When Me’Lea Connelly founded a credit union to serve the black community, she realized she had to define what black meant.

Not refugees from Africa. Not immigrants. African-Americans who descended from slavery.

“We are very specific about the target beneficiary of our work,” said Connelly, the vision and strategy lead at Village Financial Cooperative in north Minneapolis. Without making such a distinction, “there’s a lot of erasure in our ability to advocate.”

Waves of African immigrants and refugees over the past few decades have made the question of black identity far more complicated, prompting black leaders to question whether to specifically advocate for their own cultures, to embrace Pan-African solidarity or find a means to do both.

A national movement is working to highlight American descendants of slavery (ADOS) in a debate on reparations, while other activists are trying to draw attention to the needs of newer black arrivals. And the contours of blackness are prompting deeper reflection amid preparations for the 2020 census that will, for the first time, allow people checking “black or African-American” to answer in more detail about their country of origin.

These questions are particularly fraught in the Twin Cities, where a diverse black citizenry stretches from the African-American shops along W. Broadway to the high-rises with Somali families in Cedar-Riverside to the Liberian churches in the northwest suburbs. The state had 134,000 residents who were born in Africa as of 2017, out of 361,000 who identified as black.

Fartun Weli believes it makes no sense to group all black people under one label. As a Somali-American, she thinks that not being able to refer to people in a more particular way destroys their history and identity.

“It’s important that African-American [ADOS] identity is honored,” said Weli, executive director of Isuroon, a nonprofit that helps women of Somali heritage. She has spoken with the state demographer’s office about preparing for the census. “When we’re talking about infant mortality rates, we’re talking about incarceration, we’re talking about historical oppression and all that, you can’t just put Africans and African-Americans together — that’s not fair.”

Tension and commonalities

The Council for Minnesotans of African Heritage changed its name from the Council on Black Minnesotans in 2015 to further reflect the changing constitution of black people in the state.

“There’s folks in the community who are very vocal … about the council [supposedly] being taken over by Somali or African immigrant folks, and there’s folks in the Somali and African immigrant community who say that the council is only here to serve African-Americans,” said Executive Director Justin Terrell. “And so it’s a very real tension.”

The agency is looking at hosting events to bring both sides together this summer. Terrell is ambivalent about the term ADOS that’s been popularized by East Coast activists — he doesn’t want people like him to be defined by an oppressed past, but rather their promise. He thinks it’s important for black people to demand justice together.

Terrell was among a range of leaders who advocated at the Legislature this session for people living in the U.S. illegally to have driver’s licenses. Several were concerned that Latino immigrants had become the face of the issue and fought for more visibility for black immigrants; some studies show black motorists are more likely to be pulled over in the Twin Cities.

“When I get pulled over, the police don’t ask if I’m African or not — I’m just black,” said Alfreda Daniels, community organizer for the Minneapolis Regional Labor Federation.

She co-founded the Black Immigrant Collective to bring greater visibility to newer black arrivals, also advocating for Minnesota’s sizable Liberian population as they fight for a path from temporary deportation protections to American citizenship.

“My African-American brothers and sisters don’t have to worry about being deported, but they have to worry about being incarcerated,” said Daniels. African immigrants “have to worry about being incarcerated and deported.”

Steve Belton, CEO of the Minneapolis Urban League, said he received calls from some African-American community and church leaders who were unhappy about the council’s advocacy for black immigrants in the driver’s license debate. Critics felt it should focus on more traditional African-American issues, but Belton sided with Terrell in believing that black Americans should advocate for immigrants and not view the matter as “us vs. them.”

The Urban League is widening its mission to include all people of African descent; it wants to bring more African immigrants on as board members and community partners.

Belton sees commonalities in their experiences: Just as blacks left the rural South for cities in the North during the Great Migration and relied on the Urban League to transition, he believes the league can help newer arrivals from Africa. Both groups, he noted, develop negative stereotypes of the other through the media and should resist being pitted against each other.

“We’re both suffering from the same discrimination,” Belton said.

Nuance in the details

Some community groups are enthusiastic about how the upcoming census could offer more insight into experiences across the African diaspora. Denise Butler, program manager at African Career, Education and Resource Inc. (ACER), said a key part of the uncounted population includes black immigrants.

She noted that more detailed data could affect policy choices, such as the creation of affordable housing. For example, Somali-Americans often live with more extended family and need multifamily housing. A report by the state demographer’s office found that 44% of Somali-Americans live in households with at least four people, a figure that fell by half for African-Americans.

The groups diverged in other key areas: While 15% of African-American adults lack a high school diploma, that figure is 37% for Somali-Americans. And 32% of working-age African-Americans are not in the labor force, compared with 25% of Somali-Americans.

“If you can identify a specific subset of the black population that might have a language barrier, some of the outreach to bring them into the community at large can be really powerful,” said Megan Dayton, senior projections demographer with the demographer’s office. When more broadly targeting the black population, “a lot of the specific needs of the community are lost in translation there.”

Descriptors of blackness remain complex. Many people of Somali heritage are not refugees — they were born here. Some Liberians are both immigrants and descendants of freed American slaves who settled in that West African nation.

Connelly described it as a difficult conversation to have. She’s been in meetings about Village Financial Cooperative where second-generation Americans from African families are excited to learn more — until she explains the focus is on African-Americans with roots in slavery.

“It’s very emotional, and people have a tendency to argue and hold me to task,” she said.

“The oppression that black folks face because of anti-blackness is still an experience that immigrants and refugees share in this country,” Connelly said. “They do share in their oppression when they come, but they don’t share our oppressive history.”


Correction: The original version of this story featured an incomplete description of Liberian history. Black Americans, including many who were formerly enslaved, in the 1800s settled in what would eventually become Liberia, and 5 percent of Liberians today are their descendants.