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Forged in Struggle: How Migration, Resistance and Decolonization Shape Black Identities and Liberation Movements in North America

September 14, 2015

by Benjamin Ndugga-Kabuye & Tia Oso (Black Alliance for Just Immigration)

There is a graveyard at the center of American democracy. At this late moment we are still coming to terms with how Black migration inspires anxiety for anyone concerned with the maintenance of empire, nationhood, and even the process of decolonization. “A really broad notion of who is Black America” opens a transnational dialogue that can excavate the global scale and varied manifestations of antiblackness. In the U.S. the displacement and surveilling of Black bodies has been and still is central to democracy, especially since Black-led movements in the U.S. have made progress and grown with independence movements on the African continent and throughout the African Diaspora. In examining the nature of migration throughout the colonies, we find exploitative economic forces combined with punitive racialized policies, alongside resistance struggles to gain concessions such as conditional citizenship, but have yet to achieve true freedom.

For nearly a decade, the Black Alliance for Just Immigration (BAJI) has worked to magnify the intersection of racial justice and migrant rights. A shared movement for social and economic justice that connects multigenerational Black communities with recently arrived migrants is the only response to systemic racism and the neoliberal capitalist globalization that reinforces social and racial hierarchies.

Roots of a Problem

The U.S. was perfected as a slave society or it can very well be said that slave society was perfected in the U.S. In this context, Black people travelling across the permeable borders of the colonies carried the threat of rebellion and political insurrection, and were policed accordingly. The apologetic work of Gerald Horne’s ‘Counter-Revolution of 1776’ details a plantation society where Black immigrants from the Caribbean and any high concentration of free Africans inspired fears of slave revolt. Far from current model-minority mythologies, the colonial project saw the migration of non-domestic enslaved or free Africans as a sign of insurrection. In the plantation society that was the foundation of modern America, if too many non-domestic Africans entered the colonies there was the danger they would take advantage of a numerical advantage and revolt. At this point in history, American settlement, dependent on enslavement and colonization, was wedged within two hostile populations, Indigenous peoples on the frontier of the colony and enslaved Africans within the boundaries of the plantation. The movement of additional Africans was of great concern. Horne’s assertion that fears of a mobile African population in the context of a British empire moving towards nominal abolition, were major inspirations to what he has re-termed the counter-revolution of 1776.

This pre-occupation with Black movement was central to the colonies and what would become American democracy. A few years after the counter-revolution of 1776, the encoding of anti-blackness began in earnest with the constitution. The infant democracy then established the Fugitive Slave Act of 1793 to assure never satisfied slave owners that the entire nation was committed and complicit in the policing of Black movement and, ultimately, the return of enslaved Africans.

This is the warzone that required the Underground Railroad and informed the work of Harriet Tubman. The railroad led from the south to many free states and even to Canada under the guidance of the North Star. But for many, Canada was a destination not a home. Martin Delany who wrote his speculative fiction and political narrative, “Blake, or the Huts of America,” while living in Canada, used his narrative voice to explain how his character Andy, an enslaved African, was mistaken in imagining Canada as a site of safety or freedom:

“Poor fellow! he little knew the unnatural feelings and course

pursued toward his race by many Canadians, those too pretending to

be Englishmen by birth, with some of whom the blacks had fought

side by side in the memorable crusade made upon that fairest portion

of Her Majesty’s Colonial Possessions, by Americans in disguise, calling

themselves “Patriots.” He little knew that while according to

fundamental British Law and constitutional rights, all persons are

equal in the realm, yet by a systematic course of policy and artifice,

his race with few exceptions in some parts, excepting the Eastern

Province, is excluded from the enjoyment and practical exercise of

every right, except mere suffrage-voting-even to those of sitting on a

jury as its own peer, and the exercise of military duty.”

This “long Canadian anti-black history,” continues to be investigated by Black voices such as Dr. Rinaldo Walcott and Delice Mugabo. These histories reveal to recent Black immigrants that, like Canada, citizenship and any documentation status is not a home or a site of freedom but a destination on the journey towards abolition. The creation of an uneasy Black citizenship did not result in freedom or belonging for African-Americans. In many ways policing Blackness was the vehicle the U.S. used to navigate across the disruptive process of the Reconstruction that rebuilt the war-torn American South to the Civil Rights era. This sense of anxiety does not leave the historical record for long. Facing a new Black citizenry after the Civil War, White legislatures from the South passed the “Black Codes,” laws and policies that regulated how Black people could cross all manner of matrimonial, economic, and geographical boundaries.

