Originally Published in Politico
Atima Omaro - August 19, 2020
Those who argue that the VP nominee isn’t really “Black” fail to understand what Black immigrants face in this country.
When Sen. Kamala Harris accepts the nomination as the Democratic Party’s candidate for vice president, the first Black and Asian American woman to do so on a major party ticket, my heart will burst. I, too, am a Black woman and the daughter of immigrants who has dedicated my career to American politics.
There are millions of Black immigrants throughout this country. Roughly halfhail from the Caribbean (like Harris’ Jamaican father), while the rest mostly are from Northern and Sub-Saharan Africa (like my parents, who came from Uganda). Africans represent one of the fastest growing immigrant groups in the United States, with their numbers roughly doubling every decade since the 1970s.
As a historic “first,” Harris has also come in for a toxic kind of criticism. There are some who argue that because of her Jamaican background, particularly because her father is an immigrant, she is not really “Black.” This plays into beliefs held by some, including some Black Americans, that you can understand the Black experience in the United States only if you are a descendant of enslaved Black people in the United States—and also that being a Black immigrant is an inherent advantage.
But while my family’s historical experience with white supremacy was British colonization, as opposed to the institution of American slavery, growing up in the United States offered me a full education in what it means to be Black in this country.
Denied jobs because you were Black? Check. Denied promotions? Check. My parents have told me often of jobs vanishing when they answered want ads in the 1970s and ’80s, and their struggles to gain promotions or raises. When I was a child, they tried to protect me from that racism like any good Black parents would. But, like every Black family discovers, racism can survive careful actions and good intentions.
Was I unfairly targeted in school for talking too much while my white peers were rewarded for their curiosity? Or punished disproportionately for mouthing off? Check. Was my hard work dismissed as affirmative action when I got into a top college? Check. Was I stopped by police? Check. Bullied, ignored or retaliated against by white colleagues in the workplace when I said things they didn’t want to hear? Check.
Black immigrants, too, are subject to American racism. In fact, being Black andan immigrant (or at least perceived as foreign) can add a layer of complexity and discrimination to lives like mine. For example, while Black immigrants represent about 7 percent of the noncitizen population, they make up more than 10 percent of immigrants in removal proceedings. And while Black immigrants tend to be highly educated and trained (hence, some of the claims that we are “advantaged”), too often they are denied opportunities in the United States for which they are qualified, just as many other Black people have experienced at one time or another. There is also the added layer of discrimination for the Black immigrant who is a woman, identifies as LGBTQ, has a disability, or lives at the intersection of all these identities.
The fact that we’re immigrants, as opposed to descendants of enslaved Black people in the United States also does not make us less vulnerable to encountering racial profiling and police brutality. Recall the cases of Amadou Diallo, an unarmed immigrant from Guinea who was shot and killed by police officers in 1999; or Burkinabe Ousmane Zongo, an unarmed Burkino Fasan shot by police in a storage facility in 2003; or Ramarley Graham, an unarmed Jamaican American teen shot by police in his home in 2012.
In spite of the discrimination thrown our way, many immigrants or children of immigrants from across the Black diaspora—like so many descendants of enslaved Black people in the United States—have pressed forward and blazed a trail for the Black community’s right to self-determination and to hold place in American politics: Marcus Garvey, Malcolm X, Shirley Chisholm, Barack Obama and, now, Kamala Harris. Their politics were different, but they are all part of the changing face of power in this country, along with their brothers and sisters who descended from American enslaved Black people, such as Ida B. Wells, Rosa Parks, Fannie Lou Hamer, John Lewis, Barbara Jordan, Stacey Abrams and so many more.
Many of these individuals—particularly Chisholm, Hamer and Lewis—inspired me to get into politics. Their work taught me to believe I should demand that American democracy represent everyone. When I got involved in the Young Democrats of America and eventually was elected the group’s first Black and fifth female president, I was humbled to step onto a path that they blazed for me.
Black immigrants understand the complexity of not only the Black experience in the United States, but also the immigrant experience. Much has been said of the immigrant struggle in the United States under the policies of the Trump administration. Then-candidate Trump announced his candidacy by denouncing immigrants from Mexico as “rapists.” As president, he has been guided by anti-immigrant senior adviser Stephen Miller, initiated a Muslim ban, made remarks complaining about immigrants from “shithole” countries (not coincidentally, majority Black and brown), attempted to restrict family reunification, repealed DACA and horrifically put children into cages at the U.S. border.
Often, the face we picture in conversations about the Trump administration’s xenophobia is a Latino one. This makes sense, considering that people from Mexico, Central and South America represent the largest share of immigrants in this country, and that those same immigrants have borne the brunt of Trump’s policies at the Southern border. But this paints far from a complete picture. The story of Harris’ family—and mine—helps fill that picture out.
Like Harris and Obama, I’ve faced skepticism about my ties to the Black community. Early on in my career in politics, some questioned my allegiance to Black people in the United States because of my immigrant heritage. That stung. I was inspired by the same long list of Black leaders across the diaspora as my peers. The first time I heard Harris speak, at a Young Democrats convention in 2005, she too spoke of being inspired by those leaders. She even chose her presidential campaign logo and colors as a nod to Chisholm. Regardless, Harris also has had to answer and entertain some of the same suspicions about her “Blackness,” even now.
Her political success—in spite of the racism, sexism and xenophobia thrown her way—is the best answer to those suspicions. That is why it will be with great pride (and likely tears) that I will watch her accept the Democratic nomination to be vice president. It will be a moment for women and little girls across this country to see what is possible when you are Black and also the child of immigrants.