Debating Identity

The Princeton Review ranked Temple as the second most diverse college in the country last year. About 19 percent of the university’s undergraduates are African American, but that figure does not represent all black students.

Dozens of black students are either African immigrants or are born in the United States to immigrant parents. Some of those students don’t classify themselves as African American.

Though the United States has a history of being sharply divided over racial issues, particularly conflicts between whites and blacks, there is an underreported tension among black people of differing ethnicities. The Temple News will explore this issue during the next few weeks.

The first article in a series

Jacob Gray had been in the United States for six weeks. Last Halloween, the 13-year-old Liberian immigrant was assaulted on his way home from school in Southwest Philadelphia.

Police said black youths were responsible for the attack, but denied allegations of the incident being a hate crime. Gray had snitched on some drug dealers, police said.

Some community residents and Gray’s family disagreed, saying the assault represented a widespread racial problem among black Americans and African immigrants in their neighborhood – a tension that manifested in Gray’s beating.

The Philadelphia Police Department is seeking to establish an advisory commission of African leaders because “we don’t want to see things get worse,” according to a PPD official close to the issue.

“You got to be a little proactive,” said the official, who requested anonymity because he felt that mentioning his name would hamper efforts in establishing a rapport with community leaders.

But African leaders, the official said, need to come together with solid ideas before a commission can be created.

Temple students have also discussed tension between black Americans and African immigrants.

Some students said the tension exists because of cultural differences rather than ethnic differences. Others said the degree of the conflict is a minor issue.

Voffee Jabateh, a Temple alumnus who received a master’s degree in social work last year and who is CEO of the Philadelphia-based African Cultural Alliance of North America, said the beating of the teenage Liberian was “not racially motivated.”

“We look at it as an incident of crime,” said Jabateh, a 49-year-old Liberian immigrant who came to the United States in his early 30s. “We don’t look at it as African Americans against African immigrants.”

In a telephone interview, Jabateh said no one in Philadelphia is immune to crime. “As people living in the community, we will be the victim of crime on and off,” he said. “We live in high crime-infested neighborhoods. Why do we think we are immune to crime?”

Community leaders estimate that up to 55,000 African immigrants live in the greater Philadelphia area, according to a 2001 study published by the Balch Institute for Ethnic Studies. Philadelphia’s population is about 1.5 million, according to Census figures.

Jabateh said the assumption that attacks on African immigrants are racially motivated is wrong, particularly because there have been incidents of African immigrants assaulting African immigrants in the city.

A true hate crime, Jabateh said, would have to be comparable to Ku Klux Klan terrorist acts toward blacks during the Reconstruction period after the Civil War. “We don’t have that kind of intimidation in Southwest Philadelphia,” he said.

The U.S. government does not treat hate crimes as “separate, distinct crimes, but rather traditional offenses motivated by the offender’s bias,” according to the FBI. Federal law defines hate crimes “as a crime against a person or property motivated by bias toward race, religion, ethnicity/national origin, disability or sexual orientation.”

In 2004, the most recent year that national hate crime statistics are available, there were 7,649 hate crimes reported across the United States, according to FBI statistics. Pennsylvania reported 105 hate crimes in 2004, according to FBI records. By comparison, New Jersey reported 769 hate crimes, New York reported 386 and California led the nation with 1,393 reported hate crimes in 2004.

The Philadelphia Police’s public affairs office denied requests for the most recent hate crime statistics for Philadelphia.

On Jan. 26, Temple’s Progressive NAACP held a panel discussion highlighting the divisions among black people and talked about how black people can unite and overcome these tensions. Members of the Haitian Student Organization, Student Organization for Caribbean Awareness and the Organization of African Students were present at the event.

The panel highlighted the importance education plays in affecting unity among various racial and ethnic groups. “Not only learn your history, but learn other people’s history,” said Richard Street Jr., a senior criminal justice major who serves as a liaison between the NAACP and Temple Student Government.

African Identity

“In hating Africa and in hating the Africans, we ended up hating ourselves, without even realizing it. Because you can’t hate the roots of a tree, and not hate the tree. You can’t hate your origin and not end up hating yourself. You can’t hate Africa and not hate yourself.” -Malcolm X on Afro-American History

The African identity Malcolm X spoke about the day he was assassinated is still an issue of contention between Africans of the Diaspora – those living in the Americas, the Caribbean and other parts of the world – and continental Africans, those born in Africa.

Christian Dunbar, a senior, came to the United States from Liberia, West Africa, 15 years ago. The African American studies major said he has noticed a tension between continental Africans and American blacks.

“I would say there is somewhat of a conflict between black Americans and African immigrants,” Dunbar said in an interview last fall. “There seems to be a lot of tension, you know. And it just seems like black Americans, sometimes, it feels like Africans don’t like them.”

Eric Edi, an adjunct professor of African American studies, said the mere fact that such tensions exist is neither new nor uncommon.

Edi, a native of Ivory Coast, West Africa, said “There is nothing new, not a new feeling, not a new sentiment between a continental African or Caribbean and African American.

