Tension climbs highest in poor communities
Monday, February 13, 2006By Ervin Dyer, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
In 1989, Zedueh Doerue, a proud and traditional-minded father of eight, smuggled his family out of civil-war ravaged Liberia into Guinea, a more stable West African nation to the south.
"I don't understand it."
Four years ago, a Catholic refugee resettlement program brought him to Pittsburgh, where two of his children were born. Now, working as a nursing assistant and living in a two-story Bon Air home, Mr. Doerue and his family would seem to have left danger and chaos behind.
But Mr. Doerue, 44, said that for the last year he's been continually harassed, his children have been bullied by neighborhood thugs, his car damaged and the windows on his home have been repeatedly broken.
Mr. Doerue has called police because he feels "hunted" by the perpetrators, who he claims are mostly black youths.
Police are unclear on the motives for the attacks, and Mr. Doerue said, "I don't understand it."
He's not alone. Many sociologists and researchers are trying to understand the relationships between black Americans and a recent boom of immigrants who have come to America from Africa and the Caribbean.
It is not always an easy transition and black Americans and the immigrants find they are being forced to confront complex issues of identity, ethnicity and community.
"As a general trend, the two groups are having tensions," said Jacqueline Copeland-Carson, a scholar with the Hubert H. Humphrey School of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota and author of the book, "Creating Africa in America."
The tensions can be especially raw and violent in urban communities struggling with poverty, she said, as black Americans who feel economically trapped clash culturally with immigrant Africans who have escaped turmoil worse than Hurricane Katrina and may have stereotypical views of black Americans as being lazy or glorifiers of gangster life.
There are other barriers that create problems, too, said Ms. Copeland-Carson, who studies contemporary immigration issues.
These include widespread ignorance about the history of ethnic groups and nationalities and not understanding how others define their identities.
For example, she said, in Nigeria alone, there are more than 250 ethnic groups. Africans don't come here with the same racial notion of "black" identity that African Americans have formed, said Ms. Copeland-Carson.
Furthermore, she said, when immigrant Africans move into communities of concentrated poverty, where people are already struggling with low-wage jobs, they are often seen as economic and political threats.
When the misunderstandings loom that large, "even by speaking English with an accent," said Ms. Copeland-Carson, "[immigrant Africans] can become the enemy."
Mr. Doerue says his children were picked on and targeted simply because they speak differently.
Accents can also target immigrants as people less familiar with the system and thus more vulnerable to scams, robbery or attack.
Some of the 30 to 40 Somalian families in town have faced other hostilities from black Americans.
Their dress, mannerisms and accents mean they stand out as foreigners in many neighborhoods, said Joshua Kivuva, a University of Pittsburgh teacher and Kenyan native who helps ease the families into life here.
In Northview Heights, there are allegations that a Somalian has been threatened with a gun; in Homewood, a Somalian middle school student has had a gun pointed at him, and a Somali mother in Homewood has been told she needs to move to be safe, said Mr. Kivuva.
In Oakland, with its stew of international students and faculty, the immigrant Africans can fit in, said Mr. Kivuva, but in low-income areas open conflicts are more likely.
"I think the perception is that [immigrant Africans] are given priority for services and that causes tensions," he said.
The tensions surface not just in Pittsburgh, but across the country.
Three months ago, a 13-year-old Ghanaian boy was brutally beaten, police say, by black American youths in his neighborhood in southwest Philadelphia.
On occasion, the conflicts turn deadly.
Congo immigrant Nzubamunu Mitete, 51, a Pentecostal preacher, was robbed and murdered in Lincoln-Lemington while driving a jitney on a cold December night. Police say his attacker was a young black man.
Thirty days later, David Agar, 24, a "Lost Boy," one of the survivors of the conflict in the Sudan, was killed while leaving an Uptown club. Police arrested Todd Akrie, 26, of Windgap, charging him with robbery and homicide in the incident.
While issues of racial identity and poverty can heighten the hostility of black Americans against immigrant Africans, said Ms. Copeland-Carson, the rancor against newcomers is nothing new.
"In the early 20th century, there was enmity against Irish immigrants and Italians," she said. "This dynamic is a piece of the ethnic history of the United States."
To make it more confusing, said Mr. Kivuva, is the fact that most immigrant Africans hear from black Americans that whites can't be trusted; but, in Pittsburgh, he said, few black organizations help the Somali families that he works with.
"The person who comes to the house with bread, who comes to read to a student, who takes children to the zoo," said Mr. Kivuva, "is a white person."
The solution to help everyone get along is using common ground to build bridges, said Yinka Aganga-Williams, an immigrant Nigerian who works with local groups to ease immigrant transitions into Allegheny County.
What black Americans need to understand, said Ms. Copeland-Carson, is that their culture, from spirituals to food to healing practices, is an amalgam of African traditions. It can be revitalizing to re-link these cultures with immigrant Africans.
Likewise, black Americans who have survived in this country can help immigrants sustain identities in schools and help build political coalitions.
The glass is not half-empty when it comes to relations between the two groups, said Ms. Aganga-Williams, who warned that media stereotyping paints a picture that all black Americans are harassing Africans.
"I don't think they are being targeted. [David Agar] went to a bar, and there happened to be a bad guy there. I don't think Mitete's killer set out to kill an African immigrant that night.
"There are people in Nigeria, Ghana, wherever you're from," she said, "who get killed from this kind of robbery every day.
"I just think we never hear about the ones who have said this is my African-American friend, and he truly wants to hear about Africa."