Time For Conversation: The Politics of African Immigration to Chicago

In May, I attended the 7th Annual Chicago African Summit, a full day event hosted by the United Africa Organization (UOA) dedicated to issues affecting the African immigrant and refugee population. The UOA was presenting findings on the health of African cab drivers and had been on my radar for months. When I reached the location, I found a table with a plate of cookies and a plate of fruit, and not more than 8 tables in a space the size of a one-bedroom apartment. My first thought was, is this how much people care about African immigration? I know you’re probably wondering, with a bit of guilt, why we should care.

There are 1.1 million African immigrants in the United States. Approximately 100,000 reside in Chicago. A vast majority come from places where most of the population is black, to the most racially segregated city in the country. They reside in a city with a complex racial history, but many do not know much about it; others maintain that it has little to do with them. However, Black African immigrants are affected by many of the injustices that African-Americans encounter. Thirty-eight percent of Black African immigrants over 25 years of age have at least a four-year college degree. Compare this figure to 27 percent of the total U.S. population. Yet while they are employed at relatively high levels, they tend to have jobs for which they are overqualified.

Nowhere is this more true than in the cab industry. Sixty percent of Chicago's 12,000 taxi/limo drivers are foreign. Some sources say that at least 10 percent of cab drivers in Chicago are African immigrants. The struggles that they endure—from 12- to 16-hour shifts, to racial discrimination, to concerns over their legal status, to lack of health insurance, to the threat of violence, to fleeing customers, to unfair leasing practices by cab lenders—provide a valuable opportunity for government officials, nonprofits, and citizens to address the larger systemic problems that they reflect. That is, they present a chance to show that African immigrants have a large stake in addressing the racial climate in Chicago. Discrimination against people of color in hiring and housing, unequal access to jobs that provide health insurance, crime-inducing poverty, and leniency to employers who do not fulfill their obligations to employees affect the African immigrant population in large numbers.

I discovered this when I took a cab from my home in Hyde Park to Oak Park. I got to the cab about 3 minutes after it arrived in front of apartment. As I walked up to the vehicle, a Somalian man scolded me for forcing him to endure 3 painful minutes of honking by CTA buses and other cars. After that interaction, I decided to ask him a few questions. I learned that he had moved to the United States from Somalia in 2004. He told me about his part-time job selling jewelry at a store that refused to hire any of its employees full-time so that it did not have to provide them with the benefits to which full-time workers are entitled. We debated about how to handle customers who run without paying. He recounted the time he was held up at gunpoint, and that he was luckier than his Nigerian cab driver friend, who was shot and killed. When I asked him why he was involved in such a hazardous profession, he told me he liked the independence—plus, there weren’t any other jobs.

As I continue to talk to the politically invisible people scattered across this city, the more I realize the value of starting a serious conversation about African immigration, of including the experiences of African immigrants into the crucial debates surrounding the future of race relations in America, and of redefining blackness in America to achieve true racial equality. African-Americans and Africans ought to take advantage of the strength in numbers and work together to fight for the well-being of their communities. The first step is to engage in a dialogue about what racial justice means when the experiences of African immigrants are often ignored entirely and how best to achieve a form of racial justice that consistent with present realities.