"Black America is not a monolith"

American sociologist Tod G. Hamilton gave this year’s WZB Distinguished Lecture about lessons from a century of black migration. In this interview* he explains his research on this topic and why the black population in the U.S has been perceived as a monolith for so long.

Tod Hamilton
Kerstin Schneider

Tod, your research shows that the black population in the US is immensely diverse. For example, you distinguish between native-born and immigrant black Americans. Can you explain that briefly?

There has always been a tendency to treat the black population as a monolith. But as early as the beginning of the 20th century, especially in cities like New York, large waves of black immigrants were coming from the Caribbean at the same time as freed slaves and their descendants from the South. After 1965, when a larger influx of non-European immigrants was facilitated, the number and diversity of black immigrants grew substantially. In 1960, about one percent of blacks in the United States were foreign-born. Currently, that figure is about 11 percent. Later, in the 1980s and 1990s, there was a dramatic increase in immigrants from sub-Saharan Africa.

In addition, there have been dramatic changes in settlement locations. Previously, most black immigrants arrived in cities in the Northeastern portion of the United States. Today, we see that African populations in particular are more geographically dispersed, with large populations in places like Minnesota, Washington State, and other northwestern parts of the country. In some regions of the U.S., a large share of the growth in the black population is driven by the growth of the black immigrant population. That has huge implications for our earlier research on immigrant integration and thinking about how different groups integrate within and across generations. But it also affects the way we think about the evolution of racial discrimination in the United States.

How do black immigrants differ by educational and cultural background?

When we think about the major immigration flows from the Caribbean, we talk primarily about immigrants from Jamaica, Haiti, the Dominican Republic, Guyana, and Trinidad and Tobago. With the exception of Haiti, many of these immigrants have average education levels when they move to the United States similar to those of black Americans and slightly below those of the overall U.S. population and white Americans. Most immigrants from Africa are from Nigeria, Ghana, and Ethiopia. What is distinctive is that immigrants from Nigeria and Ghana are much more educated. Their average education is higher than that of black Americans. The percentage of those who have a college degree is also higher than for white Americans.

What does this mean for integration outcomes?

Here's where things get more complicated. Highly skilled immigrants, and especially highly skilled black immigrants, are often not able to find jobs in the United States that match their skill level. So the economic returns to education are somewhat lower for highly skilled black immigrants. Among black individuals with a high school education or less, foreign-born blacks tend to have higher weekly earnings than U.S.-born blacks. Similarly, among black individuals with less than a high school education, foreign-born blacks are more likely to be employed than U.S.-born blacks. Nativity disparities among blacks are less pronounced among individuals with at least a college level education  Although it is often argued that the advantages we see for black immigrants are due to their cultural background, it actually seems to be more a result of selective migration – this means that immigrants do not represent the average population of their home countries but may be, for example, are younger, more educated, and drawn from the higher social classes. 

How do men and women differ here?

If we focus on the post-1965 period, it was primarily men who came to the United States from Asia and Latin America. In contrast, immigration from the Caribbean contained a greater proportion of female migrants. These women were able to work in jobs that were in demand in the U.S. economy. These tended to be gendered occupations; depending on their level of education, they were domestic workers or nurses. That means that we had a selective population of new immigrants here, particularly from the Caribbean in the early days. And these flows were driven more by women.

In terms of income, in absolute terms, men tend to do better than women. But when we look at women and the outcomes of black female immigrants, the origin-based gap among women is smaller than among men in the United States. So, the gap between foreign-born and native-born women is smaller than between foreign-born and native-born men from almost every country, from the Caribbean and from sub-Saharan Africa. And that's partly because of the gendered nature of migration flows. There was a unique opportunity for immigrant women to enter certain segments of the labor market where they initially had little competition from white American women. Today, the differences tend to level out, but it's still the case that when we see an advantage for black immigrants in the labor market, it tends to be among women.

Why has the black population in the U.S. been perceived as a monolith for so long?

In part, this is due to the long history of slavery and racial discrimination in the United States. Even decades after the official end of slavery, instead of thinking about black immigrants and their experiences in comparison to other immigrant groups, black immigrants are often used as a tool of analysis to better understand the inequalities between black and white Americans.

But if we really look at black immigrants as a unique immigrant population, some of the findings align very well with what we see in immigrant populations in general. For example, if we look at labor market outcomes where black immigrants seem to do really well, it's in the areas of employment and labor force participation. Black immigrants have much higher labor force participation rates than black Americans, but they also have much higher labor force participation rates than white Americans.

That almost sounds like a success story.

To understand why certain groups of black immigrants do relatively well along some labor market outcomes, for example employment and labor force participation, we have to look critically at the factors that motivate immigrants to move to the United States. If we think about Haiti or Ethiopia, the minimum wage in most American cities is three to four times what these immigrants could earn in their home countries. There's also the importance of remittances in the decision to emigrate in the first place and the decision of what job they want to take.

So, it may be that certain jobs in the U.S. may have a much higher value for certain immigrant groups.  So even though there's a huge inequality between Americans and these immigrants, they're doing much better than people in their countries of origin. And likewise, we know that immigrants also maximize the well-being of a family network. There is now extensive research on Mexican immigrants showing that families diversify their risk of income loss by having one or two family members work abroad. Immigrants from sub-Saharan Africa have a similar pattern. The ability to send remittances is a major incentive for many immigrants to take even low-skill employment. And this low-skill employment has a value among immigrants that it does not have for the native-born population, whose family networks are anchored in the United States.

So, when we think about black immigrants, we often don't think about the nuances that really drive the migration decision and how labor market dynamics among immigrants in general, and black immigrants in particular, are motivated by a number of nuanced factors.

How is your research perceived in the public debate by policymakers and the media?

I'm a demographer at core, and I love nuance. Maybe that's a handicap, but I think my research contributes to a better understanding of the evolution of inequality between blacks and whites in the United States. There is a lot of interest right now in understanding these inequalities, not just at the national level, but also at the level of smaller geographic areas. One of the things we're finding is that the gap between blacks and whites in life expectancy and mortality is very different. The first impulse is to attribute this gap to inequalities in the social and political context of a place. That may be true to some extent. But part of the reason for the smaller disparities between black and white that we see in certain areas of the country is that the proportion of immigrants, particularly black immigrants, is higher in those areas. There is a very robust literature that demonstrates that new immigrants tend to have a better health profile upon arrival than the native-born population. That's true for black immigrants as well. That shows how important it is to look closely at the nuances of the data to ensure we don't come to the wrong conclusions.

What advice would you like to give to a policy maker?

We need to collect more data. For example, in the past, the U.S. Census collected data not only on race, but also on parents' place of birth. The U.S. Census and the American Community Survey no longer contain this information.  This can lead to inaccurate conclusions about the factors that cause inequalities or changes in inequalities in the United States. A similar phenomenon is seen among Hispanics, for whom we also do not collect data on parents' place of birth in the United States. The children of upwardly mobile Hispanics immigrants tend to stop identifying as Hispanic on the Hispanic ethnicity question contained in the U.S. Census. As a result, they then fall into only the white category in U.S. Census data. That makes the US white population look like their outcomes are improving. And it makes the Hispanic population's outcomes appear worse than they actually are. So, one of the major policy conclusions is there's a real need for efforts to collect more detailed data to really understand the factors that are driving both national and regional disparities in the US.


Berlin, November 2022


Tod G. Hamilton is a professor of sociology at Princeton University.

His book "Immigration and the Remaking of Black America" was published in 2019.

*The interview was conducted by Harald Wilkoszewski and Claudia Roth.