Before a crowded room of election-night supporters—many of whom looked like her—newly elected congresswoman Ilhan Omar described the historic occasion of her victory. “I stand here before you with many firsts behind my name: The first woman of color to represent our state in Congress; the first woman to wear a Hijab to represent us in Congress; the first refugee elected to Congress; and one of the first Muslims elected to Congress.” The Somali American politician paved the way to victory with the support of the Somali community in Minnesota.
Increasingly, the African immigrant community bears the hallmarks of a group well on the way to self-determination within the American political system. In a way, they are not much different from the American Jews who built the American Israel Political Affairs Committee (AIPAC) into one of the most influential lobbying groups in Washington, or the Cuban Americans who could be considered political gatekeepers in Florida, one of the most important swing states on the electoral college map.
History of African immigration to the US
As of 2018, sub-Saharan African immigrants made up 44% of all black immigrants to the US, with almost 20% of them listing Nigeria, Ethiopia, or Ghana as their country of birth. Many others were refugees, or the children of refugees, who were granted asylum in the US in the wake of the Rwandan genocide, and the armed conflicts that defined the great lakes in subsequent years. And a growing number of them are settling in states critical to the presidential elections, including Florida, Texas, and Ohio.
African immigrants are highly educated
Beyond their numbers, African immigrants are among the highest educated when compared to other growing immigrant populations and native-born US population, which is correlated with earnings potential and has an impact on their naturalization prospects. As capable taxpayers and consumers, they are important contributors to the US as a whole, and critical to smaller cities scattered across the country that needed revitalization in the wake of globalization and the changing nature of work.
Taken together, the African immigrant community has the building blocks of an influential coalition: the numbers—both in terms of recently naturalized immigrants and multiple generations of Africans parented by refugees—and the concentration in multiple locations important to future elections. To fully harness their political power, they’ll need to take steps in at least three key areas.
Building a coalition
Effective representation and federal advocacy require a combination of factors: cross-state coordination, consistent grassroots political and financial support, a deep understanding of the US political system, and, most importantly, a clearly articulated platform. Coalition building requires also requires leadership, compromise, and prioritization.
Reports indicate that the African immigrant community is becoming more politically active after the flurry of assaults on immigration by the Trump administration. But it is important to note that the level of political influence wielded by the likes of AIPAC usually isn’t organically formed. It takes foresight and focus, as well as strategic coordination for a group to truly capitalize on its growing numbers. Nowhere is this clearer right now in American politics than with Hispanic voters in Texas who were expected to help deliver the state and its electoral college votes to Joe Biden and the Democratic party in 2020 but voted Republican instead.
African immigrants, hailing from 49 countries, across 4 very different regions, and spanning multiple generations, are similarly unlikely to be a monolith. But while Africans can be found all over the political spectrum, there is one area where they may find undeniable commonality: an enduring relationship to their motherland.
This connection is clearly evidenced by the remittances to a number of African economies. While the mere existence of these financial flows is not indicative of wider engagement in politics back home, it does show that African immigrants stateside remain connected to their families on the continent and are likely to have a strong understanding of what takes place there. With effective coordination, relationships to the continent can be the starting point for political engagement.
Meanwhile, the desire for partnership on the African continent has never been clearer, with a majority of nations signing onto the Africa Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA), and a growing number ratifying it. Combined with a proven connection to the homeland, and the US’s interest in the trade deal, this could be yet another opportunity for the African immigrant community to build influence over American foreign policy issues while educating US policymakers.
Of course, every stage of coalition building that would amount to greater political influence will cost money. Thus, African immigrants hoping to capitalize politically on their growing numbers will also need to spend time soliciting funds, whether in small or large contributions, to support the aforementioned goals.
Cultivating think tanks
Just about any political coalition’s efforts can be amplified with the establishment of a think-tank, or an analogous organization. Well-run think tanks are critical to the goal of gaining political influence because of their ability to emphasize, dissect, and clarify ideas and policy through rigorous analysis and research.
African-led think tanks can help lawmakers and the larger African immigrant community engage on the myriad of issues Africa faces—from protracted armed conflicts and the environmental factors that exacerbate them, to the intransigent political elite, to a younger generation seeking inclusive and equitable governance.
While a number of influential think tanks explore foreign policy, there is value to be created in a think tank led by Africans, who are likely to bring contemporary and realistic perspectives to the table, while also understanding the cultural and political perspectives back home. These think tanks also could serve as a place for African immigrants to develop their political voice, which by has been difficult to capture despite multi-generational population growth.
Turning out the vote
The foremost step on the road to organizing and establishing influence, of course, is through the ballot box. African immigrants and the larger African community must take the extra step to register to vote and make the time to do so in local, statewide, and federal elections. Given the patchwork of voter registration laws and recent changes in various state legislatures, there are different rules and eligibility criteria that one must follow in order to successfully register. As a result, grassroots activity is especially important to helping people to register and vote.
A number of Africa-focused political organizations including AfriPAC have been doing this work on a smaller scale. To have an effect beyond one jurisdiction, there needs to be state-by-state coordination to ensure that eligible voters are registered by the respective deadlines and encouraged to vote at the right times. Grassroots campaigns are the bedrock of any national strategy, and have been critical to landmark electoral races, such as the one that delivered US president Barrack Obama his victory in 2008.
African immigrants are poised to have influence in US policy making. The facts and figures clearly indicate an ascent. However, the path to greater self-determination within the American political system must be paved with focus, foresight, strategic coordination, and coalition building.
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