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African Immigrants: Entering a Racial Wealth Divide

Historically and contemporarily, the topic of immigration ignites many of the passions revolving around the central socio-economic issues of the time. The immigration of African people to the United States deeply intersects with ongoing racial economic inequality and how the inequality of the past is being replicated intothe future. Currently, the United States has an immigrant population of about 43.4 million, with African immigrants making up roughly 3.9 percent of all immigrants in 2009.

These 1.7 million mostly Black immigrants come to this country in pursuit of the “American Dream” of economic opportunity and prosperity yet find that the racial economic inequality that has prevented most African Americans from ever fully participating in the “American Dream” also is a barrier to their economic advancement.

The number of Black immigrants living in the US has risen 13-fold from 1970 to 2010, increasing their share of the Black population from 1% to 10%. African immigrants make up about 40% of the Black immigrant population, with most Black immigrants coming from the West Indies.

Like most immigrant groups, African immigrants create their own social enclave here in the United States, but this enclave exists within spaces defined by native social hierarchies and communities. African immigrants are disproportionately found in big American cities and usually carve out their own geographical concentration in an area that has historically been populated by African Americans.

In the 2009 US Census, nearly 80% of African immigrants reported their race as “Black,” which is a major change from 1980 when 42% of African immigrants reported their race as White —likely reflecting a stronger presence of North African or Arab immigrants.

African immigrants are most often some of the most highly educated from their native countries and have higher educational attainment levels than most native-born Americans. Over 40% of African immigrants have completed four or more years of college.

For such a highly educated and predominately English-speaking community, one would expect economic results far stronger than have been documented thus far. In 2007, African immigrants’ median income, based on 2007 data, was a mere $44,000 compared to a national median income of $50,740. To put this in perspective, according to the American Community Survey, from 2010-2014 only 20% of White Americans had a bachelor’s degree but had a median salary of almost $60,000.

The 2009 American Community Survey also shows, that a greater share of African immigrants lived in a household with an annual income below the federal poverty line at 18.5% than the native- born Americans (13.6%) and immigrants overall at 17.3% despite their higher educational levels.

Much more work must be done to examine in depth how African immigrants fit into the American racial wealth divide, but for now it is important to note that even African’s immigrating from another continent do not escape the long history and contemporary reality of Black Americans having a lower socio-economic status.

Coauthored with Natalie Gerber, Racial Wealth Divide Initiative Intern.

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Dedrick Asante-Muhammad is host of the Race and Wealth Podcast and Director of the Racial Wealth Divide Initiative at the Corporation for Economic Development.

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