The Intersection of Race and Xenophobia:Black African-Born Immigrants Struggle for Employment Based Income Equity

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The Intersection of Race and Xenophobia:Black African-Born Immigrants Struggle for Employment Based Income Equity 

Many black African-born immigrants immigrate to the United States in search of economic opportunity, but instead simultaneously experience structural racism and rampant xenophobia creating negative employment-based outcomes and broader income inequality for this population of immigrants. (African Immigrants: Immigrating into a Racial Wealth Divide, 2018). Black African-born immigrants immigrating to the United States are entering a country with a long history of racism and oppression against people of color.  Long after slavery was abolished, Jim Crow laws were lifted, and civil rights were more equally applied, African Americans continue to face institutionalized racism in the economy (Thompson, 2018). This discrimination based on ideas of racial inferiority adversely effects all people of color, determining who gets hired, how much someone earns and whether they will be promoted. Racism perpetuates employment-based income inequality among African Americans in the United States, and black African-born immigrants are not spared from the social and economic consequences. In fact, the research shows that black African-born immigrants are more substantially impacted economically because of many American’s distrust and discomfort with foreigners, fear of losing their national identity as an Anglo-European culture, hallmarks of xenophobia. Xenophobia furthers discrimination resulting in under-employment and employment-based income inequality for all immigrants. However, further analysis of the intersectionality of racism and xenophobia offers insight into the employment-based income-inequality that adversely effects economic outcomes and income equality for black African-born immigrants in the U.S. and can help inform more equitable immigrant employment and resettlement practices.

Racism and Oppression at the Cultural and Institutional Level

     The history of racist ideology in the United States dates to the colonial era and was created as a social construct to justify slavery because it was antithetical to the fundamental American values of liberty, justice, equal rights and freedom for all (Smedley and Smedley, 2005). The concept of race was formulated to not merely categorize differences within the population, but as a system of oppression that would reduce slaves to sub-human status, thus justifying the hypocrisy of institutionalized oppression and reinforcing the dominance and power of whites as superior human beings (Smedley and Smedley, 2005). This hegemonic system was normalized through the institution of laws that protected slavery, denied legal rights to slaves, barred slaves from obtaining an education and promoted the stereotype of slaves as savages undeserving or fit for recognition as human beings let alone civilized members of society. The adverse effects of slavery and discrimination linger today, 150 years after slaves were emancipated in the United States, because institutionalized racism still exists as a system of oppression that fuels social inequality among people of color.


Xenophobia and Oppression at the Cultural and Institutional Level

Likewise, despite being a nation of immigrants, xenophobia has been a part of the U.S. immigration story since the more dominant and privileged groups who colonized the United States were faced with welcoming newcomers from foreign lands, with different customs, religions, values and appearances (Okrent, 2019). The origins of contemporary xenophobia have historical roots tied to ethnically based racism which became mainstream during the early 1920’s when a group of well-connected white male scholars, from Ivy League institutions, legitimized the bogus science behind racial eugenics (Okrent, 2019). Motivated by their anti-immigration ideology and the challenge to exclude “white immigrants” based on ethnic inferiority, they argued that “certain divergent people will not mix or blend” (Okrent, 2019). These powerful and privileged Protestant white American males made Eastern, Southern Europeans and Jews, targets of xenophobic rhetoric because they looked different, possessed different customs and were perceived as more foreign than the Scottish, Scandinavian and German immigrants who possessed fairer complexions and more similar cultural norms (Okrent, 2019). In an attempt to curtail immigration and shape immigration policies, some of the most powerful and distinguished individuals in the United States funded flawed scientific studies and persuaded scholars to establish a case against “inferior immigrants” polluting the genetic make-up of the country and threatening America’s future (Okrent, 2019)  They believed that Northern and Western European immigrants were capable of cultural assimilation while conversely people of color were incapable of assimilation due to ethnic and racial differences being inalterable, and therefore argued that people of color could never be fully accepted in America (Okrent, 2019). Consequently, proponents of anti-immigration reform based on nativist ideology were successful in preserving white, Protestant dominance by passing and implementing the Johnson Reed Act of 1924 which favored Northern and Western European immigrants and discriminated against those with racial differences (Gordon, 2019). At an institutional level, this misinformation not only became the dominant narrative in the media until it was largely accepted by society as biological fact, it went on to inform immigration policy, including the Immigration Act of 1924 that imposed nationality quotas on Southern and Eastern Europeans, Greeks and Jews, The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and the unanimous Supreme Court decision of 1923 that prohibited Indians immigrating from India citizenship based solely on race (Okrent, 2019).