Along with this formal policing of Black citizenship came with the rise of peonage, the convict-lease system as punishment. Blackness was a crime and the convict-leasing system was a brutal and avant-garde partnership between the state and private industry “where you died faster than you did on the plantation.” But, as it is now, those institutional mechanisms of social control were not enough. This was also the era that made the fear of vigilante and mob violence central to Black life with the rise of the KKK. After the killing of her friend Thomas Moss, Ida B. Wells wrote the groundbreaking “Southern Horrors,” a masterpiece of investigative journalism. Ida B. Wells wrote into the historical record the relationship between Black citizenry and “the law which did not protect them.”

Like many Black migrants today, and past passengers on the Underground Railroad, African-Americans fled this lawless construct of citizenship in the Great Migration. From 1915-1970 some six million people fled the scenes of ‘Southern Horrors’ for the North. It is this migration story that grounds the work of BAJI at the intersection of race and migration. The narratives of African-Americans reveal that policing Blackness is central to the American project and that citizenship does not mean freedom.

Post Civil Rights Black Migration into the U.S.

In the Civil Rights era, Black social movement led to many policy changes including legislation preventing race and identity based discrimination, integration of public accommodations, and voting protections. The 1965 Immigration and Naturalization Act removed earlier racialized quota systems, setting the stage for the U.S.’ modern immigration system and the Black immigrants who now enter the U.S mainly from Africa, Latin America, and the Caribbean.

As at previous points in history (such as post-Reconstruction Jim Crow and post-Great Migration race riots in the North and Midwest), the demographic shifts in population and expanded opportunity and agency of Black people led to a swift backlash, both socially and in policy. Black immigrants entered a fast moving river of antiblackness that swept them along with no concern at which bank or moment in history they entered the current. The last 30 years have seen the establishment of mass criminalization as central to local and national policy in the U.S. and the simultaneous divestment from public sector institutions. Centuries of racialized social nets, like the New Deal, created the white middle class while excluding segregated Black populations. The social movements of the Civil Rights and Black Power era resulted in new inclusive social safety nets. But it was these gains that began to be undone while establishing the broad apparatus of mass criminalization under Nixon’s 1971 declaration of the war on drugs.

The impact on Black immigrants has been catastrophic. The Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994 under the Clinton Administration gave federal funds for policing, supported three strikes legislation, and increased penalties for violations of immigration laws. This was an example of how mass criminalization was a bi-partisan effort, that many are currently apologizing for but whose history we are seeing repeat locally with the expansion of police forces, and federally with the establishment of “community policing.” The global war on terror marked the turn of the 21st century. As a policy, this war called for U.S. intervention beyond and within every border across the globe. Domestically the U.S. quickly consolidated federal agencies under the new Department of Homeland Security. This led to unprecedented information sharing within federal agencies and between federal and local law enforcement. Racialized policy and rhetoric targeted South Asians and the loosely defined ‘Muslim immigrant’. But as has been marked many times, African and Caribbean migrants faced the highest proportions of criminal alien deportations. Even as the language of terror learned other dialects, the machinery of terror did not stray too far from Black bodies.

All of this coincides with an increase of migration into the U.S. and projections that by 2060 Black immigrants will rise to over 16 percent of the Black population. Black migration into Europe has become a parallel ‘crisis’ as the global economy weakens and Europe creates violent economic policies that make life in Africa unsustainable. The thousands of African migrants that drown in the Mediterranean are also a consequence of the global war on terror, visited upon Libya, that hid the twisted alliances meshing North Africa, Europe, and the Mediterranean together. At BAJI we live the stories of global communities that scale impossible geographies, “dying to live.”

When migrants land in the U.S., Canada, and in Europe, they face limited opportunity and a hostile landscape with enduring racial inequities from colonial rule, imperialism and slavery. It is well documented that African-Americans do not face an equal playing field economically; in the U.S, they face a wage penalty of 17% on their labor. Black immigrants are now facing the same reality, African immigrants in particular facing wage penalties nearing 40%. We are now finding that “black immigrants assimilate into roughly the economic status of native-born African-Americans.”

