BY Milton Allimadi
Updated Sunday, October 25th 2009, 11:30 AM
Years ago, I was about to pay for a shirt when, out of the blue, a Manhattan store clerk yelled at me: "Go back to Africa. You all run around naked in the jungle then when you all get here, you dress up in suits and ties."
I would've known how to respond had it been a white racist. But she was African American, so I was speechless.
Years later, I was a student at the Columbia's school of journalism and was having brunch with a classmate when an African American man charged toward us.
"I hate you," said the man, who was holding a huge stick. "You sold us into slavery. I should bust your head."
As an immigrant from Uganda who publishes a black-oriented New York newspaper, these and other painful incidents came flashing back when I read last week about widening rifts between African immigrants and African Americans in the South Bronx.
As African immigrant populations have risen there, so have tensions. So have reports of violence and even hate crimes. The African owner of one restaurant says he and his customers have been taunted and his business' window has been urinated on.
Such hatred, bubbling beneath the surface for years, could boil over if it's ignored.
Let's start by understanding the roots of the problem: culture and religion. African immigrants tend to be more socially conservative than their black American neighbors, and they tend to be Muslims. As a result, they're often perceived as aloof.
To this, add the strains of economic competition. Established communities tend to see any new arrivals as threats to their well-being, especially in poorer neighborhoods. So these African immigrants would be viewed with some suspicion even had they come from, say, Poland instead of Mali.
Yet how do we account for the ugliest remarks? Look to the legacy of slavery.
Africans sold into captivity 400 years ago suffered the brutality of southern plantations. Those who remained on the continent experienced colonial subjugation. So for years, some African Americans nursed resentment toward Africans, who were blamed for colluding in their enslavement. Some uninformed Africans underestimated the destruction that slavery wrought on the family structure of American blacks.
Media stereotypes only made things worse. To African eyes, black people were either entertainers, gangsters or "welfare queens." Conversely, African-Americans' perceptions were distorted by the depiction of Africa as an uncivilized jungle. Contemporary news coverage focuses on war, poverty and disease, rarely highlighting a country like Botswana, which has enjoyed phenomenal economic growth for decades.
The only way to break through the misunderstanding is to challenge it - frequently and directly.
"I don't like black Americans. They like to steal," an African vendor once told me. Since there are presumably also thieves in Gambia, I asked him, did that mean all Gambians were also lazy and didn't like to work?
Across New York, Muslim leaders and Christian leaders should get together and host town hall meetings. The city schools should promote after-school programs where parents of African and African American students interact with each other.
Most importantly, each one of us must challenge bias in person-to-person interactions. That can be uncomfortable work, but it needs to happen every single day.
Allimadi is publisher of Black Star News.
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African Americans have a trust problem