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National, Ethnic Identity Creates Tension Between US Blacks

Black immigration from Africa and the Caribbean to the United States is turning America's black population into a multi-ethnic, immigrant community. The change has led to increased tensions between native-born African Americans and foreign-born blacks who settle in the United States.

In the 1950's and '60's, many African Americans considered themselves a united community, bound by a common skin color and a strong desire to end segregation, confront racism, and guarantee their civil rights.

Marvin Dunn, who is African American, is the chairman of the psychology department at Florida International University. He said the portrayal of African-Americans as a unified community appears to be changing.

"As the era of segregation [of whites and blacks] ended by the mid-1960's, here at least in south Florida, we found that other kinds of divisions were evolving between people that seemed to have nothing at all to do with skin color. Rather, the new divide had to do with ethnicity and national identity more so than race," Mr. Dunn said.

The divisions are most prevalent in some of America's larger cities: Miami, New York, Boston, and Chicago, where black immigrants have been settling since the 1980's. William Frey is a demographer at the University of Michigan.

"There's been a relatively dramatic increase in foreign-born populations in New York and some increase in some of the other east-coast cities. Some of the bigger countries you can identify [immigrants are natives of] are Caribbean places like Haiti, Jamaica, the Dominican Republic, Trinidad, and then some African places like Ghana and Nigeria," Mr. Frey said.

He said that black immigrants make up only about eight percent of the America's approximately 33 million blacks. But in Miami, immigrants represent 48 percent of the black population, and one-third of blacks in New York City and Boston.

Florida International's Marvin Dunn said that African American communities in those cities are changing radically, with the black population essentially divided between American-born blacks and foreign-born blacks. He said that Miami-area tensions between these two groups have been building since the 1980's.

"We [researchers] found that for the most part, that black Americans were not welcoming when Haitians arrived in the early 1980s, complaining about Haitians taking their jobs, or claiming they were bringing AIDS into the community, etc. On the other hand, there's a certain 'look-down-the-nose' attitude that one gets from certain Caribbean blacks towards African Americans that I think is offensive [to American blacks] and understandably so - that is the view that African Americans are violent, don't want to work, are lazy. Some of the things you hear from white racists you hear from blacks who are not African Americans," Mr. Dunn said. Gary Pierre-Pierre is the editor of The Haitian Times newspaper in New York City. His parents left Haiti when he was eight years old. He has vivid memories of his arrival.

"I told my mom, 'Wow, there are a lot of Haitians in New York. I didn't know there were so many Haitians.' They were all black Americans. To me, I didn't know any difference," Mr. Pierre-Pierre said. But the boy's parents had strongly negative feelings.

"Your parents said, 'Don't play with these black kids. They'll be a bad influence on you,'" he explained.

Mr. Pierre-Pierre said his parents and other first generation Haitians somehow thought they were better than the black Americans who lived in the same poor neighborhoods.

"You [as a Haitian immigrant] were living among the underclass. You were part of the underclass - although you may think of yourself as some middleclass, petty bourgeois with a lot of education. Well, that's back in Haiti. In New York and New Jersey, you were a poor immigrant as far as the status quo was concerned," Mr. Pierre-Pierre said.

And where do things stand today between Haitians and black Americans in New York and New Jersey? "At school, there still are a lot of problems. I just read that in Asbury Park, New Jersey, there were problems with black American and Haitian kids fighting," Mr. Pierre-Pierre said.

Marvin Dunn of Florida International University reports similar clashes in south Florida high schools. "So it's not a healthy situation. But I tell you, as these things go in south Florida, so may they go in the country. The entire nation is being impacted by immigrant groups coming in, particularly immigrant groups of color, into communities - and ethnic clashes, even within the same race groups, are becoming more common across the country," he said.

According to Professor Dunn, the tension between immigrants and native blacks can be "hurtful, emotionally and psychologically." But he said those tensions are a classic part of the immigrant story - arriving groups face hostility until they become assimilated into American society. And according to Haitian Times Editor Gary Pierre-Pierre, it takes time, but he's confident it will work itself out.