It Matters How We Define the African Diaspora
Krista Johnson is an Associate Professor and Director of the Center for African Studies at Howard University.
Vice President Kamala Harris’ visit to three African countries this week—Ghana, Tanzania and Zambia—is part of the Biden administration’s efforts to supercharge engagement with African countries in the aftermath of the U.S.-Africa Leaders’ Summit.. Arriving first in Ghana, Vice President Harris gave an emotional speech at Cape Coast Castle, Ghana’s historic slave trading post, that acknowledged the horrors of the slave trade but also the history of those who survived in the Americas and the Caribbean and rose above daunting odds to build a better future. Speaking to Ghana’s President Akufo-Addo, Vice President Harris applauded his leadership in elevating engagement with the African diaspora, a key pillar of the Biden administration’s new U.S.-Africa policy.
The elevation of the African diaspora as a tool of soft power in U.S.-Africa policy is generally viewed as a laudable and productive shift in U.S. engagement with Africa. However, a particular construction of the African diaspora has come to the fore with the U.S.-Africa Leaders’ Summit that may encourage fractures and exacerbate cleavages within the diaspora. The explicit incorporation of the African diaspora into U.S.-Africa policy carries the risk of segmenting the community into old and new, with important domestic and international consequences. U.S. policymakers and the African diasporan constituency would do well to think through the implications of the new U.S. strategy towards Africa and its impact on relationships within the diaspora.
Not widely covered, it was students with the Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU) Africa Correspondents Corps who reported during the summit on the conflicting definitions and understandings of the African diaspora. While government officials gave an expansive and cohesive definition of diaspora on the record, by the end of the summit some Africanist scholars observed a distinction being made between the “old” and “new” diaspora. In fact, the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit brought into stark relief the emergence of narratives that seek to define the African diaspora as the “new” diaspora, comprised of relatively recent, middle-class, economic migrants, as well as social and economic entrepreneurs. Largely excluded from this new narrative is the “old” diaspora, the descendants of enslaved Africans. Less tarred by America’s history of racism and race demonizing, the “new” diaspora fits well with America’s own persona of being a land of economic prosperity and opportunity, and a new whitewashed history of capitalism, untethered to its past in slavery and colonialism, that the United States seeks to promote at home and abroad. Furthermore, with a growing political profile, this “new” diaspora is increasingly being courted by Republicans and Democrats alike.
The prioritization during the summit of individual trade deals, social and cultural exchanges, and people-to-people ties suggests the United States is looking to build bilateral relationships with select African markets and countries to counter any continental influence by China in particular. African heads of state played into this approach by coming to Washington each with their own agenda. Such geostrategic cultivation of a U.S. “hub and spokes”-type system of discrete, exclusive alliances with individual African countries is likely to encourage further divisions within the African diaspora as sub-groups see benefits to organizing as Nigerian-Americans, Kenyan-Americans, etc. This will likely have implications on the role and use of diasporas as tools of soft power that historically could be utilized to build multilateral cooperation and engagement. A segmented African diaspora may reinforce a state-centric international system and undermine continental cooperation among African states.
The unleashed tensions within the African diaspora could undo some of the important gains achieved through intra-racial alliances, for example around racial justice and antiracism advocacy and in the coalitions created to elect record numbers of African immigrants to political office. Recent changing demographics within the African diaspora, with one out of ten now being newer African immigrants, on its own has unleashed positive and negative intra-racial dynamics and transformations within black institutions, including Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs), black advocacy groups, and the black church. At Howard University, and other HBCUs for example, student enrollment by the children of African immigrants has ballooned, expanding the diversity across our campuses and enriching our programming. Additionally, it has prompted much needed, and generally constructive reflection on how we build a collective community that celebrates multiple and particular cultural and linguistic histories.
But there’s a danger that the new U.S.-Africa strategy may encourage not only siloed identities within the diaspora, but siloed opportunities and programs, some focused on the “old” diaspora, and others on the “new.” In fact, this is already happening with the existing White House initiative on HBCUs viewed as a program for the “old” diaspora, whereas the new President’s Advisory Council on the African Diaspora courting the “new” diaspora. Both initiatives engage broadly with the aim to increase representation and African diasporan voices in U.S. foreign policy, yet they operate completely separately. As the Biden administration continues to allocate funding and resources based on this “new” and “old” diaspora distinction, it will likely have implications for African and African American Studies programs, and perhaps HBCU enrollments, which have grown significantly in recent years.
As the United States ramps up diaspora engagement in subnational diplomacy, which U.S. cities will be prioritized—Houston with its large African immigrant population over Memphis with its large African American population? The African diasporan constituency already suffers institutionally, relying on disparate and relatively weak advocacy organizations. As the United States prioritizes new networks of mutual cultural and commercial alliances with African constituencies, we need to strengthen historical and strategic alliances within the African diaspora and mitigate against any unintended consequences of the new U.S.-Africa foreign policy.