The ‘Non-African-American’ Ethiopian Immigrant

Adrian Murphy / Flickr

Ethiopian flag

What does it really mean to be “African American?” Does the term refer to people with slaves as ancestors, or is it just as applicable to recent African immigrants?

It’s a conversation we’ve previously explored, and it’s front and center in an ongoing legal dispute involving a jazz club near Howard University.

Here’s the gist, according to the Washington City Paper: The Enterprise Theater & Jazz Lounge was opened by Charletta Lewis, who is now suing her landlord. She claims that landlord Michael Ressom racially discriminated against her by leasing her a building that wasn’t up to code, and therefore, she couldn’t legally open for business. Lewis is black, Ressom is an Ethiopian immigrant. Her complaint states that Ressom “is a non-African-American man.” Ressom and his lawyer declined to comment to the City Paper, while Lewis’ lawyer Jimmy Bell explained:

“He’s not African-American!” Bell says, when asked if Ressom’s ethnicity damages his case. “African-American means you are a descendant of a slave! This guy’s an Ethiopian immigrant, who wasn’t naturalized as a citizen until November 2010.”

General discrimination claims of this sort aren’t that all uncommon. Some taxicab complaints were officially filed with the D.C. Taxicab Commission by people who write they are black and claiming they were racially discriminated against by African cabbies. But for every story about animosity between D.C.’s black and Ethiopian communities, there is another about good will and unity between the groups.

Still, our question remains: is lumping everyone together as “African American” really the most accurate racial identifier?

  • ele

    Obviously not, it is not the same. You are shaped (your identity is constructed) by the society you grow up in. Here, all black people grow up with an image of themselves that is not the same as the image an African has of themselves. Here, African-Americans internalized their condition of minorities (and all of what that entails) an immigrant from Africa didn’t grow up thinking of themselves as a minority, they were the majority where they came from.

  • Elijah405

    Race is largely a social construct, but ethnicity is a whole other thing-I guess I must be slow because I didn’t know that ‘African-American’ was solely reserved for people who are descendants of slaves. Doesn’t ‘African’ encompass all countries in Africa? If the Ethiopian became a citizen in 2010, isn’t he Ethiopian-American? Wouldn’t that fall under the category of ‘African-American’?

    Needless to say, I’m not sure if I would want that guy as my lawyer using that as one of his stronger arguments.

  • HH

    What does the man’s race have anything to do with the fact that he leased her a building that is not up to code.  The real issue is that he’s just a bad landlord, that failed to follow the code rules.  AND blacks can discriminate against blacks, whether this man’s is AFrican American or not is not at issue, Ethiopians are BLACK, RACIALLY the SAME as AFrican AMericans.  

  • Devin O

    The guy is an American citizen of African ethnic descent. That is the very definition of the term “African-American.” This is similar to the fact that the term “Asian-American” incorporates people of various Asian nationalities and ethnicities (e.g. Chinese, Cantonese, Mandarin and etc).

  • Mohammed

    This discussion is sooooooo American. To racially identify people, it is typically a western issue, because there you have this strong general umbrella like culture. Where all people speak the same language and have the same history and culture. This is totally alien to us (recently immigrated) Africans . We tend to look at ethnicity and religion as a ‘tool’ to mentally divide people into groups. And every group has its own language, culture , history , religion and folk heroes. Therefore we feel no instant connection with a random black person. In fact we do not even feel this when we see someone from our home country, except if that person is from exactly the same ethnic group. And this confuses Afro-Americans (the original ones) because they do feel an instant connection when they see us. I am not saying that our way of looking at things is any better, because we as Africans have committed horrible crimes for ethnic nationalist or religious fanatic reasons. All I try to say is that our way of thinking is just a little bit different, not better nor worse. Just different.