A Prudent Reaction to Trump’s Comments?

The irony of this contrived logic flies in the face of the overwhelming evidence—based on the U.S. government’s own data—that African immigrants in America are not as unavailing as commonly portrayed. On the contrary they are more educated and skilled than people born in the U.S. and have built huge reserves of human capital that have contributed significantly to America’s growth.

The 30th Summit of the African Union (AU) came a few weeks after American President, Donald Trump’s disparaging comments about Africans. At a meeting on immigration he questioned why America should admit more Africans and Haitians, describing them as “shitholes.” Previously he complained about the high rate of immigration from Nigeria, saying “they would never return to their huts.” Asked about his proposal to restrict immigration from Haiti he said Haitians were “infested with AIDS.” The AU swiftly condemned the remarks, terming them “clearly racist” and the African Group of UN Ambassadors demanded an apology after meeting in an emergency session. Several American diplomats were summoned to explain the remarks, among them Tulinabo Mushingi, America’s quadrilingual Democratic Republic of Congo-born Ambassador to Senegal.

African reactions came in hard and fast; some expressed outrage, others felt the slurs were deserved given Africa’s perennial problems, and others saw them as a turning point for reflection. “Maybe Africans can now focus on the African dream,” said Zimbabwean, Florida Mapeto. “Shitholes stink of corruption, theft of public resources, electoral fraud and self-imposed underdevelopment. Trump is right,” argued Edward Kisiangani, an educator at Kenyatta University.  Livingstone Mukasa, a New York based architect and consultant, born in Uganda, says of the comments: “They accurately depict common beliefs and existential realities of millions of ordinary people. That is why I see this as an opportunity to expand minds, including our own…let’s explore the places and people he has maligned, learn the history he’s ignorant of, and see the world through the eyes of those whose lives he and his disciples regard as worthless.”

The AU’s top diplomat in Washington, Her Excellency Dr. Ariana Chihombori, echoed this in a terse statement in which she called for a deeper discussion between Americans and Africans to dispel misconceptions.

 Stereotypes and narratives

Negative stereotypes about Africans and people of African descent are well known. Some originate in images created to justify slavery, colonialism and apartheid. Others come from misconceptions about Africans in politics, academia, media, and entertainment. Still others point to the picture of a continent in constant crisis and use this to justify the belief that Africans are inferior and worthless. The narrative underlying such assumptions goes something like this: citizens of so—called backward countries, or “shitholes” are undesirable. Poor, unskilled, and filthy, they are simply a liability. America, so the narrative goes, is better served by immigrants from richer countries, and of a lighter hue.

The irony of this contrived logic flies in the face of the overwhelming evidence—based on the U.S. government’s own data—that African immigrants in America are not as unavailing as commonly portrayed. On the contrary they are more educated and skilled than people born in the U.S. and have built huge reserves of human capital that have contributed significantly to America’s growth.

 What does the evidence say?

U.S. Census Bureau data shows that African immigrants (close to 5 percent of the U.S. immigrant population) are the most educated immigrant group in the United States. In 2015, 41 percent held a bachelor’s degree or higher, compared to 29 percent of other immigrant categories and 31 percent of U.S. born Americans.

A January 2018 New American Economy survey finds that one in three degrees held by African immigrants is focused on science, technology, engineering and math—skills that drive the U.S. economy. Bloomberg’s Tyler Cowen has this to say: “Africa is sending us its best and brightest.”

The data bears this out: 16 percent of African immigrants have advanced degrees in medicine and law or a doctorate, compared with 11 percent of the U.S. born population. And then there is healthcare, a top public issue in the U.S. In 2015, there were more open healthcare positions than available workers with field experience, making African immigrants particularly important with 30 percent working as doctors, nurses, psychiatric staff, and surgeons, compared to just 13 percent of the U.S. born population.

And what of those “shitty” Nigerians?

According to the U.S. Census Bureau Nigerian Americans are the highest educated ethnic group in the United States, surpassing whites and Asians. Nigerians also have a median household income well above the American average and above several white and Asian categories, such as those of Dutch and Korean descent. A whopping two-thirds of Nigerians hold a bachelor’s degree or higher.

Norwegians were reportedly singled out by Trump as being more preferable immigrants (he received the Norwegian foreign minister in the oval office prior to making his disparaging remarks about Africans).

It turns out that 38 percent of Norwegian immigrants in the U.S. have a college degree or higher— four percentage points lower than immigrants from the “shithole countries” of sub Saharan Africa and a whopping 19 percentage points lower than Nigerian Americans. In 2017 the Nigerian diaspora remitted $22 billion to the Nigerian economy according to the World Bank. A significant portion of that came from Nigerian Americans.

