Some African immigrants and their children are doing very well in America. Measured by the usual metrics – high school graduation rates, test scores, income – immigrants from some African countries are not only doing significantly better than African Americans, they are doing better than native born whites. This has led to some complaints from African Americans that when an elite school wants to feature a minority student who has "beaten the odds," that star student is more likely to be a immigrant from Ghana or Nigeria than an American black. (One study found that although only 13% of black American 18-year-olds are immigrants or the children of immigrants, they make up 41% of the black students in Ivy League schools.) It also raises all sorts of questions about what racism is and how it works.
It is important to note that not all African immigrants are thriving. The immigrant blacks who get into Ivy League schools come overwhelmingly from Nigeria, Ghana, and the Caribbean; immigrants from Sudan, Somalia, Liberia, and Rwanda are doing notably badly. This seems easy to explain. Immigrants from Sudan, Somalia, Liberia, and Rwanda are mostly refugees who have been through terrible experiences, many from broken homes – like the "lost boys" of Sudan – whereas most immigrants from Ghana, Nigeria and Jamaica are from intact middle class families who choose to migrate in search of opportunity. Because of this difference you can't just look at numbers for "African immigrants" that lump all of these people together. The same patterns hold in Britain, where west Africans and many from the Caribbean are doing well, but refugees from war-torn nations are not.
I have been thinking about this issue because of what it says about race and racism in our world. These facts refute basic nineteenth-century tri-racialism, since it seems clear that west African immigrants are on average at least as smart and hard-working as whites. It is also hard on any sort of racial genetic model, since most African Americans are genetically a mix of west Africans and whites, with their white ancestors drawn disproportionately from the upper class. So what does explain the difference between African Americans and African immigrants?
Some African American activists have asserted that African immigrants simply don't face the racism that African Americans do. I am not aware of any good evidence for or against this proposition, but I still find it interesting. It suggests that modern American racism, at least in its harmful forms, is something quite specific: a response not to dark skin but to the particular mannerisms of African Americans. Immigrants and their children have different speech patterns and the like, so racist teachers do not respond to them in the same way. As I said, I am not aware of any good evidence on the question, but it bears thinking about.
Another way to think about the problem is by considering income rather than race. Much (but not all) of the differences in school performance and the like between African Americans and whites can be accounted for by income, that is, students from poor families always do worse in school than children from middle class families, and more African Americans are poor. Immigrants from Nigeria and Ghana have higher incomes than African Americans, so their children do better in school. But of course this is one of those explanations that just demands more explanations; why do west African immigrants have higher incomes?
I think using a broader notion of class, rather than simply income, explains even more. Many west African immigrants come from elite families; I have seen half a dozen stories over the years of people who are kings and queens in their Nigerian tribes but teachers or nurses in America. The Nigerian elite adopted the British attitude toward education, and they send their children to private schools and colleges on the British model. Nigerian immigrants to America maintain this tradition; in the 2010 census, 60.7% of Nigerian immigrants in the US held college degrees – that's more than twice the rate for whites – and 28% held graduate degrees.
Culture matters. People pass on to their children attitudes and expectations that have real weight. When it comes to education, Nigerian immigrants are more like Jews or Chinese than they are like African Americans, and this has a huge impact on how well people do economically and socially in the US.
The other thing I would say is that time matters. Cultures are after all hard things to change. I have seen a couple of studies lately showing that Europeans whose surnames were noble in the fifteenth century are still richer and better educated than people with peasant surnames. African Americans endured 150 years of slavery and then a century of Jim Crow, and that left a legacy that can't easily be erased. Even if Nigerian immigrants face some of the same short-term problems as African Americans, the way they respond to them is conditioned by entirely different backgrounds.
It seems inevitable to me that over time the distinctiveness of west African immigrants will fade. (I only know one African immigrant well myself, a Nigerian I play basketball with, and he has an African American wife.) I wonder, will their presence help blur the hard lines between the races in America? Will their attitudes toward education and success spread? Or will their children and grand-children move toward the African American norm, as the descendants of white immigrants have moved toward the white norm?