“There has always been an idea of differences … of quote-unquote ‘the hatred’…”

Edi said he organized a roundtable discussion on this very issue two or three years ago.

“There is a divisive line … some people believe that the Africans see themselves as better than the African American,” he said. “Some people will say that ‘I’m not African, I cannot relate to the culture’ or ‘I was not born there, I don’t speak any African language.'”

The problem, Edi said, comes when people begin to look at each other in a condescending way.

“We are all in the same boat, is how I see it,” Edi said. “We are all undergoing oppression wherever we are.”

Though ethnic tension is a large issue, Edi said it is not uniquely African. Other ethnicities deal with similar problems. In Northern Ireland, for example, Catholics and Protestants have fought each other for years, he said.

Edi said he has experienced the repercussions of the tensions between continental Africans and Africans of the Diaspora.

“I’ve experienced a lot, and I’m still experiencing,” he said. “I’ve experienced tension from everybody [and vice versa]. I’ve experienced some kind of shock.

“The simple fact like speaking with an accent – reaction to that accent, simply to mock you or make fun of you; people will ask you where you are from, which has nothing to do with what you may be asking them or the purpose of the conversation.”

Dike Kalu, a junior and president of OAS, immigrated to San Antonio, Texas, from Nigeria at age 9. Kalu, 20, said he quickly conformed to American culture.

“It made life a hell of a lot easier,” Kalu said. “Dropping the African side was more beneficial socially.

“No one ever physically came at me,” Kalu said, but added that he has memories of black Americans verbally abusing him.

Upon coming to the United States, “I knew about the history of how black people were being oppressed by whites,” Kalu said. He said he expected to be accepted by Americans, so he was shocked to find black Americans giving him the most problems.

Kalu said he became aggressive in response to the abuse.

“From seventh and eighth grade, all I did was fight,” he said. “It was my way of responding.”

Recognizing that “football was king” in Texas, Kalu played the sport, which helped him become more integrated and accepted by Americans.

“Playing a sport kind of transcends everything,” said Kalu, which is a statement Dunbar, a former Temple football player, agreed with.

Abdullah Jamiu, a junior economics major of Nigerian descent, said the racial tension among black Americans and African immigrants is part of a general human problem rather than a specific issue.

“It’s not really isolated to being black or African American; it’s part of a larger problem. I think the larger problem is people putting themselves into groups, and when you put yourself into groups, you tend to have problems,” Jamiu said. “But if you get rid of all that stuff, I think the world would be a better place. It won’t be perfect, but I think it would be close to being perfect.”

Jamiu, 24, said he merely sees himself as being part of the human population. “I don’t see myself as being black, white, African American, African, all that stuff. I just see myself as being human. I’m just myself. I don’t try to act like nobody,” said Jamiu, who conceded that he tried to assimilate into American culture when he was younger. “People treat me the way I treat them,” Jamiu said.

But when he first moved to the United States at age 9, he said others ridiculed him.

“I was treated differently, ’cause I guess I looked differently, I guess I acted differently. I remember people calling me names like ‘African booty scratcher.'”

Jamiu stopped short of calling the disrespect racially motivated.

“I don’t know if it’s really a problem, because the same kids that picked on me ’cause I was African, they picked on somebody else maybe because they were wearing glasses, or they looked different for some reason,” he said.

“I don’t think it’s being African as for why they picked on me. When you have different people, you’re going to have problems. I was more different back then.”

For Ojay Esangbedo, a 21-year-old Nigerian immigrant who came to North Philadelphia at age 16, there is a general – but small – conflict between African immigrants and African Americans.

“There’s tension to a certain degree,” he said in a telephone interview. However, he said the tension is only in the United States.

The tension is “not a major problem” Esangbedo said, but he said it’s underreported. “In media or TV you don’t really see it,” he said.

Esangbedo, a senior majoring in African American studies, said he “didn’t really have to change” when he arrived in the United States, despite only being here for five years.

“I still do got a little accent,” Esangbedo said, but it was never strong. “People think I’m African American.” When asked if he felt insulted by that, Esangbedo said no.

“All people of African descent are all one,” said Esangbedo, who describes himself as “the most outspoken member of OAS.”

Alexandria Tejada, a psychology major, said she considers herself black and Puerto Rican.

“It’s weird because someone told me that I looked Cambodian. Most of the time, I just say I’m just black.

“I think people are making it more complicated than it is,” Tejada said in an interview last fall. “We are all black … Ask a white person, that person is going to say they’re black and that’s without hearing them speak. It’s because of what we’re taught. We don’t really learn about our heritage.”

Brittany Chance, a communications major, said “I really always felt the tension.”

Chance is of Grenadian and Jamaican descent. Though the sophomore was born in the United States, she said when she and her family talk about “home,” they are not referring to Africa, but rather the West Indian nation Grenada. Chance said, however, she does not consider herself African because “I don’t know much about African culture. You have to know about the culture to claim it as yours,” Chance said.

Sulaiman Abdur-Rahman and Charmie R. Snetter can be reached at TempleNews@GMail.com.

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.


*