Translating success into economic power

Official U.S. economic data shows that in 2015 African immigrants earned $55.1 billion. Their households paid $10.1 billion in federal taxes and $4.7 billion in state and local taxes – giving them an estimated spending power of more than $40.3 billion. That same year the U.S. was home to over 90,000 foreign—born entrepreneurs from Africa, with a large share working in real estate, accounting and transportation.

Let’s now look at one segment of the U.S. based African diaspora, Kenyan Americans.

According to the Migration Policy Institute the annual median income of Kenyan American households is $11,000 above the U.S. national median, a very high average. Two out of every five Kenyans owns their home and the Kenyan American labor force participation rate far exceeds the national average. Kenyan wealth doesn’t sit in America; Kenya’s remittance receipts from the U.S. average $315 million annually, over double annual U.S. counterterrorism funding to that country.

Overall, 75 percent of sub-Saharan immigrants (ages 16 and over) are in the civilian labor force, compared to 66 percent and 62 percent of the overall foreign-and native-born populations respectively. The data also shows that Sub-Saharan Africans are much more likely to be employed in management, business, science and the arts (38 percent) than other population groups. They are less likely to be employed in construction, maintenance and natural resources (3 percent).

What does the story of African immigrants in the U.S. mean for peoples of African descent?

Africans started arriving in the U.S. in large numbers in the late 80’s, an influx largely credited to the Diversity Visa Lottery – a State Department Program currently in the crosshairs of the White House. In under two generations they surpassed all other population groups in America in education and skills despite the odds stacked against them. This striking fact hardly receives mention in the mainstream American media. Even more disturbing is its lack of awareness in Africa—something that reinforces the notion that Africans should accept insults hurled at them because they have little to show for their existence. Such notions are demonstrably false, as shown by the multitude of official data. Africans in the U.S. have proven the belief that all men (and women) are indeed created equal, and endowed with the same abilities to contribute to society, regardless of their origins, wealth, and color.

These ideas spurred the Zanj rebellion waged by East African slaves against the Abbasid dynasty in Iraq in 868 AD, and the uprising of Gasper Yanga, an African slave who earned the honor of “first liberator of the Americas.” In 1570 he staged a revolt on a sugarcane plantation near Veracruz in Mexico and led a small group of former slaves into the forest to establish an independent and free polity, San Lorenzo de los Negros.

Written in 1801, the Constitution of Sainte-Domingue, Haiti’s inaugural Constitution, was the first document in history that outlawed discrimination based on skin color, a milestone that U.S. law would not guarantee for another 150 years. Haiti is the first independent black Republic founded on history’s greatest slave revolt. Its 1804 Declaration of Independence affirms that Africans are born free, equal, and capable. This inspired other slave revolts in St. John, Jamaica, the Bahamas, Barbados, and the U.S., among other places.  The 1847 Liberian Declaration of Independence, the American civil rights movement, and the fight against colonialism and apartheid in Africa drew on Haitian ideals.

Metaphorically and ideologically speaking, the African migrant experience in the U.S. stands on the shoulders of these epic struggles. Their common thread is the basic idea that Africans, peoples of African descent, and other peoples of color, are not worthless; they are as worthy, deserving, and capable. Enslaved and colonized Africans were forced to assert these ideas through armed struggle. Building on the sacrifices and triumphs of African-Americans, African immigrants in the U.S.—as shown by the data—have asserted themselves through educational and professional accomplishments.

It is important to add that this record of accomplishment is not a yardstick to measure the worthiness of African immigrants. That would feed the notion that the validity of Africans is dependent on their contributions to the West. Success and failure, and wealth and poverty, are part of the African and human experience. African worthiness comes from our humanity. The stories and evidence of success should instead be viewed as a valuable resource to combat the low self-esteem and self-hatred that racism has fostered in the minds of many Africans. Secondly, the vast human capital that Africans have built can and should be harnessed for Africa’s long term development.

Some Policy Considerations Going Forward

The AU defines the African Diaspora, its Sixth Region as “Africans and Peoples of African origin living outside the continent irrespective of citizenship and nationality who are willing to contribute to the continent and the building of the African Union.” However, despite several well—meaning initiatives the African Diaspora is untapped human capital, underutilized as a source of investment, and a strategic resource in policy advocacy. Part of the problem is that diasporic communities tend to be seen as assets only in terms of remittances. While this is understandable given that remittances outweigh official development assistance, it is short-sighted, considering the enormous unharnessed power sitting outside Africa.

