Costly Signalling and why African Immigrants Reject Black American Cultures

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.

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.

Source: 2010 American Community Survey, Table B05006: “Place of Birth for the Foreign-Born Population in the United States.” n.e.c. = “not elsewhere classified.”
Source: 2010 American Community Survey, Table B05006: “Place of Birth for the Foreign-Born Population in the United States.” n.e.c. = “not elsewhere classified.”

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.

A tweet saying “African Immigrants especially, middle class and aspirational ones, have sometimes been absolutely contemptuous of Black American culture and people. It can be pretty jarring.

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.

Blood gang members: Gangs wear conspicuous clothing and tattoos as costly signals for gang affiliation. Risk of death and injury is high among gang members but still use flashy colors and symbols. Source: Max Gax

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.

Gettysberg: Confederate States Of America
Until recently, flags and conspicuous uniforms used during the American Civil War served as costly signals of trust and commitment to one’s army. Source: Mark Beerdom

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.

Source: 2010 American Community Survey, Table S0504: “Selected Characteristics of the Foreign-Born Population by Region of Birth: Africa, Northern America, and Oceania”; Table DP02: “Selected Social Characteristics in the United States.”
68% of African immigrants have a Bachelor’s degree or higher compared to only 57% of the total U.S population.
Source: 2010 American Community Survey, Table S0504: “Selected Characteristics of the Foreign-Born Population by Region of Birth: Africa, Northern America, and Oceania.”
A significant majority (37.7%) of African immigrants work in Science, business, and management. These are the highest paying jobs in the United States.
  • 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.



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Zinah Issa

Zinah Issa

Reflecting on the cognitive and sociocultural nature of our societies.