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     Current political rhetoric, often repeated by the media, characterizes immigrants as “hordes” or “swarms” of dangerous immigrants looking to take our jobs, leach off the social-welfare system funded by hard-working American’s taxes, criticize our government, and threaten our way of life. Once again in our history, immigrants are portrayed as a threat to our institutions and dominant cultural norms, we are told that immigrants won’t assimilate or acculturate, and that they will become a social and economic burden to our country. This false narrative is driven by xenophobia and has become so commonplace in politics and the media that it has become normalized in our society (Gordon, 2019).


Interpersonal and Internalized Oppression of Immigrants through Xenophobia

The media also perpetuates the myth of the good immigrant vs the bad immigrant. Often the good immigrant is the immigrant who looks like the dominant group, practices the same religion and possess similar Western values, in the U.S. that would be a Christian Caucasian from a western culture. Another “good immigrant” or “model minority” myth adopted by the media for many years was that of the industrious and studious Asian who never spoke-out, challenged the dominant norms or created any friction in society while attaining high levels of academic and economic achievement. Immigrants who fall outside of the dominant narrative of the “good immigrant” or the “model minority” are scrutinized for their perceived inability to assimilate, their potentially incompatible religion, the perception of their discordant culture, and their overall contribution to American society. In today’s nativist, anti-immigrant climate, immigrants are face with the challenge to strike a balance between not letting your success become too visible or you will be accused of taking American jobs or college acceptances and being successful enough that you are not accused draining tax dollars or depleting resources. At the interpersonal level of oppression, many Americans don’t question their power and dominance over immigrants because they feel that it is their right as citizens to have prioritized access to American institutions and preferential treatment as a matter of birthright. Americans are often comfortable with immigrants working in subordinate roles, as if immigrants need to pay their dues and work their way up to equal access, status or pay before being recognized as full and equal members of the community. Sadly, immigrants themselves have internalized this oppressive narrative, being marginalized by accepting a lesser role in the American marketplace and laying low to avoid criticism and scrutiny by members of their host country that seemingly questions their worthiness and legitimacy (Young, 2018). Internalized oppression can lead many immigrants to resign to exploitation by employment-based income inequality because they feel fortunate to have the opportunity to live in America, and some immigrants report feeling that it is reasonable or necessary to pay their dues by being exploited, under employed, or paid unfairly and eventually, many immigrants will start to doubt themselves in the broader context of being a valuable and contributing member of society.

Interpersonal and Internalized Oppression of Black Americans

Many black Americans have internalized the oppressive historical narrative of inferiority that still exists in the United States. Although racism is a political and social construct the consequences have been the systematic oppression of black Americans access to and equality in education, employment, social class, legal rights and status. Institutionalized racism becomes internalized when, because of living in a racist and oppressive society, black Americans resign to defeat and begin to perpetuate the negative beliefs, actions and behaviors that work to undermine their own identity, equality, progress, self-respect and collective power. Many black Americans have turned against each other when part of the community is struggling to advance, mired in institutionalized racism, and others have leveraged opportunities and advantages to advance their social privilege. The net result of internalized oppression is a weakened group immobilized further by their own victimhood, defeat and acceptance of the oppressor’s dominant narrative and destructive stereotypes. In the case of income parity and under employment, because black Americans have historically experienced legalized discrimination barring equal access to education, and currently experience institutionalized racism preventing equality in education, black Americans were not represented equally in higher paying positions of employment that demanded higher education. As a result, many black Americans internalized the notion that higher paying jobs were beyond them, and if they were the minority in profession that was dominated by whites and white privilege, they might feel unworthy and unsupported to demand a raise or question why their co-worker was paid more for the same work. Internalized oppression is the acceptance of the dominant narrative that tells black Americans they don’t belong in a position of power, or deserve higher pay because they are lucky to be have a good job, it is the internal message that conditions black Americans to stay in line and not challenge white privilege, it is another level of oppression driven by race that restricts economic equality within their community and perpetuates the status quo. Interpersonal oppression as it relates to economic oppression of black Americans, is perpetuated through the stereotypes and assumptions that drive the dominant white males who are so often in positions of power to restrict access to positions of power, discriminate in the hiring process, and devalue the worth of the black American employee who research shows makes 74 cents to the white American employees dollar and get hired at a rate of 3:1 despite having the commensurate educational and employment credentials. Another example of intrapersonal oppression was illustrated in the study by Katherine DeCelles which proves racial bias and profiling when employers were given a resume with a stereotypically African American name vs. a resume with a stereotypically white American sounding name, more than half of the time the African American sounding name would not get a response despite equal credentials (Gerdeman, 2017).

