Damtew Teferra is Professor of Higher Education at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa and Founding Director of the International Network for Higher Education in Africa. He is Founding Editor-in-Chief of the International Journal of African Higher Education. Teferra steers the Higher Education Cluster of the Africa Union’s Continental Education Strategy for Africa (CESA). He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.
Africa is in the global spotlight yet again. The US president’s demeaning bigotry laced with (alleged) obscenity against African countries has recently dominated the news. In reaction, 78 former US ambassadors to 48 African countries co-signed a letter to him expressing “deep concern”.
South Africa and Nigeria, among others, have reacted strongly to this unprecedented, but long suspected, bigotry on the part of the president. While expressing alarm, the African Union (AU) has now placed the matter on the agenda for its Summit meeting in Addis Ababa this month.
This article confronts the central thesis of this prejudice and the discourse that sustains it.
Debunking Entrenched Perceptions: Challenging the Discourse
It is vital to emphatically discredit the entrenched — and flawed — discourse that shapes the views of the likes of the president and denigrates migrants from, what he allegedly called “s****ole” (henceforth “sole”) countries. It is assumed that such naked derision is built on ignorance — if not outright prejudice.
According to Washington think tank, the Migration Policy Institute, “Compared to the total foreign-born population, sub-Saharan Africans were among the best educated immigrants as a group”. The Los Angeles Times quotes Jeanne Batalova, a senior policy analyst at the Institute who notes that the migrant population from sub-Saharan Africa is “very diverse in its educational, economic and English proficiency profile”. Batalova’s research found that of the 1.4 million migrants aged 25 and above, 41% have a bachelor’s degree, compared with 30% of all immigrants and 32% of US-born citizens. Of the 19,000 US immigrants from Norway — the country Trump reportedly told lawmakers is a good source of immigrants — 38% have college education.
The New American Economy study found that one in three of the undergraduate degrees held by migrants from sub-Saharan Africa focused on science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) — “training heavily in demand by today’s employers.” It also found that African immigrants were significantly more likely to have graduate degrees. A total of 16% had a master’s, medical or law degree or a doctorate, compared with 11% of the US-born population. In its executive summary, it highlighted that, “Sub-Saharan African immigrants have higher levels of educational attainment than the U.S. population as a whole.” In terms of income, in 2015, African immigrants earned more than $55 billion and paid over $10 billion in federal taxes and nearly $5 billion in state and local taxes.
While Africa does not celebrate the mass migration of its high-caliber human resources, the fact remains that these “sole” countries contribute the “best” educated migrants to the US. This underlines the need to deploy the (intellectual) Diaspora — whose role is recognized by numerous international and regional organizations including the AU Commission — in the development of the continent.
Migrants from “Sole” Countries: The Story of Yesteryears
America is an immigrant country. It is built — and maintains its power and leadership in research, innovation, scholarship, and everything else — on the back of migrants — dubbed “aliens” by its immigration department — including those from the “sole countries” of yesterday and today.
According to the History Place, during the Famine years, nearly a million Irish migrants arrived in the US. The first big wave of poor refugees to arrive in the country, they initially found the going tough. With no support, they settled into the lowest rungs of society and waged a daily battle for survival. The Irish took any unskilled jobs they could find such as cleaning yards and stables, unloading ships, and pushing carts. According to the Constitutional Rights Foundation, the immigrants settled in Boston, New York, and other cities and lived in difficult conditions. However, most managed to survive, and their descendants have become a vibrant part of American culture.
While Irish immigrants’ contribution cannot be overstated, suffice to say that the Kennedy family that contributed one of the most acclaimed US presidents of the 20th Century and several US law makers is a descendent of a one-time “sole” country.
Many other groups of migrants from erstwhile “sole” entities can be cited, from Jews to the Japanese (encampment) and from Scotland to Germany, from which the US president’s parents migrated. While current “sole” subjects are countering the latest attack, it is hoped that others who were in the same situation in the past would support this struggle.
While history has shown that many countries in the “sole” category moved out of it; a number have also relapsed. Thus, the road out of “sole” is not an irreversible one.
The Blessing in Disguise: The Path out of “Sole”
Africa has taken offence to this assault on an entire race and continent misguided by flawed discourse and nurtured by entrenched bigotry. The shaky political and personal standing of the enigmatic president does not diminish the anger and outrage. Nonetheless, some good could come from this incident if the force of the fury could be effectively channeled into advancing development agendas to pluck the continent out of the obscene category.
African academics and intellectuals on the continent and in the Diaspora and their allies have a collective responsibility to not only dismantle the entrenched narrative that nurtures bigotry, but also to actively and aggressively engage in shaping the discourse on Africa on the global stage.
The Marshal Plan for Africa in the form of Agenda 2063 that aims to remove the continent from the “sole” category needs to be owned and funded by the respective nations — and their allies and partners — to command the respect its people and the continent deserve. One would hope that this naked affront to an entire race and continent in the 21st Century would trigger an avalanche of responses and unprecedented collective action.
Mischaracterizing and deprecating Africa in such a manifestly blatant — and patently ignorant — manner are now a rarity. Indeed, countries from Asia to Latin America are seeking to consolidate their relationship with the continent in anticipation of heightened economic, political and strategic opportunities.
While bigotry and racism against Africa(ns) and its migrant population around the world may not disappear anytime soon, the flawed discourse, deeply entrenched perceptions, and outrageous bigotry need to be aggressively and assertively confronted. The role of African academics and intellectuals on the continent and in the Diaspora in aggressively and strategically countering these rampant tendencies — in this era of “fake news”, “alternative facts”, and rampant misinformation and disinformation — cannot be overemphasized.
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