Costly Signalling and why African Immigrants Reject Black American Cultures
One of the fundamental principles of signalling theory is that a signal will be reliable when for honest signalers the benefits outweigh the costs while for dishonest signalers the costs outweigh the benefits — James Densley.
Black Africans in White America
For the four hundred years that African slaves were in America, a significant part of it was spent in slave plantations where they toiled in sugar, tobacco, rice and cotton plantations of the American south. As chattel slaves, these Africans were born, raised, and died in slavery devoid of any human rights and dignity. They were lashed until their backs flayed, all the while keeping the cotton mills of the northern states sufficiently supplied. The emancipation proclamation came generations after followed by the thirteenth, fourteenth and fifteenth amendments which ameliorated the life of the negro albeit temporarily. At the backdrop was the Jim Crow segregationist policies that further alienated the negro and made him a pariah in a country he had come to call his own. Through various acts of activism, judicial procedures, and outright rejection of the status quo the black man would finally become an active participant of American life with the passing of the Civil Rights policies of the 1960s.
The civil rights came with a lot of benefits to the black man who by now had decidedly become African American. President Lyndon B. Johnson signed into law the Civil Rights Act of 1964 which decisively outlawed “employment discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, sex or national origin.” It also banned all forms of segregation by race, color, religion, sex, and nationality. The Civil Rights era also ushered in the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the Fair Housing Act of 1968. All these laws guaranteed black Americans the rights to vote without encumbrances like literacy tests and further created avenues for home ownership and self determination. If these are wins, then they lay the foundation for robust growth opportunities for African Americans. More wins would come in future even though some states still retained racist laws such as California’s Proposition 14 that allowed landlords to racially discriminate to whom they’ll sell their property, and racially restrictive covenants that prevented blacks from purchasing property in some neighborhoods.
Beneficiaries of the Civil Rights
Even though African Americans were the biggest beneficiaries of the Civil Rights laws, other minority groups too were also strategically positioned to benefit. Chinese Americans who had come to the US during the California gold rush enjoyed Civil Rights benefits just as blacks did. The same is true of Japanese Americans, Filipino Americans, the American native Indians, Muslims, women, and other key demographics previously marginalized. The win for black Americans was ultimately a win for everybody.
Without getting deep into American history, it is worth noting that the United States has always been the land of opportunity. Ronald Reagan’s farewell address described the United States as the “shining city on the hill” which gave opportunities to everybody who appeared on its shores. The statement is debatable but it has some truth to it. The United States has particularly been accommodating to professional and skilled immigrants. Kurt Godel, Albert Einstein, Von Neumann and other luminaries found refuge in the US after fleeing the Third Reich. Many others, most of them Africans, have also moved to the United States either as professionals or students and have built their lives there. However, while the United States is a largely diverse society will thousands of ethnicities, religions, and cultures, there exists a difficult relationship between African Americans who descended from slaves and to whom the wins of the Civil Rights era are attributed to, with Africans who recently migrated to the country. The relationship has morphed into one of hate and antagonism.
African Americans and African Immigrants
The relationship between African Americans and African immigrants is one of shared ancestry since the former were plucked from the coasts of central and western Africa before being transported to the Americas to work as slaves. From a biological and genetic perspective, the two are kin only that the black Americans have since acquired some European genes following interactions between both groups. But largely, it can be argued that the black American genome clusters fall in the same racial category as that of Africans since the genetic overlap with whites is not significant enough. Others will dispute these relationships and choose to believe the preposterous idea that black Americans in the United States predated slavery and are actually the indigenous occupants of the Americas. I will not debate hotep theories, but like Tariq Nasheed who seems to have pioneered the term FBA (Foundational Black Americans), it is important to distinguish between African Descendants of Slaves and recent African immigrants.
