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How has American identity changed?

First-​​generation West African immi­grants from Nigeria and Ghana tran­si­tion smoothly into major soci­etal insti­tu­tions, such as the work­place and the neigh­bor­hood, but have not built stable, mutu­ally ben­e­fi­cial friend­ships and inti­mate rela­tion­ships with native-​​born Amer­i­cans, said North­eastern Uni­ver­sity pro­fessor Min­delyn Buford II.

Speaking at an inter­dis­ci­pli­nary con­fer­ence, “Amer­ican Iden­tity in the Age of Obama,” held last week at North­eastern, the assis­tant pro­fessor of soci­ology and African-​​American studies noted that Nigerian and Ghanaian immi­grants “exhibit pat­terns of selec­tive acculturation.”

The con­fer­ence, cospon­sored by the Human­i­ties Center and the John D. O’Bryant African-​​American Insti­tute, drew scholars from across the country, who high­lighted the role of race, eth­nicity and immi­gra­tion status in shaping con­cep­tions of what it means to be American.

“There’s not an easy answer to what aspects of Amer­ican iden­tity have or have not changed since Obama was elected,” said polit­ical sci­ence pro­fessor Amilcar Bar­reto, asso­ciate director of the Human­i­ties Center. “It’s pos­sible that any change is slow in terms of accepting mem­bers of tra­di­tion­ally mar­gin­al­ized groups in society.”

Buford ana­lyzed the socioe­co­nomic and inter­per­sonal assim­i­la­tion pat­terns of 45 Nigerian and Ghanaian immi­grants who migrated to Mary­land, many of whom sought better jobs and edu­ca­tional oppor­tu­ni­ties. She is con­ducting the research for a book on how class and race shape highly edu­cated, foreign-​​born black immi­grants’ assim­i­la­tion tra­jec­to­ries in the United States.

According to Buford’s study, 73 per­cent of Nigerian and Ghanaian immi­grants had African Amer­i­cans in their social net­works, including col­leagues, neigh­bors, sig­nif­i­cant others and acquain­tances in vol­un­teer orga­ni­za­tions. Forty-​​nine per­cent of those sur­veyed had white Amer­i­cans in their social networks.

The majority of par­tic­i­pants, Buford said, enjoyed their expe­ri­ences in the work­place and in the neigh­bor­hood, but seldom devel­oped close rela­tion­ships with their co-​​workers or neigh­bors. More often than not, for example, Nigerian and Ghanaian immi­grants devel­oped formal work rela­tion­ships that “did not tend to extend out­side of the work­place and work hours.”

“Pat­terns of inte­gra­tion or iso­la­tion among these new immi­grants have impli­ca­tions for their self-​​identity and imposed iden­ti­fi­ca­tion in con­tem­po­rary U.S. society,” said Buford.

– By Jason Kornwitz

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