Lambert Mbom

Pre-election forecasts and post-election exit polls often focus on the Hispanic vote. By sheer dint of their numbers, Hispanics in the US constitute a force to reckon with. They have understood the mechanics of this system and slowly but surely made their way from the fringes to mainstream.

In my early years in the US, it was often fascinating seeing job adverts that listed bilingual qualification of prospective candidates as a conditio sine qua none. I quickly revised my French lessons and knew I would be better placed than most candidates. Sooner than later, I got the rude awakening that bilingualism did not mean only English and French but rather any two languages and in this case English and Spanish. It dawned on me that one is better off with Spanish as a second language and there is no denying it that one greatly improves his chances of landing a job by this qualification. This says something of the Hispanic caucus.

In the last election cycle, the huge Hispanic turnout in key battleground states paid off; Harry Reid, for example, the most endangered senator in the last election who had his seat on life support owes his victory in part to the Hispanic vote angered by Angle’s anti-immigration ads.

In the light of the foregoing, one may rightly ask – where are the Africans?

Africans are surely lost in the madding crowd of “African American” and are more concerned with bread-and-butter issues. Most of us are on the wild goose chase for the dollar. Only at the risk of being myopic can anyone minimize the myriad of issues assailing African immigrants from both families and friends on the one hand and the daily challenges of the capitalist world on the other. Talk then of an African caucus seems more like a pie in the sky.

Unlike the Hispanics, we lack the numbers. The exact number of African born immigrants to the US eligible to vote remains a mystery of our time. A wild guess would cap the total number of African immigrants in the US at roughly four million. One would be exaggeratedly generous to assume that about one-quarter of these is eligible to vote. It would seem then that the African Diaspora pales in significance and any talk about it rings hollow. Yet, there is no gainsaying it that we are the architects of our own destiny.

First, it is important to highlight an important distinction. Africans in the US Diaspora need to draw the line with their “siblings” known as “African Americans” even though many think otherwise. In the US conference of Catholic Bishops for example, the department that handles African affairs is that of Cultural diversity where Africans for some strange reasons are lumped under the general class of migrants, refugees and travelers. (I must hasten to add here though that there is a special solidarity fund for the Church in Africa).  This is even very common with application forms where the different race categorizations leave the African immigrant with hobson’s choice of filling in African-American as his race. 

The average African-American considers the African immigrant at best third class. One may be exaggerating the reality but it is sadly true that there is a discernible novel form of racism (for want of a better term) namely that of African-Americans against the African immigrants. The checkered past of the African-American marred by the heinous racism seems to be catching up with the average African-American who in an unconscious attempt to pay back for this crime scapegoats the African immigrant. Those of us certified bus riders in the DC metro area, or those in the caring professions for example will attest to this reality. Our strong accent or so they claim betrays us.

It is akin to the kind of xenophobia reported in South Africa. Reports of blacks’ hostility to other Africans are rife; the former claim that these African immigrants to South Africa have come to take away their jobs.

Even though the African Diaspora shares common concerns with the African-American caucus, it will be an oversimplification and a stretch to paint all with one broad stroke. The African American has no immigration problem for example and even with a seemingly common problem like unemployment, it hits the African immigrant at a different angle. The need for an African Diaspora Caucus cannot be belabored. Yet as usual this caucus is its own best enemy.

The one lesson the midterm elections of 2010 has proffered us is the indisputable role of special interest groups. Politics is truly a game of interests so aptly described as “scratch my back, I scratch your own” (excuse the pidgin, which simply expresses the truism that politics is a benign form of trade by barter). The African Diaspora has special interests realizable within this framework.  

The hackneyed expression: “little drops of water make an ocean” should propel all to action. Vestiges of this caucus are visible in the laudable World Bank initiative dubbed the African Diaspora Program (ADP) launched in 2007. Even though the ADP is geared specifically towards harnessing the avalanche of resources and pooling together the variegated talents for the region’s development, this is a milestone step towards setting up the caucus. This is a framework that could be positively exploited for enormous political gains.

In seeking to navigate US political landscape, the African Diaspora must borrow a leaf from the Hispanic caucus. Three lessons worth drawing on are first Hispanics have made their voices heard and articulated their plight; next they have put their money where their mouth is and lastly they are an organized bunch.