The latter only arrived in the United States recently, probably one or two generations ago, and still possesses a black identity situated outside that of African Americans. Typically, they are classified by their countries of origin such as Nigerian American, Ghanaian American, Kenyan American, Somalian American and so forth. By virtue of being black, unlike other immigrant and racial groups such as Asian Americans, the Irish, the Jews, and the Indians, African immigrants are assumed and often required to blend in with African American culture. But like the tweet below suggests, they do not.
Even before I argue why African immigrants reject black American culture, it is important to take a detour and understand FBA ideologies and and set them apart from African aspirations. Black Americans have a complex history characterized by slavery and violence. Foundational blacks, however, believe that slaves not only built the US from scratch but also fought for their independence through a series of rebellions against slave holders. Foundational blacks thus demand reparations (from Africans too) for their fight and labor. Since the wins of their struggles include the Civil Rights, black Americans believe African immigrants have unnecessarily benefited from their sweat, all the while looking down upon them. An article by Shannon Dawson which articulates the basics of FBA ideology argues that:
Some FBA- identifying individuals believe that Africans and other black immigrant communities do not respect them and their lived experiences throughout history.
As the tweet above revealed, the disrespect can be seen on several levels. First, African immigrants are “contemptuous of Black American culture and people” and second, Africans benefit from Civil Rights proceeds without necessarily acknowledging the input of foundational blacks or rather, being grateful for their input. I do not know exactly what gratefulness towards foundational blacks should look like but I believe it would be a good gesture of gratitude if Africans accepted and integrated with black American culture. But we see that’s not the case. Africans not only hold black Americans in contempt but also refuse to integrate with them. For that reason, foundational blacks have come out against Africans and rejected them too. Shannon writes that:
FBAs don’t believe in the concept of Pan Africanism. They believe they are a unique ethnic group with complex cultural and societal ideologies different from Africans and other black immigrants.
Essentially, this boils down to politics of trust and commitment and as far as foundational blacks are concerned, Africans have failed the trust test. As Africans reject several aspects of black American culture, they come to be seen as untrustworthy individuals who should not benefit from the proceeds of whatever foundational blacks created.
Black American culture
Like FBAs, I do not believe in Pan Africanism. I believe black people world wide are quite distinct and have very few cultural overlaps if any. It is, therefore, impossible to bring all these African groups together through a Pan African ideology. The complicated relationship between Africans and black Americans is partly driven by this cultural distinctiveness.
Foundational blacks have a robust culture that has grown through generations. Hip hop, rap, fashion, and Jazz are just a few of those cultural exports that foundational blacks have bequeathed the world. However, blacks also have some of the most demented cultural artifacts seen anywhere in the world. From local street gangs, drug trafficking and abuse, prostitution, and crime; foundational blacks are unparalleled by any group world wide in homicide rates, burglaries, robberies, and violence. To associate with foundational black Americans is to carry the cultural baggage they come with. I say cultural because these issues cannot be separated from any aspect of black American culture. Hip Hop and Rap both serve as conduits for gang banging, prostitution, drug use, and violence.
Other aspects of foundational black culture are more nuanced and subtle. A good example is the idea of “acting white” where blacks, especially students, are discouraged from behaving in ways that do not conform to African American cultures. Those who deviate are accused of acting white and are bullied and excluded. The mounting pressure forces most blacks to be ardent followers of African American culture.
Roland Fryer and Michael David extensively studied the phenomenon and showed how black students continuously fail in school regardless of the efforts put to raise their test scores. The authors observe that among black children there’s a particular way to be black and to be accepted by their peers they have to behave like other black kids. Those who deviate are regarded as sell outs and thus excluded from black peer groups. In regards to school performance, Fryer opines that failing is part of an “anti-achievement ethic championed by some black youngsters, declaring formal education useless.” The African American culture socializes black children early in life to take trajectories that are costly and antithetical to healthy life outcomes.
