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Liz Boyle and two students posing outside a Somali-owned shop.

Elizabeth Boyle (right) with two of the graduate students on her research team, Fortunata Songora (left) and Erika Busse.

Africa: here and now

By Kate Tyler

From eNews, August 18, 2005

Since the 1980s, when waves of African immigrants began arriving in the United States, the Cedar-Riverside neighborhood near Elizabeth Boyle's office has become home to one of the nation's largest communities of East African--primarily Somali--refugees. Voluntary African immigration to the United States is a fairly recent phenomenon, notes Boyle, an associate professor who studies international and comparative sociology and law. Most black Americans are descended from Africans who arrived on these shores as slaves beginning some 400 years ago.

Boyle and her research team, which includes several students from East Africa, have spent the past three years interviewing local African immigrant families. Comparing the experiences of recent African immigrants to those of African Americans, says Boyle, "affords a great opportunity to reach a deeper understanding of American culture and racism."

New African immigrants bring with them not "African culture" but many cultures from varied regional and national backgrounds, says Boyle. Yet Africans' skin color marks them foremost as "black" in a society deeply divided by race. That fact complicates the question of whether African immigrants will quickly acculturate into American society as did earlier, predominantly European, immigrants. Despite the dominant American view that "black is black," Boyle says "most African immigrants see themselves as culturally distinct from African Americans, whom they see as Americans, not Africans."

But studies have found that African immigrants maintain their distinct ethnic identity only through the second generation, gradually becoming incorporated into American society as African Americans. In response, they begin evincing the attitudes and behaviors of an oppressed group, one that is assimilated into U.S. society but culturally defined, and marginalized, by race.

This pattern, notes Boyle, stands in stark contrast to that of European immigrants, who prospered as they assimilated to American values and practices. Indeed, research suggests that assimilation may be counterproductive for African immigrants both culturally and economically.

But for African immigrants to prosper over the long term, says Boyle, "they'll need to evade the discrimination" that pervades the experience of African Americans. "The really important question I see here is this: What are the implications for American race relations if African immigrants are more economically successful than U.S.-born blacks?"

If the experiences of African immigrants do diverge from those of U.S. blacks, Boyle will be ready to study the underlying reasons. Although cultural differences may play a role, the pivotal factors are likely to be such things as differences in social networks, resources, education, and housing. Whatever the answers, they are likely to yield important new insights about the nature and mutability of "race" as a primary category in American society.