Group perceptions fuel ethnic, social conflicts

The second article in a series In 1988, the Rev. Jesse Jackson defended the term African American to describe blacks living in America. “To be called African Americans has cultural integrity. It puts us in

The second article in a series

In 1988, the Rev. Jesse Jackson defended the term African American to describe blacks living in America.

“To be called African Americans has cultural integrity. It puts us in our proper historical context,” Jackson said. “Every ethnic group in this country has a reference to some land base, some historical cultural base. African Americans have hit that level of cultural maturity.”

For Jackson and other black leaders, the time had come to make a connection to the “Motherland” or place of origin, much like other ethnicities continue to do as they immigrate to the United States.

The label African American has caused much confusion and conflict between those born in Africa and those of the Diaspora.

Alison Crumb, a junior in the School of Communications and Theater, said she always knew that there was a tension between African Americans and continental Africans because of cultural differences and stereotypes.

She visited South Africa for the first time in 2002.

“I went with an open mind,” Crumb said.

But while in South Africa, a certain instance brought that tension to life for Crumb.

“Someone asked me to the effect of why black Americans come to Africa thinking they’re finding part of themselves,” Crumb said.

She said it illustrated how group perceptions of immigrants and black Americans add to the conflict.

Crumb is not alone. Many black students and professors have acknowledged that there is a general animosity between African Americans and black immigrants. Students use terms such as “self-hatred” and “self-loathing” to explain why they think some black Americans hold African immigrants in contempt and vice versa.

Christian Dunbar, a senior African American studies and political science major, said in an interview last semester that “in the [United] States there’s a certain degree of self-loathing that seems to be prevalent in the black community. … A certain degree of trying to detach oneself from anything that is originally African, …” Dunbar said.

“… I think until black America as a whole start to love themselves as opposed to being compared to the counterpart here in America or being measured to the counterpart here in America, the tension will always be there.

“I don’t want to make it a one-sided thing, but I can only come from an African perspective, even though I’ve been here [in America] for a lot of years,” said Dunbar, who is an immigrant from Liberia, West Africa. “But I think ultimately awareness” can reduce this tension.

African immigrants have cited unfair media depictions of black Americans as reasons why some Africans scorn black Americans. But Dr. Wilbert L. Jenkins, an associate professor of history who has published several books on African American history, went beyond those explanations, saying black Americans “have been brainwashed by Europeans” and that continental Africans are told black Americans “continue to not take advantage” of the opportunities America has to offer.

But the Temple professor said a large chunk of the conflict derives from black Americans not having much, if any, opportunities to congregate and socialize with Africans or other people of color who were born outside the United States.

 “I don’t think … very many individuals of African descent coming out of the United States have had very much experience or very much interaction with individuals of African descent from others of the Western Hemisphere, from Europe or from Africa,” Jenkins said. “And the limited experience that individuals of African descent from the [North American] continent have had with other African people, unfortunately, has either been negative or largely influenced by the media.” 

The media “filter in information where America is the land of the free, home of the brave – where there are all kinds of opportunities, [and] all you have to do is snatch those opportunities,” Jenkins said.

In her experience, Crumb noted that the foundation of the conflict is in the media as it contributes to the various stereotypes of both groups.

But “I still think we have a personal responsibility and I wouldn’t put sole blame on the media,” Crumb said.

 Jenkins said elements of black pride among African Americans are predominantly inauthentic.

“We may argue that black is beautiful and that we’re proud of our African [nature], but deep down inside, because so many of us have been brainwashed by Europeans, we are essentially anti-black,” he said. “So not only do we hate ourselves, but we hate each other. And I think a lot of the animosity derives from that.”

According to Mary Stricker, a sociology professor at Temple, issues of conflict between the two groups can be attributed to two factors: economic competition and immigration.

“There’s going to be tension with any immigrants coming here to live the ‘American Dream,'” Stricker said.

In the racial hierarchy that is the United States where blacks are eternally at the bottom, Stricker said, many immigrants come here wanting to distance themselves.

“If you want to be truly American, you have to be not black,” she said.

Stricker said before coming to Temple, many of her African students and their parents “succumbed to the same fear of black people, same culture of poverty, stereotypes” portrayed in American media, such as African Americans being lazy or being criminals.

“Some of my most vociferous students toward African Americans being lazy are African students,” Stricker said.

The conflict plays into a bigger issue in American society: maintaining the status quo of having a minority population, Stricker said. Allowing minorities to conflict with each other is beneficial to the larger white community, she said.

“… Because as a white society, we benefit from keeping subordinate groups separate. … We benefit from them not coming together and engaging in political activity because if they did they could certainly elect people who can represent them,” Stricker said.

Zain Abdullah, an assistant professor of race, religion and ethnicity at Temple, said: “In a racial hierarchy like the United States, blackness represents the bottom. … So why would anyone want to be associated with it?

“Identities, social relations and how we define ourselves has a lot to do with who we are and that in itself is inherently conflictual,” said Abdullah, who has authored articles on West African immigration.

Africans are not alone in having this vision of America, Abdullah said, citing Elian Gonzalez’s story.

Elian Gonzalez, at age 7, arrived in the United States on a raft from Cuba in 2000 and was at the center of a custody battle between relatives in Florida and at home in Cuba.

Much of the conflict, Abdullah added, has to do with “internalized racism about blackness.”

“People have internalized racist notions about each other – seeing Africa as a monolithic whole,” a realization partly due to the racist ideology of America that has always placed Africa at the bottom, he said.

“Part of the rise of the West was to put Africa as its mirror opposite – to justify enslavement. We’ve inherited all of that disgust, that stigma,” Abdullah said.

Today however, that relationship is evolving, he said.

” … I think there is an effort to join the struggle against Western domination.”

But “on a whole, I think a lot of African Americans still hold those views of Africa – of Africa as an ethnic souvenir,” Abdullah said.

In part three, read what the media have to say about allegations about its contributions to the conflict between black Americans and African immigrants.

Sulaiman Abdur Rahman and Charmie R. Snetter can be reached at

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