Identity and Transnationalism
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Identity and Transnationalism

The New African Diaspora Second Generation in the United States

Kassahun H. Kebede, Kassahun H. Kebede

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Identity and Transnationalism

The New African Diaspora Second Generation in the United States

Kassahun H. Kebede, Kassahun H. Kebede

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About This Book

Identity and Transnationalism discusses the identity and transnational experiences of the new second-generation African immigrants in the US, bringing together the lived experiences of the new African diaspora and exploring how they are shaping and reshaping being and becoming black.

In the half a century since the passage of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, close to 1.4 million black African immigrants have come to the United States (Pew Research Center 2015). Nevertheless, in proportion to its growing size, the New African Diaspora in the United States, particularly the second generation constitutes one of the least studied groups. In seeking to redress the dearth of scholarship on the New African Diaspora in the United States, the contributors to this book have documented the lives and experiences of second-generation African immigrants. Based on fresh data, the chapters provide insight into the intersection of immigrant cultures and mainstream expectations, as the second-generation African immigrants seek to define and redefine being and becoming American. Specifically, the authors discuss how the second-generation Africans contest being boxed into embracing a Black identity that is the product of specific African American histories, values, and experiences not shared by recent African immigrants. The book also examines the second generations' connections with their parents' ancestral countries and whether and for what reasons they participate in transnational activities.

Authored and edited by key immigration scholars, Identity and Transnationalism represents a ground-breaking contribution to the nascent discussion of the New African Diaspora's second generation. It will be of great interest to scholars of Cultural Anthropology, The New African Diaspora, African Studies, Sociology and Ethnic studies.

This book was originally published as a special issue of African and Black Diaspora.

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African Art

The African second generation in the United States – identity and transnationalism: an introduction

Kassahun Kebede


The New African Diaspora’s second generation in the United States is large and growing, yet it is one of the least studied immigrant groups. The purpose of this special issue is to bring together recent work by immigration researchers on the identity negotiations and transnational engagements of the children of first-generation African immigrants. Second generation Africans, who create hybrid identities at the intersection of their ethnic/national origins and the racial categories of U.S. society, often contest (and sometimes embrace), being boxed into embracing a Black identity that is the product of specific African American histories, values, and experiences not shared by recent African immigrants. Contributors examine these issues, as well as the occurrence, distinctive nature of, and motivations for second-generation economic and cultural participation in transnational activities. The collection by key immigration scholars represents a groundbreaking contribution to the nascent discussion of the New African Diaspora’s second generation.


In the half-century since the passage of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, close to 2.1 million Black African immigrants have come to the United States (Anderson 2017). In fact, Africans make up 36 percent of the overall foreign-born black population, up from 24 percent in 2000, and their numbers are growing steadily. According to a recent study from the Pew Research Center, there are currently around 800,000 U.S.-born adult children of African immigrants (Pew Research Center 2013). There are comparable number of people who came here as infants and small children who are part of the second generation. Nevertheless, relative to its large and growing size, the New African Diaspora’s second generation in the United States is one of the least studied groups. Much of the existing research has focused on the second generation or the new second generation as it is often called, whose parents came from Latin America, Asia, and the Caribbean (Kasinitz et al. 2009; Nibbs and Brettell 2016).
Indeed, some researchers have already started studying the third generation of the post-1960s immigrants from the aforementioned regions (JimĂ©nez, Park, and Pedroza 2017). Yet, the research literature on the second generation of immigrants from Africa remains limited. While this is somewhat understandable given that Hispanics and Asian Americans constitute about seven-in-ten of today’s first-generation immigrants and about half of today’s adult second generation1 (Pew Research Center 2013), the most recently edited work on the identity of the second generation has no case studies at all on the experiences of children of African immigrants (see Nibbs and Brettell 2016). In seeking to remedy this striking lack of scholarship on this ever-increasing segment of the U. S population, this special issue of African and Black Diaspora journal brings together original articles on the lives and experiences of second generation Africans born or raised in the U.S. The purpose of this collection is to explore what we know thus far about the new African second-generation, their identity and their transnationalist practices, and to consider future directions for research.
This special edition builds on some recent groundbreaking studies on the experiences of the African second generation in the United States, particularly, how they negotiate ethnic differences within the black population and their transnational connections (Kwarteng 2016; Imoagene 2017; Adjepong 2018; Balogun 2011; Onuzulike 2016). Generally, however, the articles focus on two broad issues. The first four pieces, especially, engage issues of identity and address the following questions: What structural factors and inequalities, political dynamics, and cultural and social processes affect the ethnic, racial and other identities that have developed among the U.S.-born or raised African second generation? How do second-generation African immigrants understand and navigate racial identities in their host country? In particular, how do they view themselves in relationship to African Americans and others who self-identify as Black? Do they accept established categories of U.S. racial identity? How do they interpret, reconcile, or contest their ethnic and racial identities? Moreover, in what ways do these negotiations crosscut and create new dimensions in the on-going debates about race in the U.S.?
The second group of articles engages issues of transnational ties, particularly the second generation’s participation in transnational activities at both symbolic and material levels. Transnational activities encompass sending remittances, entrepreneurship, and participation in sending country politics, visiting and maintaining contacts in the homeland, philanthropy in the host country, and participating in cultural activities. The phenomenon of second-generation transnationalism has only recently been addressed in the broader literature on migration, mobility, and transnationalism. However, it is clear that it is significantly different in many ways from the transnationalism of the first generation (see Lee 2009). The question is how does the new second generation of African immigrants build upon, expand or diverge from the transnational experiences of their parents. What kind of transnational practices and engagements characterize the lives of the African immigrant second generation? Do they send remittances? Are they involved in transnational political activities? In most cases, the study of second-generation transnationalism has yielded either skepticism about, or only tepid acceptance of, the distinctiveness and importance of the experiences of second-generation transnationals. Therefore, Chacko’s, Ndemanu’s articles and my piece specifically address the issue of transnational identity formation and transnational engagement respectively.
Thus, generally speaking, the articles in this collection are both theoretically oriented and present empirically-based research that explores issues of racial and ethnic identity, transnationalism, economic, professional, and social attainment. Given the primary objective for this special edition, this introduction is divided into five parts. In the first part I lay out theoretical debates surrounding the second generation, including identity and transitional belonging. Second, I present a brief demographic profile of the New African Diaspora. Third, I discuss insight into the intersection of African immigrant cultures and mainstream expectations, as the New African Diaspora and their offspring seek to define and redefine being and becoming black in America. I especially focus on how first and second generation Africans contest being boxed into embracing a Black identity that is the product of specific African American histories, values, and experiences not shared by recent African immigrants. In the fourth section, I review the main themes and findings as they particularly relate to the second generation. Finally, I provide an overview of the main points of the articles in this collection.

