As the United States celebrates Juneteenth, in its second year as an official federal holiday, policy makers should take the opportunity to embrace a new vision of US-Africa relations. The United States is not taking enough steps at home to foster the connection between the African diaspora and communities in Africa. It will need to act locally and globally (or “glocally”) to grow these connections.
Good foreign policy is good domestic policy, and vice-versa. But the systemic flaws in US domestic policy when it comes to racial justice became even clearer after police officers killed George Floyd in 2020. Human-rights organizations across the world, but especially in Africa, demanded justice. African countries lobbied the United Nations Human Rights Council to investigate systemic racism and police brutality in the United States and elsewhere. Two years later, we are in the same position, and more Africans and African descendants are dying.
Meanwhile, African diaspora communities in the United States and Caribbean are strengthening economic and cultural ties with African communities through business, sports, art, movies, politics, religion, philanthropy, and more. One of Africa’s first tech unicorns, Flutterwave, became the highest-valued African startup at three billion dollars, and its backers include American companies. Pearlean Igbokwe, who is Nigerian, is chairman at American film producer Universal Studio Group. Virgil Abloh, the late artistic director of Louis Vuitton, came to the United States from Ghana.
The second annual AFRICON last month in Los Angeles saw prominent members of the Black diaspora gather to celebrate Africa. As Grammy-nominated recording artist Jidenna told BET: “I thought it was special that first-generation Africans here care so much about building the bridge between Black Americans, Caribbean Americans, and Africans.”
That bridge is fortified through programs like the US Peace Corps, which trains and deploys volunteers around the world, and the Young African Leaders Initiative’s Mandela Washington Fellowship, which hosts Africans to study at US universities and work with US employers.
Working as a US Peace Corps volunteer in rural Zambia, I experienced this ecosystem of collective impact firsthand while I helped create health programs and carried out sponsored projects in collaboration with African government officials and private-sector stakeholders. This opportunity for me and plenty of other African Americans to become more involved on the continent is a result of influential travelers to Africa and international-affairs professionals who paved the way.
Meanwhile, the number of Sub-Saharan African immigrants residing in the United States tripled from 2000 to 2019. This is a clear signal that diaspora communities want to become part of the solution for American and African innovation.
A slow start
There is strong public demand for continuing to improve ties between African diaspora and African communities—and there are several ways the United States can foster those ties.
The government has already made a few gains, as Congress passed the 400 Years of African-American History Commission Act establishing a group to educate the public about the contributions of African-Americans since 1619. Congress also passed the Countering Malign Russian Activities in Africa Act requiring the US State Department to develop a plan to counter Russian influence in Africa. Meanwhile, US President Joe Biden issued an executive order expanding initiatives supporting Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU) and formed the President’s Board of Advisors on HBCUs. Biden also is planning to host a US-Africa Leaders’ Summit after an eight-year hiatus—earning unanimous praise from the Senate for doing so—and there’s movement in the House to support the US African Development Foundation.
The United States has recently made gains in improving the representation of the African diaspora in public positions, most notably with the election of US Vice President Kamala Harris, the Senate’s confirmation of Ketanji Brown Jackson to the Supreme Court, and the appointment of White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre. Biden’s cabinet includes seven Black leaders—including Lloyd Austin, the first Black secretary of defense—while the 117th Congress includes fifty-eight Black representatives, with Representative Gregory Meeks (D-NY-5) becoming the first Black lawmaker to chair the House Foreign Affairs Committee. And just weeks ago, Lisa Cook was sworn in as the first Black woman on the Federal Reserve’s Board of Governors.
Following these diversity and representation achievements, the United States is moving toward inclusion for Black communities everywhere, with the goal being what Nigerian curator Okwui Enwezor envisioned: “The formation of a diaspora could be articulated as the quintessential journey into becoming; a process marked by incessant regrouping, recreations, and reiteration. Together these stressed actions strive to open up new spaces of discursive and performative postcolonial consciousness.”
And yet, according to the Atlantic Council’s Freedom and Prosperity Indexes, the United States only ranks forty-first in minority rights among the 174 countries measured. There’s plenty of work to be done, and it should include concrete action from the US government in the form of glocal policies that empower African diaspora communities and improve their access to cross-cultural collaboration and economic opportunity.
A new vision: Glocalization
In this new vision, the United States should implement policies at the local level that fold into an international agenda. The United Kingdom’s 2015 Modern Slavery Act, for example, is a local policy that aims to end modern slavery in the United Kingdom—and ultimately seeks to remove the United Kingdom, an important economic player, from the centuries-long global system of oppression behind the transatlantic slave trade. Meanwhile, the United States has yet to amend the Thirteenth Amendment which, while abolishing slavery, allows criminally convicted people to be subjected to involuntary servitude.
Another example of glocalization is the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). While states are taking up some measures to reach the SDGs, they’re far off course for meeting them by 2030—and progress on a fifth of indicators in every state is moving backwards. That poor performance, according to the Sustainable Development Solutions Network, points to rising inequality in the United States and, especially, economic disparities by race and ethnicity. By working more meaningfully on the SDGs, states could not only reduce inequality and its consequences, improving livelihoods across the board, but also improve the United States’ reputation as a leader in human rights and equality—leaving a different impression on its African partners.
However, some states are spearheading important glocal policies. One example is California, which established a Reparations Task Force, the first of its kind in the nation to study slavery and its harms. Its interim report included recommendations for supporting, compensating, and empowering local African Americans. But California can’t transform the country’s reputation alone.
In addition, the massacre in Buffalo, New York, that killed ten Black people has reignited fear of more racist attacks. This impedes the United States’ ability to project values like equality, liberty, democracy, unity, and diversity. If these kinds of killings—and the climate of fear they create—are left unaddressed, tourism and immigration from Africa could decline, with devastating impacts on the African diaspora and the economy.
There are other creative glocal policies that the US government could deploy. For example, it can create soft landings for African or African-diaspora entrepreneurs and foster cross-cultural collaboration by issuing entrepreneur passports similar to the United Arab Emirates’ Gold Visa. This would contribute to the ecosystem of collective impact that is central to the relationship between the African diaspora and African communities.
My brother’s keeper
There is a strong desire to connect Black Americans whose ancestors were uprooted from their homes back to their African brothers and sisters. As a young Black man, I am fully aware that we are one people. The African American and African communities are my home, and the world is my backyard. I am proud to be part of a diverse and global community that cares about and loves Africa, and I believe that everyone, not just every Black person, has a role to play in supporting African diaspora communities. I see many Africans and members of the African diaspora traveling across the Atlantic to form meaningful connections, often using these journeys to self-reflect and discover ancestral roots—aided by advances in DNA research allowing them to make specific connections.
Tremendous progress has been achieved, but global leaders must continue to push for glocal measures that empower the African diaspora and strengthen ties with African communities. It starts with educating American youth about African and Black history and culture—and the ties that bind our two continents. Glocal policies have the potential to boost development on the continent and within US Black communities. Western governments, financial institutions, and civil society leaders are mobilizing now to protect and ultimately realize their collective impact.
Tyrell Junius is the associate director of the Atlantic Council’s Africa Center.
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