Affirmative Action & Immigration from Africa

Since the 1960s, US governments and society have taken steps to elevate African Americans. These are attempts to reverse damage done by the same groups’ actions that repressed African Americans until that time.1

Until recently, targeting of affirmative action has been relatively easy for the same reason that targeting repression was easy: skin color is easy to see. Nearly all African-origin people living in the US were descendants of repressed peoples. However, immigration of Black people to the US has grown steadily for several decades. Today, 10% of Black people in the United States are immigrants, with the fastest growing share coming from Africa.

In the next decades, the number of immigrants from Africa is set to grow exponentially, very similar to what has happened with immigration from Asia. To quickly explain why, immigration from both Africa and Asia was effectively illegal before the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act. Since that time, most immigrant visas are awarded based on family ties. Beginning in 1965, there was a slow accretion of African and Asian immigrants based on non-family visa programs, most notably refugees and diversity visa winners. Those early immigrants were then empowered to sponsor immigration of relatives, allowing an exponential growth. This logic allowed Asian immigration to ramp up significantly in the 1980s to the point that Asia is now the largest source of new immigrants. Immigration from Africa is following a similar path, though on a smaller scale coinciding with Africa’s smaller population. Importantly, most immigration from Africa and Asia can be classified as “high skill” immigration because of the (intentional and unintentional) selection processes determining who immigrates.

As with immigrants of any ethnicity, Black immigrants differ from US-born Blacks. Specifically, immigrants from Africa have higher educational attainment, on par with US-born Whites. This group’s ancestors also did not suffer under American-style slavery and discrimination.2

How does African immigration affect affirmative action?

Affirmative action programs can be divided into broad and narrow programs. Broad programs are things like targeted education funding and protection of voting rights, which affect all members of the group. Even if Black immigrants are not the intended target, 90% targeting is still pretty good.

Narrow affirmative action programs involve winning a contest like a hiring decision or awarding a scholarship. Minority representation targets or quotas in organizations are this type of narrow program. Narrow programs benefit exceptional individuals.

No matter the size of the African immigrant population, if they have much higher achievement than pre-1960 American Blacks, this group will win a disproportionate share of affirmative action contests. In so doing, the originally targeted group – descendants of slaves – lose opportunity.

To illustrate, my company publishes statistics about employment, emphasizing the need to increase Black, Hispanic and female representation. But most of the Black employees I’ve met at my company have African last names. There is no effective metric to track inclusion of pre-1960 American Blacks.

The situation is not a total loss for pre-1960 American Blacks. Success of African immigrants can indirectly benefit all African Americans by improving stereotypes. This is the case with Barack Obama, whose father was born in Kenya. However, the goal of directly providing opportunities for American descendants of slaves is diluted.

As the number of African immigrants continues to grow exponentially in the US, affirmative action programs will be forced to differentiate between people who do and do not descend from American slaves to fulfill their restorative intent. Smart programs should take note and make the switch now.

  1. The 1960s were a turning point in discriminatory policies. Many forms of discrimination of course still linger today, but they normally lack official sanction. 

  2. This is not to say that African immigrants and their ancestors have not experienced effects of racism. 

Written on July 14, 2022