Theoretical orientation – second generation identity and transnationalism

The last half a century has seen an influx of nonwhite immigrants into the United States. Latinos and Asians have dominated this flow, but large numbers of people have also entered from the Caribbean. Africans are also increasingly significant in current immigration to the United States as indicated above. Several theoretical perspectives have been proposed by scholars to conceptualize the identities, socioeconomic status, and transnational connections of the new second generation2 or the offspring of post-1960s immigrants. In this section, I briefly review the theoretical discussions and efforts to understand who the new second generation are, what shapes their experiences, and the contributions they make to both home and host countries.
Two primary theoretical perspectives that inspire spirited debate about the new second generation are the theory of straight-line assimilation and the theory of segmented assimilation. The first to emerge was the theory of straight-line assimilation, proposed by Gans (1992), which states that children of immigrants either join the white middle-class majority or assimilate into the inner city poor, leading to poverty and downward mobility. The theory of segmented assimilation was developed and refined by Portes and associates (Portes and Zhou 1993; see Portes and Rumbaut 2001; Waters et al. 2010) as a critique of straight-line assimilation theory. Briefly, segmented assimilation theory is based on the acknowledgment that American society is now unequal, stratified, and diverse. Thus, different groups are available to which the new second generation may assimilate. These assimilation paths include upward, or straight-line assimilation into white middle-class, downward assimilation, and upward mobility with selective acculturation (see Portes and Rumbaut 2001). While they differ, both theories equate success with progressive assimilation (into a mainstream American culture dominated by white citizens) and socioeconomic advancement.
The straight-line assimilation theory was the first to draw scholars’ attention to the fate of the second generation. When scholars using this theory predicted the decline of the second generation, particularly among the black second generation, a significant controversy was ignited. Gans, in his article, ‘Second Generation Decline: Scenarios for the Economic and Ethnic Futures of the post-1965 American Immigrants,’ argued that most immigrants find themselves in a post-industrial America in which the promised prospect of working from rags to riches has vanished with the outsourcing of factories and a resulting dearth of well-paid jobs (1992). Compounding the problem, most immigrants’ children attend poor quality urban schools, which derails their educational prospects, further constraining immigrant aspirations to advancement. Given the disadvantageous socioeconomic environment that many immigrant communities experience, Gans argued that the second generation youth were at risk for joining gangs or pursuing other social vices. Gans concluded that ‘especially dark-skinned ones’ will succumb to joining the underclass for two main reasons. First, he assumed they lack immigrant optimism and would consequently be less willing to take low paying jobs. Second, he took race as an exogenous constraint and argued that most dark-skinned immigrants would experience racial discrimination, which would cause them to embrace defeatism and join ‘lines of the welfare agencies’ (Gans 1992, 189).
In Gans’ cynical generalizations, the children of immigrants are assimilating, but they are integrating into a minority group with lower socioeconomic status rather than embracing the norms, behaviors, and values of the dominant sector of mainstream society. In spite of such skepticism, research shows most second generation are exceeding expectations. If we consider socioeconomic indicators, they are not only more successful than their parents, but they’re on par with the overall population in the United States (Pew Research Center 2013; Imoagene 2017). Gan’s nihilism however continued to create a flurry of interest in the second generation and a desire to gauge how well they are faring (Portes and Zhou 1993; Waters 2001; Portes and Rumbaut 2001; Kasinitz et al. 2009; Tran and Valdez 2017). It also sparked the development and reign of the Segmented Assimilation theory since the 1990s.
Segmented Assimilation (SA) departed in many ways from straight-line assimilation theory. First, SA accounts for the context of reception and the macro-structural factors that shape the second generation’s potential for achievement. These include government policies (favorable, neutral, or hostile), the societal response (degree of prejudice), regional distribution (concentrated or dispersed), and the class composition of the co-ethnic community (poor, working class, entrepreneurial, or professional) (Tran and Valdez 2017; Kasinitz et al. 2009). Second, SA takes into account the socioeconomic backgrounds of immigrants, particularly how most of today’s immigrants are not poor compared to those described by Emma Lazarus in her famous poem about late nineteenth century immigrants to the United States, The New Colossus.3 For the most part, ‘immigrants were just as likely as the U.S. born to have a college degree or more, 32 percent and 30 percent respectively’ (López and Bialik 2017, 1). Given the different levels of human capital (education/skills) that immigrants bring with them, the social/economic structure of the host society’s policies and many other variables including the immigrants’ optimism, SA theorists continue to evaluate the three assimilation avenues for the prospects of the various socioeconomic segments of the second generation (Waters et al. 2010).
