"WR6_gUnUj-ztiW07KQcOCnTel9A"/> Notes From Atlanta: 09/24/08

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

African immigrants in America who will not vote for Obama

By Farooq A. Kperogi
Given the enormous excitement that Barack Obama generates in Africa (and among Africans both at home and in the diaspora), it’s probably hard to conceive that there are African immigrants in the United States who will be voting for John McCain in the November 4 presidential election. But there are.

So who are these Africans-in-America (or, “American Africans,” as Professor Ali Mazrui likes to call African immigrants in the United States) who would be turning their backs on a “brother” when he needs them most? And what informs their decision?

While there is a handful of Africans who resent Obama for various reasons (ranging from his alleged distance from the African community in America, to his self-righteous insistence, last year, that his support for Nigeria’s debt relief was conditional on Nigeria turning over Charles Taylor to the Special Court in Sierra Leone, etc) the most prominent of them is a certain Robert Ngwu, a Nigerian immigrant to the United States who was, in fact, a delegate at the Republican National Convention in the state of Minnesota.

Ngwu, a former chairman of the Nigerians in Diaspora Organization in the Americas (NIDO A) was one of only a few non-white delegates at the convention—and certainly the only African. So why is he a Republican?

African immigrants who are Republican are people who have been suckered by the politics of America’s culture wars. For instance, most Africans, however much they may proclaim their progressive credentials, are culturally conservative and find that the Republican Party’s cultural narratives resonate with them more than the Democratic Party’s embrace of unsettling cultural iconoclasm.

As an example, most Africans are mortified that the Democratic Party supports gay marriage. They also can’t understand why the Party pooh-poohs the idea of teaching creationism in schools. Because of our deeply religious upbringing, most Africans have an unquestioning faith in the idea that the world was created by God, and see no big deal in teaching this idea in schools.

In sum, many Africans find more cultural comfort with Republicans than they do with Democrats. Yet, although American conservatives and Republicans espouse points of views that are congenial to African cultural realities, their platforms provide sanctuary for the worst forms of unabashed racial intolerance. Some of the scariest racists in America can be found in the American conservative movement and in the Republican Party, which are practically indistinguishable these days.

This is not to suggest that all Republicans and/or conservative are racist and intolerant. Or that all Democrats and liberals are tolerant. Some of the most complaisant and kind-hearted Americans I have met here are conservative Republicans. And the worst form of undisguised, in-your-face racism I experienced in my stay here was during a class I took with a self-professed liberal professor with Democratic sympathies.

However, it is the case that, in general, liberals and Democrats are more welcoming to non-white immigrants to the United States than are conservatives and Republicans. So while Africans tend to be culturally conservative, they are usually politically liberal. This can be a recipe for confusion.

In a report he did for the U.S. Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) titled “Wanted: African-born Republicans,” a U.S.-based Kenyan journalist by the name of Edwin Okog’o captured the ambivalence many Africans face in their political alignments here, the kind that forces African immigrants like Robert Ngwu to turn their back on Obama and embrace McCain. Below is an abridged version of the report. Enjoy.

‘The absence of Africans in the Republican Party can be explained, in part, by their captivation with Obama, a fellow immigrant's son, but it goes deeper than that. Even before Obama's political rise, Africans have historically had more affinity with Democrats than Republicans.

African immigrants who have voted Republican in the past often don't express themselves openly for fear of ridicule and being shunned by their fellow immigrants.
African immigrants who have voted Republican in the past often don't express themselves openly for fear of ridicule and being shunned by their fellow immigrants.

I recall years ago hearing two of my Kenyan countrymen at a party in this country whispering about a young Kenyan woman one of them liked.

"She is a Republican," one man warned.
"A Republican?" the other man asked, as if it were incomprehensible.

Until then, he hadn't been able to take his eyes off her. But now, he just walked away, shaking his head.

American politics was rarely discussed at such gatherings, but it was understood by all of us that once we arrived in the United States we automatically became Democrats. We also realized that most black Americans are Democrats, and Kennedy, Carter and Clinton were all popular in Africa for their policies toward the continent. Still, the dearth of African immigrant Republicans is striking, especially since many of them share some of the same beliefs as the GOP's "social conservatives."

This became clear to me several years ago when as a graduate journalism student at U.C. Berkeley I was assigned to interview African immigrants about a special election in California. But I had great trouble finding a Republican to talk to, even casting far beyond the traditionally liberal Berkeley boundaries. Every African immigrant I called said they were Democrats.

I finally managed to track down that same Kenyan woman whose Republican affiliation had turned off the Kenyan man at that party. She agreed to talk but only if I promised not to reveal her identity.

She told me that she had voted for George W. Bush in 2004 because he had "proven that he could defend America against terrorism." (The simultaneous Al Qadea bombings of the U.S. embassies in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar Es Salaam, Tanzania, in 1998 killed and injured hundreds of Africans and left a lasting revulsion against terrorism.)

But the longer we talked, the more she mentioned "moral values." She was a devout Christian who went to church every Sunday. She was anti-abortion. She opposed gay rights because "the Bible forbids homosexuality." She echoed beliefs that I have heard from many African immigrants here.

So why still vote Democrat?
I turned to George Ayittey, a Ghanaian-born professor of economics at American University in Washington, DC. Ayittey, who has lived in the U.S. since 1981, confirmed that most African immigrants were very religious and therefore tended to share certain values with the Republicans. Where they differed, he said, is on immigration.

"Most Africans support Democrats only because they have fallen for stereotypes," Ngwu said. "I know it was Ronald Reagan who signed the 1986 amnesty that allowed so many immigrants to stay."

"It is not just Africans," Ayittey said. "Immigrants in general see Republicans as being very strict on immigration," and against their interests.

Ngwu, the Nigerian-born delegate to the Republican convention, told me he thinks the GOP can woo African immigrants by better explaining their immigration policies.

"Most Africans support Democrats only because they have fallen for stereotypes," Ngwu said. "I have too much knowledge to become a Democrat by default. I know, for example, that it was Ronald Reagan who signed the 1986 amnesty that allowed so many immigrants to stay."

Ngwu joined the GOP as soon as he became a naturalized citizen nearly 10 years ago, and he has never hidden his political allegiance. To African-born Republicans who are afraid to speak out, he offered this advice: "If you are going to be ashamed of what you believe in, don't believe."

Ngwu said he had already met with various GOP leaders, including Tom Ridge, the former Secretary of Homeland Security, and Sen. McCain himself.

"I met with Senator McCain and his wife Cindy for two minutes," Ngwu said. "I know it is only two minutes, but how many African Democrats can say they got two minutes from their presidential nominee?"

The way Ngwu saw it, those encounters he had with GOP leaders, however brief, may in the future yield longer appointments with them -- appointments that will allow him enough time to propose the business ideas of Mega Souk, Inc., his business development company.

"I'm very passionate about stopping the exodus of professionals like you and me from Africa," Ngwu said. "I want to see more Americans doing business in Africa, and if anyone is going to do it, it's Republicans because they are the party of business."

Ngwu has the spirit of a true believer, but in this year of Obama, it's going to be harder than ever to find an African Republican voter. No amount of Republican preaching is likely to convert souls. This year, the hearts of African immigrants