Signalling, Trust and Commitment
From the exegesis above, to be black is to signal aspects of black American culture. According to signalling theory, signals serve as methods of communicating our intentions and capabilities to others. In job interviews, degrees serve as signals for competence. In mating dynamics, beauty is a signal for reproductive quality among females while resourcefulness, wealth, and strength serve as signals for a man’s ability to care for a woman. However, these signals neither evoke trust nor commitment because they only serve as cues. To evoke trust and commitment, signals not only need to be hard to fake, they also need to be costly. These are referred to as indices instead of cues and are elaborated in length as part of costly signalling theory.
Costly signals are those that impose huge costs on the signaler and are hard to fake. To be recruited to a gang, a costly signal would include a previous history of incarceration, a murder case, and a history of violent behavior. This makes sure dishonest people, wannabees, and infiltrators are eliminated and thus excluded from the gang. In American schools, children pledge allegiance to black ethos by adopting costly signals like poor grades which diminishes career opportunities making them prime candidates for gang recruitment. A black child is trusted more if he or she signals under-achievement and street cred tendencies. The question, therefore, is whether Africans are willing to signal their trust and commitment to black American cultures and ethos. From the tweet and the FBA anti-African rhetoric, the answer seems to be no.
Rejection of African American Cultures
Most African immigrants in the United States went there as professionals. Others went as students and found job opportunities, while others went in as asylum seekers. Most of these groups are meticulously selected and even comprise Africa’s smart fraction. Most end up in high paying jobs which are way above the skill level of average foundational blacks. Tariq Nasheed believes Africans take away jobs from black Americans. But African immigrants have much superior skills than black Americans and the jobs they do are way above the skill level of most black Americans. The result of this selection process, high paying jobs, and professionalism is that most African immigrants end up living lifestyles that are far removed from mainstream foundational black American culture.
African immigrants do not live in inner city neighborhoods and neither do they take their children to the same schools as average foundational blacks. Essentially, African immigrants refused to signal their solidarity to black American culture by choosing to stay away. A Nigerian working for Google will not give up the high paying job to go mingle with foundational blacks since such associations come at a cost. To be a trusted member of the foundational black culture the Nigerian would have to do what foundational blacks do. But costly signalling theory tells us that to be wholly accepted and trusted by a group you have to pick the indices that incur more costs than benefits. The Nigerian would prove his commitment to the culture by engaging in the costliest behaviors inherent in foundational black American culture. Since I’ve already detailed aspects of FBA culture that are quite troublesome and perverse, would it be wise for an African immigrant to adopt them in exchange of trust from foundational blacks?
To wit, African immigrants rejected black American culture because it was costly to them. The costs of the culture far outweighed the benefits. Since these immigrants were looking for better opportunities, engaging in activities that risked their job prospects and career growth was so costly that they chose to stay away. Foundational blacks perceive this as betrayal coming from a group closely related to them, but considering they have come out against Pan-Africanism, then it shouldn’t matter. African immigrants have this far enjoyed the fruits of the Civil Rights as the United States opens up even more opportunities that attract Africans. These Africans continue to go to professional jobs that average foundational blacks are not qualified for. The trend will continue and we should expect even more resentment from foundational black Americans. However, I suspect we will start seeing occasional attacks and assaults on African immigrants just like is happening between blacks and Asians.
- I understand African Americans have complex and diverse cultures. This article focused on the costliest aspects of these cultures since costly signalling theory requires that new recruits pick up and display costly signals.
- All the charts come from African Immigration Council (2012)
- The civil war image shows how costly signalling works. Soldiers wear conspicuous uniforms and carry flags. These signals are easily visible by enemies and makes the soldiers prime targets. The true message it delivers, however, is that the soldier is part of the army and he won’t quit or deflect since doing so will get him killed by enemies.
- The blood gang image depicts another aspect of costly signalling. Bloods wear red making them prime targets by other gangs. The clothing symbolizes trust and commitment to the blood gang and is hard to fake. Other aspects include tattoos on the body and face.