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Thursday, February 7, 2013
Diversity Toolbox

The changing nature of ‘African-American’

By Sherri Williams

February is African-American History Month (also called Black History Month) and is designated to recognize and celebrate the accomplishments and contributions of African-Americans, people of African descent who were born in the United States.

But the increase of African immigrants is also notable and is changing the definition of who is an African-American. In 1990, more than 363,000 African immigrants were living in the United States, according to U.S. Census data. The latest census numbers show there are now more than 1.6 million African immigrants living in this country.

The spike in African immigrants is causing an identity shift that is sometimes puzzling for demographers and will surely present a coverage opportunity for journalists.

During the 2010 census, some African immigrants who are now citizens identified as African-American, said Hawa Siad, executive director of the Somali Women and Children’s Alliance, a non-profit that assists East African immigrants in Columbus, Ohio.

“There was a lot of confusion about who claims to be African- American,” Siad said. “Many of the Somalis are citizens now. So they have to claim they are African-American, but that was not the intent. It was kind of misleading to some.”

Reporters can learn to cover the fluid definition of who is an African-American and the growing African immigrant community by learning about the community as it evolves.

DEVELOP RELATIONSHIPS WITH AFRICAN COMMUNITY LEADERS

They can give reporters first-hand insight into the issues African immigrants face in a particular community. The businesses that African immigrants are running are revitalizing areas, and that’s an important story to tell, Siad said.

“We came here as refugees without any money or anything, but we made it and we’re successful,” she said. “Immigrant communities are contributing and not dragging.”

But the relationship between some native-born African- Americans and African immigrants is strained because of lack of knowledge about one another, she said. A news story about that can start crucial dialogue between the two communities that needs to happen.

Siad has other tips for reporters covering African immigrant communities: Be objective, learn about the community, be fair, use neutral language that is clear, summarize interviews with sources before your story is published or aired to clear up meanings. Getting things wrong or out of context can mislead the public and perpetuate stereotypes. Most importantly, work on developing relationships with African immigrant community leaders by having discussions and building trust.

REACH OUT TO REFUGEE RESETTLEMENT AGENCIES IN YOUR CITY

People who help African refugees and immigrants resettle here can give insight into the community and why they’ve come to the United States.

“A resettlement agency would be able to provide a reading on who is coming into the community,” said Andrew Baranoski, executive director of the American Civic Association refugee resettlement agency in Binghamton, N.Y.

“We could tell you how many English-as-a-secondlanguage students we assist in a month, how many refugees we resettle in a year, where they’re from.” Refugee resettlement agency professionals can also “discuss what populations are trending up and down in a community,” Baranoski said. For example, Binghamton resettled some Somalis, but they’ve moved to cities with larger Somali communities, and now Binghamton has Sudanese immigrants.

Baranoski says he can also help reporters understand how African immigrants’ presence is changing businesses, education, housing, health and law enforcement. Resettlement agency workers can also help reporters understand the diversity among African immigrants, from the collegeeducated professionals to those with no formal education. Reporters who are unfamiliar with the range of religious and political beliefs among African immigrants and the intercultural differences among them can easily miss nuances in their reporting, but refugee resettlement workers can help fill in the gaps, Baranoski said.

He said resettlement agencies want the public to understand why waves of refugees come to their communities, and they’re willing to talk to reporters to help others learn about the refugee process.

CONNECT WITH ACADEMICS AND SCHOLARS AT LOCAL UNIVERSITIES

Professors at nearby colleges and universities can give important background on African communities and the nations from which they emigrate. Scholars can offer historical context that can be crucial to stories about immigrant communities. Academics can help connect the dots for journalists and help them understand global policy that affects a particular African nation and America’s relationship with a country.

Scholars can also provide information on customs, interethnic and interracial relationships within African communities. They can also provide historical insight on the local African communities and how they’ve changed over time. Census data can also provide numbers to show state and local changes in African immigrant populations.

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