Become a Patron


excerpted from: Lolita K. Buckner Inniss, Tricky Magic: Blacks as Immigrants and the Paradox of Foreignness, 49 DePaul Law Review 85-137, 85-89, 137 (Fall 1999) (363 Footnotes) (Full Document)

lolita buckner innissSince the beginning of the nation, white Americans have suffered from a deep inner uncertainty as to who they really are. One of the ways that has been used to simplify the answer has been to seize upon the presence of black Americans and use them as a marker, a symbol of limits, a metaphor for the "outsider." Many whites could look at the social position of blacks and feel that color formed an easy and reliable gauge for determining to what extent one was or was not American. Perhaps that is why one of the first epithets that many European immigrants learned when they got off the boat was the term "nigger" -it made them feel instantly American. But this is tricky magic. Despite his racial difference and social status, something indisputably American about Negroes not only raised doubts about the white man's value system but aroused the troubling suspicion that whatever else the true American is, he is also somehow black.

The black American experience is an immigrant experience. This is true, I submit, whether we speak of native or foreign-born blacks, poor or middleclass blacks. It has been suggested that all nonwhite people are foreigners or "others" vis-a-vis "real" or white Americans. However, the situation in which black Americans find themselves is different. The general failure of assimilation has made the black American experience unique among immigrant experiences in that it is an unremitting immigrant experience--an experience of continued exclusion. Blacks are part of a de facto permanent immigrant class.

I address my thesis by exploring three topics. The first is the inherent paradox of being a "native" black American, and the slave experience as part of the immigrant experience. Of all of the immigrant groups, blacks have achieved the least assimilation. Blacks are "foreigners" on their very faces--that is, they serve as very visible emblems of what is different. Yet paradoxically, America has in many respects created the black image. The Negro "authentic" is something of an Ur-man in the American scene, one who embodies the American dream of pulling oneself up by the bootstraps, moving from the "heathen jungles" of Africa, and rising up from the yoke of slavery. This is said of blacks even though many blacks suffer such dire social and economic ills that they are said to be wearing no boots all, either figuratively or literally. Nonetheless, blacks appear to be perpetually moving upward or forward, for they have always come from so very far behind. Blacks can rarely say that things are not better than they used to be. The black authentic is full of "joie de vivre" and music. Blacks are the embodiment of the sort of romantic racialism essential to American cultural and spiritual heritage. They existed as "anti-Caucasian" to balance the American equation, but also as a kind, loyal, docile, and affectionate pre-species from which the American type could take his kinder and more compassionate impulses. Indeed, the black American as a symbol of glorified oppression is often seen beyond our American shores. Undoubtedly, the notion that the American ideal is in some way black is the source of some discomfort for whites. If blacks are the ultimate American, are we not all somehow black?

The second topic I explore is the image of blacks as foreigners and the phenomenon of blacks as hyphenated Americans. Because the black person is to a great degree an American construct, can there be any such thing as a black foreigner? Moreover, because it is arguable that even so-called native blacks themselves have never been fully assimilated in American society, culture, or economy, how could there, in fact, be any black more "foreign" than a native black? Despite this seeming paradox, there has been some acknowledgment since early times that there constantly loomed the possibility of black population growth in America by the entry of those not born in the country. For example, the Act of 1790, sometimes called the earliest immigration legislation, limited naturalization to white people. There was the fear inspired by the 1803 revolt of Haiti's black slaves and the subsequent declaration of an independent black republic. Might not those altogether too alien dark faces demand entry to the nearby shores of the United States, demanding equality, and worse, encouraging "native" blacks to do the same? Those relatively few non- native blacks who have nonetheless made their way into this country, over the years, have been greeted by a curious mixture of fear and admiration, distaste and awe.

Finally, this paper addresses the position of both foreign and native blacks in today's debate over whether to continue to try to address inequities in black attainment through affirmative action or other government remedies. Many have argued that recent black entrants are not due any redress because they and their ancestors have not experienced the full measure of American white racism. Others have argued that even so-called "native blacks" should no longer be the subject of programs designed to address or redress their ills because blatant racism is no longer a feature of American life and many blacks have already achieved middle-class status. This view, however, is myopic at best. Here, on the eve of the millennium, the legal, political, and social status of blacks remains stagnant. Acknowledging the immigrant status of all blacks can lend clarity to both the historical treatment of American blacks and more recent black immigrants. Further, such a perspective may suggest remedies for some of black America's present-day woes.

. . .

There is an intimate link between anti-immigrant sentiment and opposition to native black American progress. It is not coincidental that, for example, in California, Proposition 209, the anti-affirmative action initiative, followed closely on the heels of Proposition 187, the anti-immigrant initiative. I believe that in order to address the present-day social and economic ills of native blacks, there must be an acknowledgement that native blacks are not assimilated because of their existence in a continuing immigrant status. Like other immigrant groups, the large majority of native blacks lives with a different culture, custom, and to some extent, a different language than the mainstream. The involuntary transportation of Africans to this country from various regions of Africa means that native blacks are bereft of two of the most important stimuli for immigrant progress: voluntary entry into the country because of a desire to build better lives, and the reference to the old country as a source of emotional grounding.