Because of their skin color, native-born African Americans and African immigrants are generally lumped together. But upon arrival, African immigrants quickly learn that African Americans are at the bottom of the social hierarchy in the U.S. and strive to separate themselves from African Americans—even when, as recent research shows, these distinctions are contradictory or further marginalizing.
For example, using participant observation in a California community, Hana E. Brown (Social Problems, February 2011) recently found that Liberian refugees hold very negative opinions about African Americans. Despite the fact that the refugees in her study live in the same impoverished communities and visit the same welfare offices as many African Americans, they see African Americans’ use of the welfare system as “lazy and selfish.” In contrast, the Liberians’ own use of the welfare system is justified because of their refugee status. After all, the thinking goes, the government brought them here and is responsible for their care.
Katja M. Guenther, Sadie Pendaz, and Fortunata Songora Makene (Sociological Forum, March 2011) cite another example of an attempt to distinguish among Eastern African immigrants in Minneapolis and St. Paul, Minnesota. These new Americans use ethnic differences to disassociate themselves from African Americans in their community, believing that African Americans are morally and culturally inferior to them. Tellingly, they even use their Muslim religious identity as a differentiator between themselves and native-born blacks, despite the risk of additional social stigma that professing a Muslim faith might bring.
Only time will tell if these attempts to differentiate and distinguish hold for second generation African immigrants.