Ilhan Omar: On the Pluralisation of Black Identity and Politics

George Floyd’s killing and the protests that followed it are being described as the latest episode in a centuries-old history of racial conflict. Both anti-racists and white supremacists, for very different reasons, concur in this vision of a race war where blacks and whites are the rival protagonists. True as this account may be when viewed in the long run, there is something different about the present situation. And this has to do not with the revival of the far-right in government and on the street, but a redefinition of America’s racial identities through immigration.

This difference can be seen in the circumstances of Mr. Floyd’s death. He went into a shop owned by someone of Middle Eastern descent, where an employee working the cash till called the police upon suspecting Mr. Floyd to have paid with counterfeit currency. The event could have been part of a familiar story, in which immigrant entrepreneurs catering to African American customers side with the authorities. But this did not happen in Minneapolis, where both the shop’s owner and other immigrant-owned businesses in the neighbourhood came out in solidarity against Mr. Floyd’s murder.

From the retired Somali woman who owned a Minneapolis bakery attacked by protestors, to businesses in Chicago which displayed signs proclaiming they were black or minority owned so as not to suffer a similar fate, a tense solidarity has emerged among African Americans and immigrant entrepreneurs, reflecting that among the racially mixed protestors on the streets. Yet this is not a story of alliance-building among coloured folks, or between them and whites, telling us instead about a far-reaching shift in the meaning of race relations in the United States. 

Reading Ilhan Omar’s life story This is What America Looks Like in the current climate makes one wonder about this shift in race relations, as the title of the book itself indicates. Herself a native of Minneapolis, Omar’s Somali American narrative shows us how immigrants from Africa are redefining what it means to be black in the US, and in doing so destabilizing the old duality of black and white together with the historically fraught relationship it represents. Barack Obama, whose father was also an immigrant from East Africa, provides only the most spectacular example of this process.

When I left the US for Britain ten years ago, a friend in New York described the different meanings race possessed in these countries. In America, he said, if you’re not black you’re white, while in England, if you’re not white you’re black. Because race in America is founded in slavery, in other words, African Americans represent its negative pole, allowing everyone else to be hierarchically incorporated into a positive white politics. This is why immigrants from the Middle East to South and Central Asia have at various times been officially labelled white in US law. 

In Britain and elsewhere in Europe, where white populations anchor race, it has occasionally been possible to build a black political identity which includes people of African as well as Asian and Middle Eastern descent. But then non-white people there are all classified as immigrants, unlike African Americans in the US. Already in the 1980s, however, when the term African American was popularised by figures like the civil rights leader and politician Jesse Jackson on the model of immigrant identities, this distinction was breaking down. 

From national identifications like Italian American to racial ones like Asian American, such names define immigrant communities in the United States but not Britain. The term African American appears to belong in this group yet cannot include an Omar or an Obama. While the descendants of enslaved and indentured people from the Americas dominate the globalization of black identity in cultural terms, African immigrants, closer in background to their Asian and Middle Eastern peers, are altering its politics alongside Afro-Caribbean and Afro-Latin people.

When Obama faced a storm of racist claims about his allegedly Muslim identity and Kenyan birthplace, a former teacher of mine at the University of Chicago told me that such notions had also ensured his election. It was because Obama is not African American, but, more importantly than his mixed-race parentage, the son of an immigrant, that he was able to garner the white votes necessary to become president. Whatever the truth of this statement, its delinking of black from African American identity is evident in Omar’s autobiography.

Omar’s first experience with race in America happened in middle school, when she “became fixated on two sisters, one in my grade and the other in eighth grade, who had actual Somali names. But that was the only Somali thing about them. They identified as black, a concept I had no understanding of at the time.” In high school she describes how “African Americans and African immigrants fought over who was blacker.” Blackness here has already ceased being an African American characteristic and started to destabilize the black-white binary of US history.

Omar’s first political act also occurred in high school, where she organized a group that made peace between students from different racial and ethnic backgrounds. And that is the extent of her dealings with African Americans in the book. Her heroes are immigrants, who in Omar’s view are the only ones to understand the value of democracy. Shocked by the squalor and poverty she saw when first arriving as a refugee in New York, Omar thinks the image the US exports abroad is its true ideal. “We want to export that image to the rest of the world, because that is ultimately what we want for ourselves.” 

It is the immigrant who represents America more than its natives, with Omar writing that “I worry, though, that the striving aspect of the American spirit is greatest in our new immigrants, because many of us already here have become complacent.” Yet this is not a story about the immigrant’s hereditary virtues, since Omar is forthright in blaming her own Somali community for the most vicious political attacks she has received, while the only account she gives of an Islamophobic encounter involved an African cab driver who “had an African accent that made him sound like some of my relatives.”

What Omar finds liberating about America is that “there are stronger bonds than identity.” She describes herself as possessing several identities that bring her into contact with many disparate groups, a fragmentation that rubbishes both the singular “identity politics” those on the right accuse their opponents of pursuing as well as the Manichaean one that pits white against black. Being black allows Omar to go beyond her own background and make common cause with African Americans among others. In doing so, she participates in the problematic freeing of black politics from African American identity. Are we seeing the consequences of this freedom on the streets of America today with the slow pluralization of black identity and politics? And will it alter the long history of conflict between black and white there? African Americans once sought to mediate if not break their dualistic relations with whites by turning to the world outside, whether in Pan-Africanism or Islam. That world has now arrived in the United States, and like Barack Obama before her, Ilhan Omar has become its political representative.           

Faisal Devji is Professor of Indian History, University of Oxford.

Image by © Annette Bernhardt OaklandBLM-4174, ‘Creative Commons licence: ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-SA 2.0), https://bit.ly/3ez1MTX

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