indentured servants, Africans received contracts that included free passage to North America, paid to a ship’s captain by a master, typically a large landowner, or his representatives. They also received shelter and food. In return, they had to work for the master, generally for a stipulated period of 4 to 7 years, until their debts for travel, food, and lodgings were paid. They were then free to make their own way in the New World. This opportunity for African immigrants changed by the mid-17th century as demand for cheap labor escalated and laws permitting slavery were passed in Massachusetts, Virginia, and other colonies.
From 1650 to 1700, whites had to confront the insecurities of life in the New World and concomitantly advance a profit to investors. The eventual solution was to displace white, indentured servants as laborers with the less expensive black, slave-based economy. Bringing blacks out of Africa as slaves soon became a profitable business. From 1607 to 1865, some 12 million black men, women, and children had immigrated to the New World, the vast majority coming involuntarily. However, not all blacks were equally subjected to this involuntary immigration. Slave traders especially pursued blacks living on or near Africa’s west coast, thereby reducing travel time to the New World as well as limiting the dangers of the often unknown or unfriendly environments associated with travel into deeper parts of Africa. Also avoided were members of warring tribes and those whose economy was based on hunting rather than agriculture. Warrior-oriented tribes and hunters were more likely to be belligerent and vigorously resist enslavement. In addition, they lacked the skills needed to efficiently cultivate tobacco, rice, and other crops. Alternatively, members of more pacific tribes who traditionally worked the land for a living and who knew little about self-defense and violent conflict made ideal sources for slave labor. Senegal, in northwest Africa, is where most black Africans last stood as free men and women, and Goree Island, off the coast of Senegal, is where they last saw their native soil.
Many Africans forcefully resisted immigrating to the New World. This resistance was often well-planned, violent, and fought to the death. Ships transporting black slaves were known to be overtaken by them, their officers and crew captured and imprisoned on board. In more desperate times and situations, Africans bound for slavery aboard these ships occasionally committed suicide rather than allow themselves to succumb to the institution of slavery. Resistance to forced immigration took many forms, including war, rebellion, accommodation, running away, self-induced abortion, and murder.
To overcome black resistance, slave traders devised numerous nefarious strategies to make immigration a more attractive choice. One such strategy involved inciting or exacerbating intertribal conflicts by causing one tribe to accuse another of some crime, injustice, or atrocity, even when the real culprit, unknown to the victim tribe, was a representative of the slave trade. Fearing attack and even genocidal reprisals, traditional tribal enemies often provided the impetus to induce otherwise reluctant blacks to leave their homes and forsake their heritage, fleeing aboard ships masquerading as safe havens but in reality transporting them from freedom to slavery. Other techniques used to induce immigration included kidnapping, slave raiding, and ransom taking.
Finally, the great transatlantic immigration of Africans as slaves to the New World ended during the early 1800s. England agreed to cease the transportation of slaves in 1807. Other European colonial powers followed, including France in 1814, the Netherlands in 1817, and Spain in 1820. While the rhetoric surrounding the demise of forced African immigration spoke to high ideals such as the rights of the citizen, the equality of all, human dignity, and social justice, in fact the major force pressing for the abandonment of the slave trade and forced immigration from Africa was an economic one. Africa, once known as the Dark Continent, was rapidly being revealed by explorers and adventurers such as Cecil Rhodes, Albert Schweitzer, and H. M. Stanley to be a continent of vast wealth in the form of natural resources including gold, silver, precious metals, diamonds, exotic woods, tin, oil, copper, iron, coal, nickel, cobalt, and bauxite. In addition, there was an abundance of fertile land readily cultivated for growing tropical fruits, grains, coffee, tea, cocoa, and spices of all kinds. The discovery of Africa as a repository of great riches waiting to be tapped encouraged not only colonization but also the training and hiring of large cadres of local laborers, keeping them in Africa to work the land, making it give up its vast riches and sending them on to eager markets in Europe and the New World. This partly explains why transporting slaves out of Africa was often made illegal in colonialist countries like England and France, while the institution of slavery remained in force and legally protected for decades thereafter.