The first segment of the second generation is composed of those who have or are destined to join mainstream society. Because of advantages from their parents’ better socioeconomic status, along with other related variables such as improved race and ethnic relations in the wake of the Civil Rights Movement, this group of young people has managed to attain a socioeconomic level on par with middle-class Americans (see Kasinitz et al. 2009). The second group of the second generation have remained within the orbit of their parents; they have embraced their parents’ cultural traditions, selectively combining them with American social customs to invent and reinvent a composite identity (for example, Ethiopian-Americans). In other words, they stay within the tightly knit economic and social circle of the first generation and retain access to their parents’ social capital, which may provide them with employment and other opportunities that can lead to ‘rapid economic advancement’ (Portes and Zhou 1993, 82). More specifically, this segment is characterized by ‘preservation of parental authority, little or no intergenerational conflict, and fluent bilingualism among children’ (Portes and Rumbaut 2001, 52). The third segment of the second generation has adopted the norms of the American ‘underclass,’ including dropping out of school, teenage childbearing, joblessness, and poverty (Portes and Rumbaut 2001). Negatively racialized by the wider society, this group exhibits an oppositional culture and lack faith in the value of schooling. Impoverished, unemployed, and/or incarcerated, they reject their parents’ ethnic identity and cast their lot with inner city African Americans and Puerto Ricans.
The most comprehensive work concerning the experience of Black second generation immigrants was done by Mary Waters (1990). Waters explored the lives of second-generation West Indian immigrants. Her research followed their segmented assimilation and noted the economic decline of some West Indian youth in New York in response to experiences of racialization and other identity-conditioning situations. The young second generation’s responses included identifying as inner-city Black Americans, identifying as ethnic Americans with some distance from Black Americans, or identifying as immigrants in a way that does not reckon with American racial and ethnic categories (Waters 1990). She asserted that most young second-generation West Indian immigrants who participate in the quest for upward mobility felt that the effort to distance themselves from American blacks would simply be a ‘futile one’ (Waters 2001, 325). Her analysis has a biased undertone since it largely glosses over black immigrants’ cultural uniqueness. Rather than contrasting them with other immigrants children (for example, contrasting how Nigerian-American Second generation are doing as compared with Mexican-American second generation), the Black second generation is commonly compared to African Americans. Essentially, such perspective mistakenly sees race as the only defining variable for Black people.
Interestingly, segmented assimilation theory has been hugely influential for the last three decades (Imoagene 2017). However, despite its usefulness, SA theory suffers from many shortcomings, one of which is a middle-class bias. Primarily, it assumes a uniform American mainstream into which the second generation should be incorporated. In fact, ‘if graduation from a four-year university and admission into the professions or other “lofty” positions are needed to enter the mainstream, then most Americans, including most white Americans, are not part of it’ (Alba, Kasinitz, and Waters 2011, 765). Second, the segmented assimilation model partly endorses the pathologization of immigrant youth. By arguing that not all second generation youth are in economic decline, it implies that economic decline is the norm for many of the children of immigrants. Yet,...

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Citation styles for Identity and Transnationalism
APA 6 Citation
Kebede, K. (2020). Identity and Transnationalism (1st ed.). Taylor and Francis. Retrieved from (Original work published 2020)
Chicago Citation
Kebede, Kassahun. (2020) 2020. Identity and Transnationalism. 1st ed. Taylor and Francis.
Harvard Citation
Kebede, K. (2020) Identity and Transnationalism. 1st edn. Taylor and Francis. Available at: (Accessed: 14 October 2022).
MLA 7 Citation
Kebede, Kassahun. Identity and Transnationalism. 1st ed. Taylor and Francis, 2020. Web. 14 Oct. 2022.