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‘For The First Time In My Life, I Was A Minority’: What Immigrating To America Taught Me About Race Relations

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On May 6th, 2003, I arrived in the United States for the first time as a missionary for my church. My 23-hour flight from Accra, Ghana landed at LAX around noon, and I was plunged right into the heart of the Los Angeles Metropolitan Area. It was my first time on a plane and my first experience outside of Ghana. I had turned 19 earlier that year and had completed my freshman year of college. I expected to experience some culture shock but did not know exactly how it would manifest. 

I was greeted at the airport by the husband-and-wife patrons of the California Los Angeles mission, along with another young, white man, who was much taller and larger than I was but who was only a year or so older. I soon learned he was from Clinton, Utah. He had been assigned to be my trainer and was tasked with helping me acclimate to my new circumstances. As I picked up my bags at baggage claim, the monumental change in my surroundings began to set it.

In my 19 years growing up in Ghana, the idea of race was never a major point of contemplation or topic of discussion. Because of my parent’s line of work and responsibilities, I had limited interactions with people from various parts of the world, including tourists, church leaders, exchange students, and philanthropists, many of whom were white. However, I never viewed those interactions in the context of racial identity. All I wished for at the time was to have an opportunity to visit and possibly move to America someday.

Now here I was in Los Angeles, my dreams having finally been realized, trying to make sense of the dizzying feeling that ran through my entire body. Everything looked and felt different, including what I thought was the unbearably cold 64-degree weather.

Amid my sensory overload, one thing was inescapable: For the first time in my life, I was a minority – not just in terms of race, but also in language, culture, and anything else one could imagine – and that was scary.

My two years in Los Angeles were equal parts emotionally exhilarating and intellectually eye-opening. It was educational, solemn, and humbling, and the experience gave me a window into American life from a perspective rarely encountered, even by those born in this country. I spent most of my time going door to door, visiting, teaching, volunteering, and serving people from all walks of life in the Greater Los Angeles Area.

My service spanned many affluent cities like Bel Air, Beverly Hills, Westwood, and Malibu as well as areas like South Central LA, Compton, Lynwood, and Watts. One pattern that was unavoidably apparent was the fact that the areas I perceived as having a lower socio-economic status also happened to mainly be demographically black. This correlation deeply troubled me and kindled a desire to discover why that was the case and what, if anything, could be done about it.

Prior to my immigration to the US, I knew about America’s unfortunate and regrettable history with slavery and the profound evil perpetrated against people of African descent, who were taken and transported against their will by the hundreds of thousands to the West. I was also aware of the structural and systemically racist laws, policies, and jurisprudence established to keep blacks subjugated, disenfranchised, and segregated from the promise of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, acknowledged in America’s Declaration of Independence as sacrosanct and unalienable.

In contrast, I also knew and celebrated the phenomenal strides America had undertaken to offer atonement for the grave injustice of slavery and the subsequent atrocities committed against people who would later be rightfully recognized as fellow citizens entitled to every right and privilege of being American. From my perspective, this monumental shift represented the true essence of Americanism as manifested in the will of its citizens to fight and to lay down their lives and, as Martin Luther King Jr. would have put it, to bend the proverbial arc of history towards justice.

In fact, I believed so much in the transformation of America towards true racial equality that I had nary a hint of hesitation or misgiving about coming here, making this country my home, and going about my way to achieve the American dream. Owing to the myriad numbers of black Africans who have immigrated to the United States, it stands to reason that my assessment is not at all unique.

So, why are so many black people born and raised in America unable to see this country as I and millions of other immigrants do? Why do they believe they cannot achieve similar levels of socio-economic success as so many black immigrants have? Who or what is behind the subtle but increasingly undeniable reverberations of racial tension in America? Are the sentiments of black leaders who continue to decry America as systemically racist to be taken seriously? Are there any special interests, political or otherwise, profiting by perpetuating the ominous cloud that surrounds and permeates race relations in America? The answers to these questions and many others will be crucial to the true racial healing that is long overdue in America.

The bottom-line in the interim is that we cannot achieve the healing we seek by dismissing or shrugging off the concerns of our fellow citizens under a blanket supposition that our country has moved past all real or perceived inequities against them. We must first be willing to approach the issue with empathy and be prepared to listen attentively to their concerns. We must also recognize and acknowledge that many blacks in America have been subject for generations to what I believe is a racism industrial complex, for lack of a better term. This consists of opportunistic charlatans, shrewd politicians, and shady organizations that create an exaggerated, bleak narrative about blacks as a cudgel in order to gain influence and raise money to line their own pockets.

I believe organizations like BLM and others are vehicles expressly established to gin up, manipulate, and leverage the emotions of black people to drive social and political agendas that would otherwise be dead on arrival in America. I also believe that many of the policies championed by one of the major political parties in America appear compassionate on the surface, but inevitably lead to the continued disintegration of the social fabric necessary for any community to prosper and thrive long term. These, I believe are among the modern-day structural obstacles that undergird the pervasive under-achievement of American-born blacks.

So, does being born black materially affect a person’s ability to live and thrive in America? The short answer is yes, but not because of the color of one’s skin as it was in times past. Being born black by all available statistics relegates a child to growing up in a poor or underserved neighborhood nearly 50% of the time. About  70% of the time, that child will be born out of wedlock to an unmarried mother. Around 64% of the time, that child will grow up without a father or a positive male role model in the home. 

These are the obstacles that society must fight to eliminate because their relationship with socio-economic success is not just correlative; it is causative. The more time we spend wallowing in the false idea that all racial disparities are a result of racism, the more we neglect the necessary conversations and viable solutions that hold the key to unlocking America’s stalemate on race relations.

Alma Ohene-Opare is an immigrant from Ghana who became an American citizen after 18 years of living in America. He is a graduate of BYU, is married with four children, and currently lives and works in Utah. Alma is also the Co-founder of UnstuQ – a mobile app that helps individuals and friends take the pain out of deciding where to eat.

The views expressed in this piece are those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The Daily Wire. 

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