The Issue Of Citizenship For African American In The Book By Niambi Michele Carter

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In Niambi Michele Carter’s book American While Black, she analyzes black responses to immigration, developing a term “conflicted nativism” that she uses to describe black views on immigration and citizenship. This term is developed throughout the book through historical analysis and a case study approach to understand why blacks feel both sympathetic towards immigrants, but also view their arrival as competition. Carter’s research and analysis uncovers the complexity of this term, specifically looking at whether blacks choose to organize for immigrant groups, as well as underlining a potential shared experience. Blacks’ views on immigration can be viewed through the lens of history, as black politics in the US have been shaped by oppression, the restriction of civil rights, and a collective memory of this past. As a result of historical experience, immigration is a topic deeply rooted in the history of black people in the US, and their prior mistreatment shapes their ideology today. Additionally, immigration initiates competition between blacks and new immigrant groups that are competing for similar job prospects. Combined with the historical evidence of non-black groups engaging in anti-black rhetoric to become closer to whiteness, blacks are skeptical about immigration. On the other hand, black people empathize with immigrants, as they have similar shared experiences, but there is no organizing among black people for immigrant causes. Carter’s construction of the term conflicted nativism is built upon the foundations of white supremacy that has influenced how blacks view both immigration and how blacks view their place in American society. Ultimately, when assessing Carter’s characterization of conflicted nativism, is seems unfeasible that blacks will resolve this feeling towards immigration, especially considering the strength of the overarching structure of white supremacy that would need to be overcome in order to change black perceptions of immigration.

The first dimension of collective nativism Carter explores in the novel is that despite blacks having some opposition to immigration, they have never been organized to oppose immigration (or support it). Blacks opposition towards immigrants comes from the reality that immigrants will take jobs from blacks because they are willing to work for a lower price. Combined with a stereotype that Latino immigrants (the immigrant group identified by Carter’s research as the biggest threat to black employment) are hardworking and will work for less, blacks often see immigrants (usually Latinos) as competition (p.15). Carter observed slightly suspicious attitudes towards Latino immigration in her interviews she conducted, with many of the respondents felt as though this stereotype of hard-working immigrant was true (p. 131). Despite these attitudes, black opposition to immigration has never had a commanding force in the political sphere. The reason for this might be what Carter explains as a “lack of social capital”, but the underlying reason is likely that their political power is negligible in a government that has uplifted and institutionalized white supremacy (p. 61). This lack of organization makes any anti-immigrant sentiment dissipate among the black political sphere.

As a result of this lack of organization, there seems to be a muted response towards the issue immigration among black voters, which fits Carter’s argument. However, resolving this this dimension of conflicted nativism is difficult, as their attitude towards immigrants is a result of American structures in place that are meant to keep black people down. While blacks are fearful of Latinos in terms of employment opportunities, this is due to Latino’s ability to appeal to white majority with their assumed hard work ethic, and unintentionally keep blacks from these jobs. Because the US operates on a racial binary between black and white, non-black immigrants are able to tread the line to achieve better opportunities than black folk due to appealing to whiteness through assumed stereotypes for example.

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Another aspect of conflicted nativism that Carter identifies is that blacks seem to empathize with immigrants, due to their history of shared experiences in America. Carter’s historical analysis explains that minority groups recognize each other’s struggles that they have to face in a country that favors whites (p. 61). Historically, laws enacted in 1790 defined Northern and Western European people as the only group eligible for citizenship, all other immigrant groups were defaulted as unsuitable (p. 141). New immigrants face prejudice and discrimination when arriving to the US, similar to what blacks still experience to this day. Carter found that blacks do sympathize with immigrants, but there is little evidence about there being a specific coalition among minorities that is pro-immigration. Historically, Carter found that blacks fought against the Chinese Exclusion Act, but the reasoning for black support was because otherwise they were “supporting their own degradation” because of the shared link between segregationist and anti-immigrant groups (p. 55). Carter explains a theory that coalitions among minorities are less likely than competition between them, as cooperation is usually contextual and based entirely on circumstance. This sympathy for immigrants is meant to emphasize the “conflicted” nature of blacks’ view on immigration; however, Carter makes the point that competition among minorities is much more likely in practice. This partially undermines the idea of conflicted nativism being truly how blacks feel about immigration, because when competition takes precedence over coalition, as there is no benefit for blacks to join in a zero-sum game for them (p.30). Their empathy does not usually translate to coalition building, and cooperation when neither of them will really benefit makes it difficult for blacks to resolve this dimension of conflicted nativism.

