Immigration and America's Black Population

By Kent, Mary Mederios | Population Bulletin, December 2007 | Go to article overview

Immigration and America's Black Population


Kent, Mary Mederios, Population Bulletin


New flows of immigrants from Africa and the Caribbean are a growing component of the U.S. population. They are part of the racial and ethnic transformation of the United States in the 21st century. Although far outnumbered by nonblack Hispanic and Asian immigrants, the number of black immigrants is growing at a remarkable rate. More than one-fourth of the black population in New York, Boston, and Miami is foreign-born. Immigration contributed at least one-fifth of the growth in the U.S. black population between 2001 and 2006.

Economic and political forces brought these immigrants to the United States from Africa, the Caribbean, and some Latin American countries. They come to the United States seeking educational opportunities, jobs, and sometimes individual safety. U.S. immigration laws enacted over the last few decades have opened new avenues for black immigrants, especially from Africa. U.S. laws favoring immigrant family reunification have played a particularly important role in immigration from nearby Caribbean countries. For this group, the journey to the United States has become so common that succeeding generations are likely to join their relatives already here.

The growing number and size of black immigrant communities with their distinctive dress, language, music, and food-are raising their visibility. There is increasing recognition that these groups have produced some of America's most respected leaders, most recently former secretary of State Colin Powell-son of Jamaican immigrants-and Illinois Senator Barack Obama-whose father was Kenyan. Black immigrants have more education and have higher incomes than foreign-born Americans in general, or than U.S.-born African Americans. They are less likely to be in poverty or unemployed. But many are overqualified and underpaid for the jobs they have.

These new immigrants bring a diversity of skills and experiences, along witli rich cultures and traditions. They are immigrants and they are black-two distinctive social groups in the United States-which influences their adaptation into the social and economic fabric of their new country. Many immigrants consciously maintain the dress, language, and other aspects of their homelands to affirm their "otherness." African and Caribbean immigrants often live in neighborhoods separated from each other, from U.S.-born blacks, and from white Americans.1 But many immigrants, and especially their children and grandchildren, embrace elements of U.S. culture. Through this interaction, both the immigrants and U.S.-born population are affected.2

African-Origin Population Among First Americans

African Americans have been a major part of the U.S. population since the country's founding. They accounted for nearly one-fifth of the 3.9 million Americans counted in the 1790 Census. Nearly all of these early blacks traced their roots to African slaves brought to the country involuntarily during the 1700s. The slave trade was illegal by 1808, ending the flow from Africa. Relatively few immigrants of African origin settled in the United States over the next 150 years, an era when millions of white immigrants were entering from Europe.3 U.S. immigration laws restricted the entry of nonwhites. The great distance and uncertainties of travel were additional barriers to travel from Africa. The black immigrants who did arrive were mainly from the Caribbean-descendents of Africans brought to that region in the 18th century.

By 1900, the total U.S. population had ballooned to 76 million, driven by immigration from Europe. Black Americans accounted for 12 percent of the total population.

The blacks immigrating to the United Sates in the early 1900s primarily settled in New York and a few other cities. Jamaicans and other West Indians created active ethnic communities-an estimated one-quarter of the black population of Harlem in the 1920s was West Indian.4 But immigration waned in the 1920s, stemming the flow of new immigrants into these communities for decades. …

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