Second, the complexity of the African Diaspora is not reflected in existing continental arrangements. The AU talks of two broad categories: peoples of African descent in the Americas and elsewhere (including nations like Haiti and Jamaica, and African Americans); and, contemporary Africans (those that left for different reasons in the last 60 years). Both categories require unique research tools and engagement strategies to understand and leverage their potential as part of a coherent and strategic approach.

Third, diaspora involvement in the AU is mostly limited to representation, not proactive engagement that responds to the Union’s strategic priorities. Beyond 20 seats reserved for the African Diaspora in the Economic Social and Cultural Council (ECOSOC) there is no blueprint for harnessing the power and human capital of diasporic professionals to support the AU’s organs and specialized agencies.

Fourth, few countries know what their diasporas look like, where they are concentrated, what types of skills they have, and how these can be linked to sectors back home. Kenya, Ghana, Nigeria and South Africa made some headway on this. Modelled after Malaysia’s TalentCorp, the South African Network of Skills Abroad (SANSA) is a private-public partnership that maps and links highly qualified South Africans abroad with opportunities to transfer technology and advance education, research and development at home. Such noteworthy initiatives however remain the exception to the general lack of strategy and focus.

Here are five things that African governments can immediately do to turn this around.

Recommit yourselves to good governance in line with existing AU instruments

African immigrants in the U.S. and other countries come from the same skills and educational bases as their compatriots on the continent. This proves that what is lacking is a conducive environment where citizens can reach their full potential. Getting there means that the guns must fall silent by 2020, as called for by the AU. Furthermore African countries should recommit themselves to Agenda 2063 and its requirements, key among them rebuilding citizen’s trust, uprooting corruption and state capture, and being faithful to the principles of the African Charter on Democracy, Elections and Governance.

Craft a new strategy for diaspora engagement

An independent organ-level entity should be established to evaluate and harness existing diaspora instruments and recommend a revamped strategy targeting different categories of the diaspora. Terms of reference should include developing a methodology to analyze the available data on immigration. This should start in the U.S. where such information is readily and publicly available not only on recent African arrivals, but also on African Americans – a natural and formidable constituency.

Know your Diaspora

Lessons from other diasporic communities, in particular Malaysia, Israel, the Philippines and India, demonstrate that effective engagement rests on rigorous mapping to get an accurate description of where key diasporic communities are located, their professions, skills base, income, and other elements that can be tapped into for local development.

Admit Haiti and other Black nations in the Western hemisphere as members

Article 29 paragraph 1 of the AU’s Constitutive Act should be revisited. It limits membership to African countries, a clause that excludes black republics in the western hemisphere. Haiti’s request for membership for instance has been declined, yet that nation’s role in African struggles is an indispensable part of Africa’s heritage. This is a missed opportunity for strategic cooperation that could realize tangible benefits for both sides, not to mention the geopolitical value of Haiti’s proximity to the United States, where some of Africa’s most dynamic diasporic communities are located. Permanent outreach to other representative groups, like the U.S Congressional Black Caucus, is also paramount.

Aggregate remittances through new and innovative financial instruments

In 2013 respected Kenyan academic, the late Mwangi Kimenyi, urged African countries to invest in diaspora bonds for development financing targeting large-scale infrastructure, energy and agriculture, among other sectors. This is highly feasible since remittances are an important source of revenue inflows. Nigeria in 2017 announced its intention to conduct an offering of $300 million in diaspora bonds following its sale of $1 billion in Eurobonds. India and Israel boast the most successful diaspora bonds (Israel has been selling diaspora bonds since the 50s). African countries should launch trilateral discussions involving Israel, India, and select African diasporic groups to learn lessons and develop appropriate policy frameworks.

The Storm before Daybreak

The ease at which these comments were made, from the Oval Office no less, is a stark reflection of Africa’s post-independence failures, and an urgent realization of the continent’s own responsibility in reframing prevailing narratives.

America, and much of Western Europe, is ‘browning.’  And President Trump’s comments are merely a reflection of the tensions in adapting to this fact.  Immigration has always been part and parcel of the United States, which has traditionally relied on a steady stream of European migrants.  Current demographic trends depict an irreversible shift that, if taken advantage of, presents Africa with a unique set of opportunities.

The most important lesson from the African immigration experience in the U.S. is that the citizen, given the right conditions, is the most valuable asset any country can have. The strategic challenge facing Africa is in creating these conditions using its proven reserves of human capital and commitment to ethical governance. Africans were rightly offended by Trump’s slurs. But now is the time to move beyond outrage and begin thinking more strategically.

Paul Nantulya
Author: Paul Nantulya
The writer is based in Washington DC.


Leave a Reply