Conflicted nativism also contains a historical aspect of blacks feeling insecure about their citizenship in the US; Carter looks at the history of black people in America since slavery as well as the development of Durham, NC in modern times to come to this conclusion. Historically, blacks have only received protection of their civil rights through federal law. Their freedom from slavery, citizenship, and right to vote in the US is due to the 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments. W.E.B. DuBois explains this well in that there are “two warring ideals” to black citizenship, where the black identity is in tension with the American identity that is founded on whiteness (p. 23). Blacks struggle in forming black citizenship on a country where that was not allowed. In understanding conflicted nativism, blacks’ insecurity about their citizenship creates this fear about immigrants coming to potentially hurt the rights blacks fought so hard for. Carter uses various examples of this underlying root of conflicted nativism, in blacks being told to leave to Liberia, which made it seem as though their claim to this country was invalid (p. 77). Carter further explains this argument of insecure citizenship though the use of collective memory, which involves blacks’ memory of a history of slavery, oppression and lack of civil rights to feel as though they can never really truly belong in America (p. 113). Another example Carter uses to describe this dimension of conflicted nativism is Durham, a town with black growth and prosperity, but also many barriers to fair representation during segregation. Durham’s past involved practices used to diminish the power of black people, through voting restrictions, as well as battles for continued segregation (p. 102). As a result, these events have caused uneasiness over the stability of blacks’ political rights. This can be translated to feelings of anti-immigrant sentiment, since historically non-blacks have gained closer proximity to whiteness through distancing themselves from blacks (p. 168). For Carter, blacks seem unable to resolve this internal conflict, as much of this insecurity about citizenship becomes psychologically damaging over time. Since blacks have had to continuously fight for their rights, this creates political insecurity threatened by new immigrants that have previously been anti-black as a way to achieve whiteness while degrading blacks. As a result, anti-immigrant sentiment is created due to the ways in which white supremacy structures race in America. In thinking about conflicted nativism, the history black citizenship provides an example of why blacks may hold anti-immigrant sentiment. Additionally, this uneasiness is due to white superiority in the US, and how blacks’ political rights were only achieved after acts of protest. As a result, it seems impossible to resolve this conflicted nativism because white supremacy will continue to make blacks feel uneasy about citizenship and anxious about newcomers potentially harming their rights.

In assessing Carter’s argument about conflicted nativism, there seems to be the underlying idea that black opinions on immigration come from their oppression under white supremacy. Anti-immigrant sentiment among blacks is due to the historical betrayal of blacks by immigrant groups to try and achieve closer standing to whiteness. Blacks are wary of immigrants because they fear that their access to employment will be diminished. The reason there has not been any organization among black anti-immigrant sentiment is the lack of political power compared to whites. Even though blacks empathize with immigrants, competition for resources makes it difficult to support them. Black insecurity about citizenship and skepticism about immigration comes from the structure of white supremacy in the US. As this country was founded on these motives, Carter does not believe that conflicted nativism can be resolved anytime soon, as these structures would need to change significantly. For black opinion to shift, there would need to be a fundamental shift in the underlying ideology of American government.

Work Cited

  1. Carter, Niambi. 2019. American While Black: African Americans, Immigration and the Limits of Citizenship. New York: Oxford University Press.
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