Democratic US presidential nominee Joe Biden speaks at an outdoor "Black Economic Summit" while campaigning for president in Charlotte, North Carolina, Sept. 23, 2020.

‘Much more diverse than people think’: Black immigrants are reshaping the Black electorate

An increasing share of the US Black population is foreign-born — and they tend to lean more conservative. 

The World

Peter Opara, 66, was born in Nigeria and moved to New York City in the ’70s when a young Donald J. Trump was starting to make a name for himself.

Opara liked Trump’s outspoken style and business mindset.

“He’s not a politician, and he speaks his mind. Does things the way he believes [things] should be done. Nigerians prefer strong leaders.”

Peter Opara, Nigerian immigrant in New York

“He’s not a politician, and he speaks his mind. Does things the way he believes [things] should be done,” said Opara, who describes himself as a moderate Republican. “Nigerians prefer strong leaders.”

In 2016, he voted for Trump for president. It was a surprising and unpopular choice among his family and friends, who are mostly Democrats.

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As the US 2020 election approaches, both Democrats and Republicans are stepping up their appeals to voters from different backgrounds, especially immigrant voters who could make a difference in battleground states.

But there’s one group of voters that often goes under the radar in national campaigning: Black immigrants.

Opara’s views underscore just how diverse the Black electorate is, especially as it is transformed by Black immigrants. Indeed, no party can take their votes for granted.

“Black immigrants are obviously much more diverse than people think, than Joe Biden definitely thinks,” said Kevin Thomas, professor of African American and African diaspora studies at The University of Texas at Austin. “You have the regional differences, people coming from Africa, the Caribbean, South America, Europe.”

Naturally, that diversity extends to views on political and social issues as well.

“What data is actually showing is that, at least in terms of political ideology, Black immigrants tend to lean more on the conservative side than the liberal side,” Thomas said.

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An increasing share of the US Black population is foreign-born, according to the Pew Research Center.

“Some studies suggest that currently about 1 in 4 Black people in the United States is either a Black immigrant or the child of a Black immigrant.” 

“Some studies suggest that currently about 1 in 4 Black people in the United States is either a Black immigrant or the child of a Black immigrant,” Thomas said.

Between 2010 and 2018, the black immigrant population grew by 30% according to a recent study by the New American Economy. For the first time, those immigrant roots are being accounted for in the US census. This year, Black Americans can list their national origins — meaning, for example, a Ghanaian American in Texas can write down “Ghana” on their census form.

Yet, while the number of Black immigrants in the US, especially those from African countries, are on the rise, they are still a relatively small group in comparison with other immigrant groups. This might explain why they are often neglected in national campaigns.

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“Black immigrants generally don’t tend to vote as much,” added Thomas, who has studied Black immigrant voting habits.

“Their levels of political participation were very low,” he said of previous elections, noting that the 2008 and 2012 elections of President Barack Obama were exceptions.

But that could be changing. Across the country, African and Caribbean immigrant groups at the grassroots level are mobilizing eligible voters in their communities.

“The number of African immigrant organizations in Philadelphia that have incorporated voters’ registration, raising awareness about voters’ registration … we have seen an increase in the number of organizations doing that,” said Eric Edi, who directs the Coalition of African and Caribbean Communities in Philadelphia (AFRICOM).

Although Edi, a permanent resident originally from Ivory Coast, is not able to vote himself, he is passionate about making sure the naturalized Africans in his community vote during elections.

He says Trump’s derogatory comments about African countries and immigration restrictions could encourage people to vote.

“We have tried to use that as avenues, ways of enhanc[ing] immigrant awareness that ‘hey, if you are able to vote and you vote, you can actually [change] these kinds of policies’,” Edi said.

Of course, immigration isn’t the only issue that Black immigrants care about.

Thomas, at The University of Texas in Austin, says it might drive some voters to vote Democrat, but not when it comes to social issues like abortion and LGBTQ rights.

“Black immigrants, especially first-generation, Black immigrants, juggle their personal interests with some of their political ideologies and conservative beliefs,” Thomas said.

Philomena Desmond Ogugua, an international development consultant originally from Nigeria, has no doubts about who African immigrants should vote for.

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She’s the co-chair of a group called African Diaspora for Biden, which has been reaching out to African communities across the US and encouraging them to vote for the Biden-Harris ticket.

Their virtual events are like a who’s who of the African diaspora community — including US lawmakers from immigrant backgrounds and former US ambassadors to African countries.

“The battleground states are the states where we have many of our brothers and sisters residing.” 

Philomena Desmond Ogugua, an international development consultant

“The battleground states are the states where we have many of our brothers and sisters residing,” Ogugua said.

Notably, swing states like Florida, which has the second-largest population of Black immigrants in the country.

As well as Minnesota, where Somali immigrants have proven how relatively small African immigrant populations can have an outsized political influence in local and state politics.

Ogugua argues Biden should be the choice for African immigrant voters because he has a long track record on the continent.

“If one should go back to the Senate, when it comes to Africa he has always been strong. He’s a strong voice on African issues, even during apartheid,” she argued.

Ogugua points to a video from 1986 that has been circulating online this year, showing a young Sen. Biden criticizing the Reagan administration for its policy on apartheid South Africa.

Even Opara, the Nigerian American Republican voter who grew up in New York, remembers that moment.

“I said, ‘Oh, my God, look at this guy. He identifies with what we are fighting against.’ So, I wrote him a letter thanking him.”

It’s one reason why Opara is conflicted over who to vote for. On one hand, he approves of Trump’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic and his tough stance on WHO and other global institutions —of which Opara, too, is critical.

“Trump is the one between these globalists, big pharma and the rest of them, and little guys like us,” Opara said.

But he’s put off by Trump’s wavering over COVID-19 relief packages.

“‘Mr. Trump, why don’t you let these negotiations of economic relief go on with the Republicans? Why did you call it off?’” Opara said. “‘Call it back on! Because people are suffering, man. People are suffering.’”

He says the decision over COVID-19 aid will determine who gets his vote.

Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated Philomena Desmond Ogugua's position with the African Diaspora for Biden.

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