Intersected: life chances of Black African refugees in the U.S.

This post focuses on the life chances of Black African refugees in the U.S., taking a look at the labor market, how knowledge of the English language plays in (you’ll be surprised!), and what an appropriate faith response might look like. There’s a summary at the end.

This Intersected piece is taken from my senior sociology capstone and updated with additional information. In the fall, I’ll begin my Master’s in Refugee and Forced Migration Studies.

Setting the Stage

Historically, the United States has allowed very few African refugees in its borders. The national quota system was abolished in 1965, allowing Africans to immigrate here and sponsor their families, and the foundational Refugee Act was established in 1980, allowing forced migrants approved by the UNHCR to find safety and citizenship within our borders.

Despite the Refugee Act, the numbers for those who are granted refugee status, those in the most need globally, are lower than those who are granted immigrant visas. And under the current administration, the refugee resettlement program has effectively been put on halt.

Up to this point, the qualifications of being a refugee and asylee have been the same, but refugees are pre-approved by the UNHCR in a process that takes chunks of people’s lifespan (for the few who do resettle) whereas asylees take their chances on being welcomed and come on their own to seek refuge. 
A little one who will grow up here. PC: KSB

Prior to the Refugee Act of 1980, Africans composed less than one percent of refugees in the States. That number grew to reach over 30 percent in the 2016. In FY2018 Africans were 46.5% of the refugees accepted, or just over 10,459 total, up over 10% but down about 20,000 people from two years prior. 

While the total numbers of refugees are down significantly under the current administration, which has the resettlement program effectively shut down, this data reflects the shift in demographic acceptance over the past decades.

Despite this increase of refugees over the decades through 2016 and the fact that one percent of the global population is now forcibly displaced, European immigrants far outnumber refugees allowed to resettle in the States each year.    

Time for a History Lesson

The minimal inflow of African refugees is no surprise. Since its beginnings in the 1700s, the United States government has disregarded the struggles of Black people.  In the Constitution they were considered three-fifths human and only came to the country as forced slave laborers. Next came Jim Crow, lynchings, and widespread KKK activism. 

In the first half of the 1900s, racial lines were changing for people such as Italian-Americans who came to be known as white, but Americans of African descent have always been considered Black and inferior by the majority of American society, including law enforcement and the judicial system (Shaw 2015, Alexander and West 2011, Davis 2003). 

They are treated like commodities and alienated within and from their labor. 

From enslaving Black people to allowing lynching and slavery by another name to ignoring their current suffering overseas, the United States has had a history of disregarding Black people. The State devalues them in policy and in action, resulting in global implications for African refugees. 

Once African refugees arrive in the United States, racial and immigrant narratives take over. 

History of African Refugees

While America’s racial history extends back for generations, the influx of Black refugees is relatively new and is almost entirely African rather than Caribbean

Nearly all African countries received independence in the 1960s and began struggling to create governments as centuries of colonial infrastructure were ripped away. Instability, conflicts, and civil wars have led to millions of internally displaced people and refugees

The Refugee Act of 1980 or Public Law 96-212 primarily defines a refugee as 

any person who is outside any country of such person’s nationality or, in the case of a person having no nationality, is outside any country in which such person last habitually resided, and who is unable or unwilling to return to, and is unable or unwilling to avail himself or herself of the protection of, that country because of persecution or a well-founded fear of persecution on account of race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group, or political opinion.

It’s objective is “to provide a permanent and systematic procedure for  the admission to this country of refugees of special humanitarian concern to the United States, and to provide comprehensive and uniform provisions for the effective resettlement and absorption of those refugees who are admitted.” 


Those provisions have been chipped away in recent years, and they are certainly not uniform, but this law has been a staple to the resettlement process. 

Like other refugees, Africans come to the US fleeing war, political terror, and other forms of persecution. From the massive crises in South Sudan to continual conflict in the Democratic Republic of Congo, over 18 million Africans are displaced within Africa itself, and millions more have travelled across the world.

As of five years ago, towards the peak of the United States’ resettlement program, Somalia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Eritrea, and Sudan — four African countries — made the top ten countries of origin for refugees coming to the U.S. DRC remained number one through 2019, Eritrea remained on the list throughout that time frame, Sudan fluctuated, and Burundi joined the top ten in 2019.

Despite the increase in global conflict, less than one percent of refugees are resettled per year worldwide, and only a portion of them are African. 

Barriers and Injustices in the United States

African refugees face barriers beginning with the refugee application process. (You can ask me for a case study in the comments.) Once refugees are in the States, discrimination is experienced on different levels, from interpersonal to structural (Hobden 2011**). 

In her interviews, sociologist Deborah Hobden recorded stories of microaggressions that Somali refugees retold. Black refugees perceive discrimination differently than native people of color, often glossing over microaggressions or not recognizing racism while talking about it in other words (see also: Broh and Waters 2011*) or living in lower class conditions far below the national mean. 

In some cases these inequitable conditions align with environmental injustice, as with many African refugees who experienced lead poisoning in New Hampshire. Due to time constraints and a “shortage of high-quality housing” in the city of Manchester, these refugees’ housing went uninspected and led to an epidemic of lead poisoning in children, although it was rarely fatal. It appears as if this city did not have adequate translators at the time of this research and thus communication was an especially big issue regarding this health problem.

How Does Color Play a Part?

African refugees compose a small portion of Black immigrants. And here’s the kicker for both groups: Race is correlated to life chances, with lighter skin correlating with better life chances. Most Africans are Black and thus have limited life chances in comparison. 