 Hispanics have made no secret of the fact that immigration is their foremost headache. Even though Africans in the Diaspora share this malaise, they have hardly raised their voices loud. Events meant to highlight this issue receive scan attention from the African Diaspora. Immigration is not just the problem of the undocumented or generally those ineligible to stay and work in the US legally. While Hispanics take care of their own and support a protective cocoon around their illegal immigrants, African immigrants are largely at best nonplussed and at worst vicious.

 In fact, it is common among some African communities for peers’ immigration status to be the topic of local gossip and chatter; some of these less fortunate brothers and sisters are even held up to ridicule. Stories abound in the African community, of people calling immigration agents on their folks even when unprovoked. Others use it to settle scores in retaliation for failed romantic exploits or other grievances.

I must acknowledge this is hasty generalization and an unwarranted romanticization of the Hispanic community. Hispanics are not a homogenous bunch and harbor deep seating differences. Given their geographical proximity to the US with a long history of interaction with the US and so this comparison is as farcical as it is ridiculous. Nevertheless, they are a minority too and proffer the African immigrant some lessons.

One must with the same breath also say that there are disparate attempts made by different African communities to address the immigration saga, for example. The Ethiopian community in DC for instance has a laudable support system that grooms its ilk in braving the immigration “wahala”. Yet the larger point here is given that “unity is strength”, it is incumbent on the African community like the Hispanics to forge these initiatives into a veritable and formidable bloc.

Shouting on rooftops hardly amounts to anything without the corresponding power of the purse. Here again, we find the Hispanics excelling. They put their money where their mouth is. Money plays a crucial role in any political campaign. The just ended midterm elections eloquently affirm this. The playing turf was populated with special interest groups with competing interests each trying to outdo the other and have their favorite candidate carry the day.

Once again, there is no denying it that at the personal level, many African immigrants contribute to different campaign platforms. There are business magnates who dole out dollars in support of their preferred candidate. The bigger point here though is that if these campaign donations are pooled together into a common fund such as an African Diaspora fund, what a big haul this would be; then from this fund, donations to the designated candidate’s political treasury, under this umbrella, will make a great difference and impact.

This is an opportune moment to rally momentum for this cause as we look forward to 2012. The African Diaspora must insert itself in some very meaningful way into the complicated architecture of US politics both at the macro level in terms of Presidential elections and at the micro level in terms of congressional elections.

 Even though Hispanics are disappointed that their vote to Obama in 2008 has not yielded the desired dividend, one thing, which is clear, is, they are no pushovers. If the top-bottom model is failing, the Hispanics in quick revision are trying the bottom-top pattern. It is fascinating to see how many of their own are being put in place to parade the corridors of power. If you doubt it, ask Republican uprising star, Marco Rubio of Florida. Hispanics are inching their way to the ninth yard and one guaranteed fact is that soon, there shall be a touchdown.

Seek ye first the political kingdom and all your needs will be fulfilled is a philosophy Hispanics understand so well. The question for the African immigrants is who is “our own man” along these corridors of power? If African immigrants cannot get their own sons and daughters in such high places, then let them court some influential political heavy weight lifters.

The last lesson to be drawn from the Hispanic caucus is the fact that these folks are able to succeed largely because they have an incredible network and are well-organized. The Obama success story centered on grassroots mobilization. If anything, this is the biggest challenge for the African diaspora to surmount. This is so because organizational leadership is the Achilles heel of many African organizations. An initiative like this meets with bumps ab initio as one finds people who say it is either they are in charge or they are out. This is the time to put aside petty differences, sink selfish egos and unify the base.

The starting point for this initiative will be the creation of African synergies in the different metropolis such as New York, Washington DC Metro area, Houston, Atlanta, Los Angeles, Chicago, Boston and Minnesota where there is an impressive presence of African immigrants. Then from these hubs, there could be a central body: African Diaspora Caucus.

Many may not be able to vote but let none hear any idly saying there is nothing they can do. Making the African voice heard in the very crowded supermarket like US politics needs the vuvuzela of grassroots mobilization. The moment is opportune and the time is ripe. Let us piggyback on the World Bank initiative and explore this for the establishment of the political kingdom of African Diaspora in the US.