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African Diaspora Looks to Flex Political Muscle in US Elections

Voters work on their ballots in the kiosks in Jackson, Miss., Tuesday, March 10, 2020. Mississippi is one of several states holding presidential party primaries today. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)
Voters work on their ballots in the kiosks in Jackson, Miss., Tuesday, March 10, 2020. Mississippi is one of several states holding presidential party primaries today. (AP Photo/Rogelio V. Solis)

The African diaspora in the United States is mobilizing voter drives as organizers believe 2020 is a time for these voters to flex their political muscle as never before.

"Our goal is to empower people into learning that they have a voice," said Nneka Achapu, founder of the African Public Affairs Committee, a nonpartisan political organization that advocates policies for the empowerment of the African diaspora. "They have a say in the policies, in the laws that are actually brought forth and are affecting us as Africans living in this country."

According to the latest U.S. Census figures from 2018, there were 2,403,564 foreign-born Africans in the country. Overall, 50.6% of these immigrants are naturalized citizens, and 94.4% of them are at least 18 years and likely have voting rights.

But the diverse and dispersed nature of the African population in the U.S. makes it hard for African voters to organize. Although there are concentrated population centers in several cities, including Minneapolis, Washington, Houston and New York City, the African diaspora does not speak with a single voice.

There are no definitive surveys as to the political leanings of the African diaspora.

"They are not big enough or organized enough to constitute a voting bloc, unlike some other ethnic identities in the United States," said John Campbell, the Ralph Bunche senior fellow for Africa policy studies at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, D.C.

Top concerns

But organizers say concerns of U.S. voters of African descent aren't much different than the U.S. population at large — the economy, education, health care and security. Because many African immigrants work in front-line roles, the COVID-19 response is a major concern.

"A lot of our African diaspora members are in the trenches and working, whether it's in the medical field, whether it is transporting people, whether it's bagging groceries," Achapu said. "We are pretty much everywhere."

And the power of voters from the African diaspora appears to be growing.

Between 2010 and 2018, the sub-Saharan African population in the U.S. increased by 52%. On a national level, several African politicians have made waves.

In 2018, Congresswoman Ilhan Omar of Minnesota became the first Somali-American elected to Congress. Congressman Joe Neguse of Colorado, born in the U.S. to Eritrean parents, became the first person of Eritrean origin elected to Congress.

A study by the Pew Research Center showed that contrary to stereotypes, African immigrants to the U.S., on average, are more likely to be college-educated and employed than the population at large.

"I think that it's very hard to pigeonhole them," Campbell said. "Like Americans in general, they will vote for whichever candidate personally appeals to them the most."

Immigration issue

One issue voters of African descent are particularly concerned about is immigration, organizers say. Many came as immigrants or have family members that have immigrated to the country. Each year, tens of thousands of Africans are admitted to the U.S. as refugees escaping places like the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Somalia and Eritrea.

Because of this, Africans are particularly concerned with recent changes to the immigration system restricting numbers of immigrants.

In 2016, the U.S. admitted nearly 85,000 refugees, including 31,000 from Africa. In 2020, the U.S. will admit a total of 18,000 refugees and is scheduled to admit just 15,000 in 2021.

The U.S. State Department said the reduction "reaffirms America's enduring commitment to assist the world's most vulnerable people, while fulfilling our first duty to protect and serve the American people."

Sam Phatey, a Washington, D.C.-based political strategist who is organizing a voter drive in Georgia and Kentucky to register immigrant citizens, said recent U.S. policies like a travel ban that has cut off immigrant visas to several African countries, and highly publicized deportations of Africans, are galvanizing voters.

"They feel the need to go out and vote now in order to protect themselves and their families," Phatey said. "Many African families have been here for two, three, four or even more generations. And so, they feel like their children and their children's children need to be protected now. And so, they are now galvanizing support for one another in the upcoming election to register to vote in order to defeat and change some of those policies."

The immigration issue is making African diaspora voters more active and outspoken than in recent memory, Phatey said.

"If we are in this country and we are paying taxes, we need to vote, and we need to do something when it comes to some of these policies that directly affect them," he said. "So, when a policy directly affects somebody, be sure that they are going to take action. And that is what the African diaspora community does when it comes to immigration policy."

In Texas, Achapu's organization has been hosting voter registration and census drives. Achapu said she is encouraging people of African descent, including first-time voters, to research candidates on a local level and ask them questions about the issues that matter most.

"That's when you can decide, 'OK, this is the candidate that represents my values, my morals, and what I think means progress,'" she said.