In addition to race, skin tone affects life chances. In “Skin Tone, Race/Ethnicity, and Wealth Inequality among New Immigrants,” Matthew A. Painter II, Malcolm D. Holmes, and Jenna Bateman used the 2003 New Immigrant Survey and applied the Tobit Regression to test the preference for whiteness hypothesis, using race as well as a skin tone scale. They were especially curious about wealth and finances, and they found that immigrants with darker skin tones are set back from those of lighter shades. 

Painter et al found that “a preference for whiteness financially advantages lighter skinned immigrants, especially with assets … that require greater in-person contact.” Race is thus a clear factor in discrimination, with implications on income and life chances. 

They found that Black immigrants have 83 percent less wealth than white immigrants, and they make less income as well. Logically, the same findings should hold true for refugees as well as immigrants. This is a topic worth exploring more. 

African refugees thus have lower life chances than their European, Asian, or Latino counterparts. These life chances are largely determined by direct institutionalized discrimination from the level of applicancy to achieving income once here. 

Does Knowing English Help?

When refugees come to the United States, they enter into a racialized democracy, a “racially structured economy that affects their success,” according to sociologist Jill Esbenshade. (This section is based on her 2011 research, and the quotes are hers.) 

Being Black was not the key factor of their previous suffering, but it becomes a primary reason why they are discriminated against in their new context. This is demonstrated in the labor force and is frustrating as “there is no clear relationship between human-capital factors and unemployment rates for refugee groups.” 

African refugees often end up in alienating work, not in the field that best matches their skills but one that they can do with little cultural capital. (Think factories, work as security guards, and hospitality services.) What’s more, their past education and credentials may be ignored. 

But this isn’t the same across all migrant groups. It’s not a lack of language that’s the key factor here. Check out this graph.

Figure taken from Esbenshade 2011

Between 2002 and 2007, the African to total American unemployment rate was 15.9 percent to 5.4 percent — practically triple, and higher than all other refugee groups. 

The English proficiency of African refugees upon arrival soars above the rest, yet their  unemployment rate is double that of refugees from the Middle East, whose English proficiency is one-third that of African refugees. Eastern Europeans, on the other hand, have the lowest unemployment rates despite only 4 percent of refugees speaking English well or fluently at arrival. 

Language is still a barrier in the lived experiences of refugees, however. Although African refugees speak more English than other refugee groups, under 25% speak it fluently upon arrival. Thus the language barrier often hinders decision making for newly arrived refugees since they are often limited to menial jobs that do not require much English. 

Racially discriminatory hiring practices are also beyond the refugees’ control. As refugees eager to make a living but denied certain opportunities, they start on the bottom of the workforce, working in low paying positions in hotels, the food industry, and so forth. 

Although the language barrier may partly explain why this is necessary — even highly educated people cannot fill lofty positions in the context of the United States if they do not speak English well — Esbenshade uses data from a 2007 report to Congress to demonstrate that this is not the sole reason. Racial discrimination is evident in the disparities between various refugee groups. 

Race is not the only factor impacting refugees’ life chances, but it is the prominent one affecting African refugees. 

Calling All American Christians

Original artist unknown

It is crucial to remember that refugees are forced migrants and survivors of trauma. God’s call to compassion demands that the Church extend care to these refugees. 

The American Church ought to combat discrimination as part of God’s command to make just laws, care for foreigners (as most Americans were once were foreigners, whether  by choice or force), preach His Gospel to the marginalized, build up His Church, and live in love without fear

If the American Church wants to honor God and love people, it should turn its attention to the social situations of their new African neighbors. From local involvement to national policy change, Christians can seek to create a more hospitable and less discriminatory environment for the Africans coming to this country — keeping America’s destructive racial history in mind and seeking structural change for racial minorities as a whole. 

The racial history and context of this nation affects the new history refugees are living out, and the two histories are categorically intertwined.


African refugees’ life chances in the United States are limited because of their race. They are limited by the United States because the country takes in more immigrants from more economically and politically stable countries than refugees coming from conflict zones. 

They are limited once in the United States because they have to build a new life starting from scratch and rely upon government benefits with less and less funding. 

They are especially limited because of their skin color. African refugees become racialized once they land in the airport, and the weight and narrative of the United States’ racial history is unwittingly placed upon their experiences. 

Unless vast structural changes are made, these refugees will continue to be discriminated against due to their race in this country.

Take the Next Step and Advocate!

Illinoisans can become involved in advocacy through the Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights (ICIRR). Refugee Action Network (RAN), formerly known as the Golden Door Coalition, is based in Chicago, and DePaul University in Chicago offers resources and legal aid to refugees and immigrants. 

Please feel free to reach out for more resources if you are currently in the United States! For example, I used to be a part of the Denver refugee network and would be happy to help Denverites connect there or to share other resources as I am able. 

You can always call your representatives, who are supposed to speak on behalf of their state, to advocate for a higher refugee ceiling and to stand with refugees on other pertinent issues. Finally, the National Immigration Forum can keep you updated on new policies affecting the nation as whole.

Sources that could not be linked:

*Broh, Beckett, and Anita Waters. “Refugee Journeys: Experiences and Perceptions of Young Somalis in Columbus Ohio.” Conference Papers American Sociological Association (2011 Annual Meeting 2011): 615. SocINDEX with Full Text, EBSCOhost.

**Hobden, Deborah. “Black Strangers in White Spaces: African Refugee Resettlement in Salt Lake City, Utah.” Conference Papers American Sociological Association (2011 Annual Meeting 2011): 516. SocINDEX with Full Text, EBSCOhost.