Intersection of Race and Xenophobia-Resulting in Income Inequality 

     Voluntary black African-born migration to the United States is currently at a historic high, with the total number of black African immigrants in the United States almost tripling from 574,000 in 2000 to 1.6 million in 2016 (Anderson, Monica and Lopez, 2018). Two thirds of black African-born immigrants are coming to the United States from East or West Africa, many of whom are the recipients of visas under the “diversity visa program” which seeks to diversify the countries of origin of incoming immigrants from counties otherwise underrepresented in U.S. immigration, through minimum requirements of a high school education, two-years additional training or education, and the ability to support one’s self and family financially (Simmons, 2019). Consequently, black African immigrants are currently some of the most highly educated immigrants currently immigrating to the United States, contrary to many racial stereotypes that portray African immigrants as destitute and coming from war torn countries.  Immigrant males in the U.S. over age 25 with a high school degree or higher are highest among black African-born immigrants at 87.9%, compared to 78.8% of Asian born immigrants and 76.8% of European immigrants (Simmons, 2019).  While 30% of all immigrants and 32% of U.S. born Americans have a bachelor’s degree, compared to 41% of black African immigrants have a bachelor’s degree and 16% had a master’s degree, a doctorate, a law degree or a medical degree, compared with only 11% of U.S. born Americans (Simmons, 2019). Black Nigerian immigrants are the most highly educated among all black African immigrants with 28.3% having a graduate degree, and currently they are the single most educated immigrants based on country of origin in the United States (Simmons, 2019).  Despite black African immigrants being the most highly educated of all immigrant groups, being more likely to speak English fluently (74% VS.51%), having the highest levels of U.S. citizenship (58% vs 49%) of any other immigrant group, and having the highest percentage of their population in the U.S. labor force,they face the consequences of long standing racial economic inequality in the U.S. (Anderson, Monica and Lopez, 2018;“African Immigrants: Immigrating into A Racial Wealth Divide | Prosperity Now,” 2018).  Unfortunately, black African immigrants to the United States are met with the historical, institutional, cultural, interpersonal, and internalized implications of the intersection of race and xenophobia. The outcome of this intersection is not only income inequality, which is the focus of this paper, but inequality in healthcare, education, housing, employment, and ultimately, socio-economic standing.

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 Despite all the variables that usually correlate with higher wages and economic success black African-born immigrants are not experiencing the same level of employment opportunity or achieving the same level of prosperity as other immigrant groups in the United States. The statistics show that 19% of black African immigrants live at or below the poverty line compared to the average of all immigrants 16% despite significantly lower rates of English proficiency, lower rates of U.S. citizenship and lower educational attainment than black African immigrants (Reed & Andrzejewski, 2010.) While the exploitation of some of the immigrant labor force in the United States can be explained by undocumented, unskilled, and non-English immigrants who are desperate for under-the-table employment, and are therefore willing to take less desirable work, that is not the case for the statistically more educated English speaking, black African-born immigrants with U.S. citizenship (Young, 2018).  Many employers won’t recognize higher education or skilled/technical training obtained in Africa because it viewed as inferior by Americans immersed in cultural imperialism and racist views of primitive and desititute continent (Young, 2018).  Additionally, our current xenophobic government rhetoric reinforces that buying American products and employing American workers is the answer to “Make America Great Again”, explicitly implying that immigrants are taking our jobs and ruining our country.  Xenophobia drives underemployment, income inequality, labor exploitation and exclusion from the labor market for many identifiable immigrant groups, however black African-born immigrants are impacted more significantly because of the intersectionality of racism and xenophobia. The largest field of employment among black African male immigrants is in the field of transportation, being employed as truck drivers or taxi drivers, despite high rates of U.S. citizenship, being fluent in English and being educated highly educated compared to other immigrant populations (Andersen et al, 2018).

Black African-born immigrants socio-economic standing reflects the ongoing employment-based income inequality black Americans continue to face in the U.S. due to institutional economic racism that maintains a widening wage gap between white Americans and black Americans that hasn’t improved significantly since 1962 (City Lab, Mock, 2019). In fact, the income gap has increased from 2000 when the median African American income was 79.2% of white American income, and African American’s income had dropped to 73.3% of the income of white Americans by 2018 (Economic Policy Institute, Wilson, 2018). Black Americans with equal educations have almost double the rates of unemployment that white Americans have at every level of educational metric (some high school, high school graduate, college graduate, completed graduate school) and are also paid less despite having the same level of education (Wilson, 2018). Even when the head of a black American household has a degree, they have less wealth than a white family with a head of household that dropped out of high school (Wilson, 2018). This reflects the racial economic inequality that has long held black Americans back from employment-based income and economic equality, this is the same system of racial oppression that black African-born immigrants face when seeking employment in the United States.  Black African-born immigrants are not exempt from the oppressive racism American-born blacks continually encounter when applying for employment, attempting to get a promotion or achieve equal pay, however they must also contend with the structural intersectionality of their immigrant status in a country that discriminates against immigrants on the basis of xenophobic views.

