Theses Doctoral

(Re)Defining Blackness: Race, Ethnicity and the Children of African Immigrants

Sall, Dialika

The Black population in the United States is undergoing a significant transformation. Over the last four decades, the African immigrant population has increased from 130,000 to 2 million, making them one of the fastest growing groups in the United States. Yet, notably absent from much of the discourse on how immigration is changing our society is a serious engagement with the dynamic changes happening within the country’s Black population. This dissertation examines how these demographic realities are experienced in young people’s daily lives. I use the case of low-income, adolescent children of West African immigrants to understand how processes of immigrant integration and racialization unfold generationally across racial and ethnic lines. I focus specifically on their identity-work and acculturation in the context of families, local institutions, and transnational social fields. Methodologically, I draw on ethnographic observations and interviews with 71 second-generation West African teenagers in three New York City public high schools.

The dissertation consists of five substantive chapters. Chapters 1 and 2 examine the ethnic and racial identifications of second-generation West Africans, some of the meanings they make around these identities, and begins to delve into the contextual mechanisms shaping these identities, namely their families, neighborhoods and law enforcement. Chapters 3 and 4 respectively analyze the role of transnational visits to parent home countries and religion on acculturation and understandings of Blackness and Africanness, among other identities. The final chapter, Chapter 5, explores three mechanisms shaping the selective acculturation of African immigrant youth: adoption of American cultural features, maintenance of ethnically distinct features, and the introduction of African cultural forms.

My research makes three contributions. First, by placing adolescent children at the center of my analysis, I show how these young people are both making and made by a unique sociohistorical and political context that has significant consequences for their racial and ethnic identity-work. Second, it contributes to understandings about the relationship between socioeconomic status and second-generation immigrant integration. Contrary to arguments that second-generation identification and acculturation are patterned by class, I find that low-income African immigrant youth selectively acculturate into American society and maintain strong ethnic identities similar to their middle-class counterparts. The third contribution provides evidence that as immigrants, their children and their host communities continually interact through institutions like schools and neighborhoods, a mutual cultural reconstitution process occurs that fundamentally transforms both immigrants and the cultural landscape from which communities in the host society fashion an “American” identity.

Taken together, in shedding light on second-generation Black immigrant racialization processes, this dissertation challenges assumptions about low-income Black youth and offers a dynamic, agentic and relational understanding of immigrant integration. It also highlights how broader meanings of immigrant integration and Blackness in the United States are fundamentally changing.


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Thesis Advisors
Khan, Shamus
Tran, Van C.
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
May 22, 2020