- "They were standing in the midst of a knot of young men and their color seemed no objection to them. I was glad to see this, though with American impressions, it seemed very strange. It must be then that the distance between free blacks and whites among us is derived from education, and does not exist in the nature of things."
Oddly enough, Americans at home and abroad are often surprised by this. What they have to say goes something like this: "African-Americans (and other non-white Americans) are so oppressed at home and are so poor that they can't possibly travel or go abroad like white Americans." Really. And so how would they explain the presence of African-Americans, Asian-Americans, native Americans and Hispanic Americans in places like Paris, Tokyo, Shanghai, Berlin?
That kind of thinking just makes me crazy. I'm not sure what offends me more, the vision of African-Americans as so lacking in resources that they are stuck in the US, or the idea that all Americans of European origin are rich and thus they are the only Americans able to go abroad. African-Americans were going abroad before slavery was abolished in the US and one of the reasons many left was because of racism and lack of opportunity in the US. Whatever progress has been made in America, it is still an argument that resonates. In an article on the Fly Brother website, Ernest White II writes:
- "We have options. There are places in this world where our presence isn’t viewed as a menace, as a problem, or even as an inconvenience. There are places where we are welcomed, listened to, appreciated, and even loved. These places can and do challenge us in ways we could have never imagined, but our very existence isn’t challenged...In the end, the tangible investment in passport fees, airline tickets, and lodging expenses pay off in that they remove the yoke of low expectations. They can release us from the snares of a society that thinks it’s got us all figured out. Most importantly, these investments pay off in options."
As explained in The Age of Migration (Castles, Haas & Miller 5th edition, p. 29) the problem with classic economic models of migration is that while extreme poverty can slow or stop some migration, "Improved education and media exposure may increase feeling of relative deprivation, and may give rise to higher aspirations and, therefore, increased migration, without any change in local opportunities."
In my study of Anglophones in Japan the American survey and interview participants had very diverse socio-economic statuses in the United States. Many were the children of police officers, teachers, nurses, truck drivers, factory workers, or domestic workers. The majority did not have degrees from elite institutions. And many were from rural areas, small towns or small regional cities as opposed to connected global metropolises like New York or Los Angeles.
Add to this mix the Great Recession and the decline of the middle-class, and worsening conditions for the working classes and I am amazed that so many of the 62% of Americans making less than 50,000 USD actually stay in the US. And what stops them from migrating, I suspect, has more to do with the myth that America is a place people immigrate to and not a place people emigrate from, debt, problems with certificates and other professional credentials being recognized abroad, and nation-state emigration and immigration bureaucracy than extreme poverty. I could be entirely off base about this, and please challenge me if you have a different opinion.
Because the fact is that Americans do leave and have always left America. Today, there are African-Americans in Tokyo, Chinese-Americans in Paris, and Native Americans in Berlin. And let us not forget that a sizable number of Americans abroad are military personnel (about 200,000) living in over 150 countries. The US Army and Navy are even more diverse than the general US population (see page 34 of the Population Representation in the Military Services). Civilian Americans abroad frequently overlook them because US foreign policy is often criticized by our host countries and there is a distancing from it. And, to be brutally honest, I think there are generational, class and racial issues here as well. Not all American military go home to the US as the wide network of VFW posts around the world will attest. In my travels I have met veterans of World War II, Vietnam, and both Iraq wars living in France, Japan, and Belgium.
So for me there is no doubt that the diversity of Americans in the homeland is reflected in the population of Americans living abroad. And that leads us back to Sumner's epiphany. In some ways Americans in the homeland and abroad are just as clueless as he was. African-Americans abroad? How ever did they manage to do that? Well, drop the condescending attitude, learn something about Americans abroad, and you'll find out, folks.
The diversity is there, we just don't acknowledge and value it as much as we should. At our worst we actually perpetuate harmful stereotypes about our compatriots and acquiesce to the racism in our host societies. I have had some very troubling conversations over the years where Americans have stood by and watched (or even colluded with) the racism, classism, and sexism in their host societies against their fellow Americans.
The ugliest Americans, I suggest to you, my dear readers, are not those who struggle with a foreign language and the culture, but those "consummate asses" who elevate themselves at the expense of other migrants and their own compatriots. Pretend to be the only American in Paris, Buenos Aires, Brussels, Tokyo, Shanghai or Singapore, if you must, but do get a reality check from time to time. There are 75,000 other Americans in Paris with tales to tell and you are hardly living in a "ghetto" if you acknowledge them in the streets and have coffee and a chat once in a while. Broadening your horizons in a foreign country can be as much about meeting Americans you would never have encountered at home as it is about integrating in the host society. Before I moved to France I had never spent time with anyone from New York Arizona or Michigan.
Above all, do no harm by word or deed to other settlers and sojourners. We have all rolled the dice in the Cosmic Crapshoot of Life. We have all crossed borders. We are all migrants. And for those of us with pretty blue passports, we are all Americans.