Anti-Blackness in the Decolonizing Community                                                                             

With Blackness complicating assimilation, coalition with non-Black people of color requires transformational solidarity. A recent federal executive action by President Obama used the confusing phrase “felons not family” to describe how immigration enforcement will look like as movements resisted the past ‘Secure Communities’ model. Abraham Paulos, Executive Director of Families for Freedom, gave context to how Obama’s “rhetoric fits a historic and racist framework through which we can describe the exclusion and banishment of people with felonies who are detained and deported.” Immigrant organizing has had to negotiate the plantation, the colony, and the decolonizing project separately. BAJI and the many members of the Black Immigration Network have had to consider how anti-blackness links the logic of the status quo and efforts to decolonize. In what has become pivotal writing on how “Black Immigrants’ Lives Matter,” BIN member Marybeth Onyeukwu explains how anti-blackness can complicate even decolonizing efforts like the attempt to abolish immigrant detention. Onyeukwu reveals an organizing landscape where “immigrant rights leaders have chosen to make concessions to right-wing ideology and to embrace anti-Black rhetoric.”

Detention opposition surfaces within an era of Black-led prison abolition efforts, yet has still managed to organize itself independent of that work. What we have are advocacy narratives that share disturbing similarities with the logic of power. Since 1983 immigrant detention has been a major profit center in the U.S. for corporations like the Corrections Corporation of America. The migrant rights movement rose to combat immigrant detention that is largely privatized. This profit motive for detainment, though brutal, allows organizers to garner grassroots outrage at the profit from human suffering and gain policy maker support against a system that is becoming less cost-effective. But as Onyeukwu explains, anti-Blackness is not profit motivated and our prison system is largely public. Decolonization often assumes colonizing efforts are after labor, land, or other contingent motivations for violence. So a focus on cost-effective decolonizing will leave Black immigrants vulnerable to largely public systems of mass incarceration that are motivated by the anxieties of anti-Blackness.

When cost-benefit analysis leads our decolonizing efforts, we limit our possibilities. Through Onyeukwu’s writing we are led to several important questions about the migrant rights movement’s constant emphasis that immigration violations are civil not criminal infractions, the silence on the Criminal Alien Program, the links between the criminal justice system and immigration enforcement, the use of cost-benefit analysis, and how we can develop a continuum of alternatives. The decolonizing process must make room for the analysis of individuals and communities deemed criminal in their being, as opposed to their action. Their ideas may reveal that it’s the criminalization of Black communities that is the “real crime.”

Building Power for Black Lives   

Blackness and its unregulated movement has always been a capital offense just as domestic systems of social control do not reciprocate Black assimilation strategies. These lessons from the migrant movement are some of the natural bridges with the current Black social movement. Black immigrants, like Opal Tometi, BAJI Executive Director and co-founder of the Black Lives Matter Network, are central to what has become a global story of Black resistance. We have built resistance through the full weight of Black pain and joy. Using multi-racial networks, Devonte Jackson led a BAJI effort to free Ghanaian immigrant Kwesi Amuzu from detention. The necessary abolition connections are being made between our Safety Beyond Policing campaign and calls for private prison divestment. The death of David Felix, a Haitian immigrant killed by the NYPD, reminded us that there are funeral processions on the road to liberation. Building power will mean organizing in mourning. Decolonizing will require our full selves to be aware and alive and resisting potential presidents and setting our imagination outside of the confines of the colony.

faceBenjamin Ndugga-Kabuye is the local NYC organizer with the Black Alliance for Just Immigration. Ben’s commitment to building infrastructure for social movement stems from seeing how policies from past social movements aided his immigration journey from Uganda. This journey has included advocating for a range of community development issues impacting black communities in California, Washington, D.C. and New York City. Ben has continued this work with a degree in Criminology, policy fellowships, and a Masters in Public Policy at the New School.  

IMG_3113Tia Oso is the National Organizer for Black Alliance for Just Immigration (BAJI), a racial justice and migrant rights organization.  A dynamic social justice leader, Ms. Oso has organized campaigns such as “Not in Our State” and “PHX For Trayvon” mobilizing thousands of advocates for various issues in the public interest. An experienced Community Engagement professional specializing in Social Change initiatives, Ms. Oso is a firm believer in the ability of everyday people to become change-makers for social and economic justice in their communities. 

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