African Immigration, 1807 To 1965
Between 1807, when England declared transporting slaves illegal, and 1965, African immigration remained relatively dormant. Alternatively, white immigration from Europe to the United States was robust and responsible for major population growth rates. Two waves of immigrants are traditionally identified: (1) old-wave immigrants, from 1840 to 1890 and (2) new-wave immigrants, from 1890 to 1930. The former were mainly western Europeans, especially Germans, Swedes, Norwegians, English, and Irish. The latter were mostly central and southern Europeans, including Italians, Russians, and Poles. By the early 20th century, U.S. immigration policies became more restrictive. Peoples of color especially faced closed doors. Meanwhile, African colonies of the formidable European powers were successfully revolting against colonial rule, and newly independent nation-states were emerging throughout Africa. Possibilities of self-rule and rising political, social, and economic expectations coupled with the hegemony of African natives reduced interest in emigration. Indeed, the only significant African immigration during this period involved former white colonialists returning to their ancestral homes in Europe.
The 1960s and 1970s witnessed the resumption of black Africans emigrating in steady streams from Africa. The “push” forces at work churning up these streams in the once idealized independent African nation-states included the following: (1) economic downturns, (2) widespread political corruption, (3) poverty and high unemployment rates, (4) rapidly deteriorating infrastructure, (5) civil unrest and violence, (6) political instability, (7) inept government officials, and (8) depressed valuation of once financially rewarding crops plus the rising costs of imports, especially manufactured goods.
Generally, those emigrating from Africa in the 1970s headed for other countries within Africa as well as various European ports, typically following language-based comfort zones. By the 1980s and into the 2000s, the United States had become an attractive alternative for many African immigrants. Facilitating this were a number of social and legal developments in the United States that included the following: (1) the creation of diversity visas, which prioritized entry to the United States, of immigrants whose ethnic pool was underrepresented; (2) the passage of immigration law amendments giving preferential treatment to immigrants, regardless of nationality, who had occupational skills needed in the United States; (3) the legislation of laws allowing children born to foreigners living in the United States as students, workers, or tourists to sponsor family members into the country on the basis of family unification; and (4) the relaxing of refugee policies to allow 500,000 persons to enter the United States annually. These and related developments, including the expanding globalization of capitalism linking the world into an intricate network of commerce, technology, and finance, facilitated and increased African immigration to the United States.
Contemporary African Immigration
Today, black Africans constitute about 4 percent of all immigrants entering the United States. Of the approximate 1.1 million immigrants coming from Africa annually, about 75 percent identify themselves as black. The African countries contributing especially to the new African diaspora are Nigeria, Ghana, and Ethiopia. In 2009, these three countries alone accounted for more than 40 percent of all black African immigration into the United States. The remainder is dispersed among diverse nationalities, many contributing only 1 or 2 percent to the overall flow of African immigrants to the United States. African immigrants constitute one of the fastest-expanding subgroups of the U.S. immigrant population. In 1980, there were 800,000 black immigrants in the United States, and by 2013, their numbers had mounted to 3.5 million. From 1980 to 2000, the number of black Africans in the United States having foreign origins increased roughly by about 200 percent. It continues to grow today by about 100 percent every 10 years. In 2010, the United States ranked fifth, just behind France, Cote d’Ivoire, South Africa, and Saudi Arabia, as the preferred destination of most black African immigrants. Other popular ports of disembarkation for black Africans are Canada, Australia, England, and Italy. Those coming to the United States, Canada, and Australia tend to be better educated and generally enjoy a higher living standard than those entering the European Union.
Profiling African immigrants reveals several interesting as well as socially, politically, and economically significant variations compared with other immigrants. Like most U.S. immigrants, the major legal route Africans use to enter the country is family unification. They take advantage of U.S. immigration laws favoring foreigners who enter the U.S. to join family members already there. However, unlike other U.S. immigrants, African immigrants are especially likely to enter the U.S. as refugees or under visa laws promoting ethnic diversity. An especially prominent socioeconomic characteristic of African immigrants to the United States is that they are impressively better educated than U.S.-born or Caribbean-born blacks. More than 38 percent of African-born black immigrants in 2009 had college degrees, a figure well in excess of either Caribbean-born blacks or U.S.-born blacks or whites. Only Asian Americans have greater proportions of their population with superior educational credentials. African immigrants to the United States also have achieved higher ranking positions in the professions, upper management/administration, technology, and skilled labor. In addition, they are more likely to be younger and to speak English more fluently than their Caribbean counterparts or immigrants in general. While their facility with English is a distinct advantage in the competitive marketplace and in bridging relationships with U.S.-born whites and blacks, this advantage is sometimes diminished by their heavy accents, often difficult for their U.S.-born peers to transcend.