Black African-born immigrants high level of educational attainment, which surpasses both the U.S. born population and other incoming immigrants groups both by country and by continent, in addition to being predominantly fluent in English (more so than any other immigrant group by continent), should give black African-born immigrants an economic advantage over other immigrants in the United States (African Immigrants: Immigrating into a Racial Wealth Divide, 2018). However, black African immigrants face the same institutional racism that continues to restrict black Americans from employment-based income equality and economic equality. The effects of racism are further compounded for black African immigrants who are not only discriminated against on the basis of race but must also endure xenophobia as they attempt to gain employment-based income equality in their pursuit of the American Dream.

Levels of Practice

Dismantling privilege on the macro level includes volunteering to support immigration discrimination awareness outreach efforts to mobilize protesters to attend to rallies and marches organized to further immigrant employment rights in the United States because achieving a critical mass of protesters not only places the cause front and center in the media, it at a minimum represents another side of the immigration debate, and ideally can influence a change in the dominant national narrative.  Additionally, attending and organizing rallies and marches can help bring racial discrimination issues and xenophobia that immigrants face in the United States front and center for the legislators, forcing them to acknowledge issues important to their constituents. Immigrants are often marginalized socially and politically, especially in communities where they are not represented in large numbers, so assuming the role of an ally is imperative to create a bridge from the dominant community to the minority community.  Assuming the role of an advocate for immigrants facing racial discrimination and economic oppression is an opportunity to dismantle one’s own privilege to achieve greater social equality for all. On a macro level, it is important to not only draw awareness to federal agencies such as the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission that protect immigrant employment rights and enforce anti-discrimination laws, but to reach out to national organizations which work with immigrants, to educate and immigrants on their legal rights and connect them with legal services. Federal laws instituted to protect against immigrant and racial discrimination must be enforced nationally and upheld on the state and local level to be an effective deterrent against exploitation and oppression of immigrants experiencing the intersectionality of racism and xenophobia in the workplace.

     On a mezzo level community agencies involved in immigrant resettlement and employment rights need to ensure that they are able to support immigrants with the appropriate resources to inform immigrants of their legal rights, help them identify what qualifies as racial and xenophobic discrimination under the law and challenge those employment violations and acts of discrimination with the appropriate legal resources. Additionally, agencies can serve as an intermediary between immigrants and local businesses looking to hire qualified candidates who might otherwise be unaware of how their skills or education might translate to employment in a new a country or industry. This practice encourages local outreach, promotes community integration and support while helping immigrants leverage their skills and education for more fair compensation which decreases some of the institutional barriers to economic success.

    On a micro level it is imperative that social workers recognize their privilege, in my case that is being a white woman, native born, with higher education and cultural competency of our dominant culture that affords me access to hiring and employment without discrimination beyond potential sexism and insulates me from the challenges of navigating a system that was not constructed to facilitate my success. Social workers must exercise cultural humility when attempting to isolate their own power and privilege from the lens in which they attempt to understand the challenges faced by immigrants who have come from differing cultural assumptions, values and beliefs.  Anti-oppressive social work is ideal when confronting the intersection of race and xenophobia because it promotes inclusivity and equality for all by requiring the social worker dismantle the socio-cultural and political structures that promote social and economic oppression on a structural level.

    DiAngelo’s empirical support for the value of dismantling white privilege lies in the argument that you must understand your own privilege and oppression before you can recognize and confront the structural oppression of others which must be confronted when attempting to repair the consequences of oppression on the macro, mezzo and micro level (DiAngelo, 2018).


Critical Self-Reflection

I am driven to work with immigrants confronting racism and xenophobia because I feel deeply that they are currently some of the most marginalized members of our society. Immigrants often come to the United States in search of economic opportunity or in the case of refugees and asylum seekers they come for safety and/or freedom from persecution.  The reality of their immigration struggle, that so often begins with hope, ending in a country that continues to systematically discriminates against minorities and is promoting a xenophobic narrative to promote cultural imperialism, white domination is, and minority oppression is disheartening and something I want to actively confront as a social worker. As a social worker, I want to promote values of recognizing the dignity and worth of people regardless of their race or origin. Immigrants are subject a plethora of internalized personal and external challenges when entering a new country and trying to both survive and thrive in their new environment. They must straddle two worlds, attempting to maintain aspects of their old identity while recreating themselves in an often-inhospitable environment that is xenophobic against their old identity but refuses to let them freely pursue a new identity. This course has taught me that although immigrants are subjected to internalized, interpersonal, institutional and cultural racism, understanding the structures that support racism and oppression are the key to dismantling racism and oppression.  As a social worker, understanding the levels of oppression will inform my personal interactions with the immigrant population and my approach in trying to help them navigate the system to achieve their personal vision of the American Dream.


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