Should African Americans qualify as refugees? And if so, where would we go? In an op-ed in the Washington Post, Aha Jorjani—an immigration defense lawyer with the Office of the Alameda County Public Defender—makes a fascinating point concerning the plight of Black people in the U.S. Jorjani, who has represented hundreds of non-citizens in deportation cases, has argued that her clients had a well-founded fear of persecution by the government of their home country, or by groups the government controlled, if they returned to their nation of origin.
Further, she notes that under U.S. asylum laws, persecution must be based on one’s race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group or one’s political opinion.
“Suppose a client walked into my office and told me that police officers in his country had choked a man to death over a petty crime,” Jorjani asks hypothetically. “Suppose he said police fatally shot another man in the back as he ran away. That they arrested a woman during a traffic stop and placed her in jail, where she died three days later. That a 12-year-old boy in his country was shot and killed by the police as he played in the park.”
She continues, “Suppose he told me that all of those victims were from the same ethnic community — a community whose members fear being harmed, tortured or killed by police or prison guards. And that this is true in cities and towns across his nation. At that point, as an immigration lawyer, I’d tell him he had a strong claim for asylum protection under U.S. law.”
“What if, next, he told me he was from America? Black people in the United States face such racial violence that they could qualify as refugees if they lived in this country,” Jorjani concludes, suggesting that to make a proper asylum claim for African-Americans, she need not go back hundreds of years to examine the toll of slavery, Jim Crow Segregation and lynching. Rather, she would look at what is happening today, with the racial profiling, selective prosecution and mass incarceration of Black people, who in her view, know far too well the risk of physical harm and unjust imprisonment.
Moreover, it tells us a great deal about the U.S. when a nation that boasts of its own human rights record and lectures others on their shortcomings has such a grave problem of injustice. Take for example the disproportionate killing of Black people by law enforcement, the fact that there are more Black people under correctional supervision than were enslaved, higher sentences for Black people based on race, economic exploitation of Blacks, a racial wealth gap, voting rights infringements and so many other glaring examples of injustice and discrimination.
Jorjani argues that America is a dangerous place for Black Americans, and Black people should not have to flee the U.S. and seek refuge in other countries. This is true. But let us consider for a moment, hypothetically speaking, what Black America would do and where they would go if they decided to stop struggling in the U.S. and search for greener pastures. Surely it is an issue that individuals such as Marcus Garvey addressed, and there are the examples of Liberia and Sierra Leone, nations in Africa which were established as colonial homelands for freed slaves.
Perhaps this would prove an interesting time for Black people to venture out and consider what the rest of the world has to offer, including the nations of the Caribbean and Africa, where Black people are in the majority. There are nations such as Brazil, which boasts the largest population of African descent outside of Africa and has one of the largest economies in the world, or Ghana, which, with its booming economy, has become a mecca for African-Americans, with thousands visiting each year, and 3,000 living in the West African nation, according to the Christian Science Monitor. Those who have been to a Black-owned and operated country know the feeling when they walk down the street and everyone looks like them, and there is no fear of being racially profiled or otherwise discriminated against because of your skin.
And with the many millions of African-Americans who are skilled, educated and unemployed—with a jobless rate that is double that of whites—there are other countries where they could bring their experience and help build something strong and positive.
At the same time, it is necessary to remember that ultimately, it is impossible to escape from one’s problems. In other words, for Black people in the U.S., or anywhere, it is impossible to hide from white supremacy. Global systems of oppression leave no hiding spaces, given the economic exploitation of African land and resources by multinational corporations, the neoliberal and forced austerity policies of international bodies such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund, which exacerbate poverty and inequality by serving powerful interests who are not African.
Further, there is no guarantee that wherever Black Americans go, that they will necessarily be welcome with open arms. Some might be resented by local populations for being American, or wealthier, or foreign. Further, there is the experience of Liberia, where former slaves returned “home” and established their own U.S.-type hierarchy in which they placed themselves on top, and native-born Liberians at the bottom. Then again, there are other Black nations in the diaspora such as the Dominican Republic, which has been indoctrinated over the years with an ideology of self-hatred of Blackness, and is reflected in the persecution and expulsion of Haitians living in that country.
If African-Americans are refugees in their own land, it gives us an opportunity to consider the options before us. One thing is certain—it is incumbent upon Black people to develop strategies to overcome and eliminate their refugee status.