Given their overall advantages, African-born black U.S. immigrants enjoy higher employment rates, have lower poverty rates, and more readily adjust to their new homelands than other immigrant groups. On average, they earn $10,000 more than their U.S.-born black counterparts. Correspondingly, U.S.-born blacks as compared with black African immigrants are more likely to live in poverty, 28 percent versus 20 percent. However, African-born blacks suffer from underemployment and lower pay scales for comparable work than their U.S.-born black or white counterparts. These disadvantages may reflect the reality that black African immigrants are (a) relatively new to the United States and lack good references; (b) unable to produce credentials from their former homeland; (c) in possession of professional licenses and certificates, including those from prestigious institutions such as the University of Oxford or the Sorbonne, that are not recognized in the United States; and (d) subject to economic exploitation by unscrupulous employers.
Last, African immigrants are more likely to be married, more likely to maintain two-parent homes for their children, and less likely to have children outside marriage than U.S.-born blacks. They are also more likely than other immigrants to be in the United States legally, to seek U.S. citizenship, and to enjoy the support of the families they brought with them in the hope of remaining as permanent residents. These characteristics give them the advantage of better health care and an easier opportunity to become successfully integrated. At the same time, they often maintain the use of native African languages at home and reject total assimilation. They prefer to keep some of their cultural traditions, pass them on to their children, and hyphenate their identity, thereby becoming another unique piece in the patchwork quilt that identifies the pluralist tradition of U.S. minority relations.
The plight of the average African immigrant today is not necessarily an enviable one. They often face years of waiting for visas and endure inept bureaucracies, corrupt officials, emotional tensions, and sometimes formidable challenges to their personal safety. Once in the United States, they tend to settle in metropolitan areas where job opportunities are maximized. The metropolitan areas of New York, Miami, and Washington account for almost 50 percent of all African-born blacks. Within these urban environments, they prefer to settle into separate small communities based on their native origins. They do not identify with U.S.-born blacks and with immigrants from other parts of Africa, the Caribbean, and elsewhere. African immigrants, unlike most other immigrants, tend to be more dispersed throughout the United States, especially compared with Caribbean-born black immigrants.
As political stability in African nations continues to deteriorate, genocidal wars threaten, civil unrest and violence gain hegemony, petit corruption persists, and economic conditions decline, the modern African diaspora will likely not only endure but also increase. Most population forecasters predict that by 2020, African immigration to the United States will likely surpass black immigrants entering the country from the Caribbean. While the arrival of black African immigrants creates a boon for the U.S. economy in terms of its gross domestic product and the growth of real consumption, it engenders a mounting dysfunctional and discouraging brain drain from African nations least able to afford such losses. It also leaves large tracts of Africa without crucial medical, educational, engineering, and welfare services, stretching those resources that remain. More generally, it exacerbates the GINI Index and skews economic activity toward wealthy nations such as the United States. Meanwhile, 2015 bears witness to a veritable tsunami of immigrants fleeing violence in North Africa—especially Libya, Tunisia, and Algeria—and making their way to Italy, France, and Germany, challenging the respective economic, health, welfare, and educational resources as well as the ideological resolve of their European hosts.
- Capps, Randy, Kristin McCabe, and Michael Fix. Diverse Streams: African Migration to the United Washington, DC: National Center on Immigrant Integration Policy, 2012.
- Gordon, April. “The New Diaspora: African Immigration to the United States.” Journal of Third World Studies, v.15/79,
- Schaefer, Richard Racial and Ethnic Groups, 12th ed. Boston: Pearson, 2011.
- Worth, Africans in America (Immigration to the United States). New York: Facts on File, 2004.