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Ferguson Sparks Self-Discussions on Haitian-American Identity

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By Vania Andre

@vaniaandre_

For Haitian American Péralte Paul, the idea that he was considered an “other” was never an oddity to him. As the child of Haitian immigrants, he was aware that he was an outsider, not because of his race, but because of his proud cultural identity.

Last Tuesday’s announcement that Ferguson Police Officer Darren Wilson would not be indicted for the killing of 18-year-old Michael Brown, however, reminded him that he’s perceived as an outsider for all the wrong reasons.

“You’re reminded that this country doesn’t love you,” Paul, an Atlanta-based writer said. This decision comes after several high profile instances of police killing unarmed black people. “When you take that into consideration, it shows why black people are so frustrated.”

Shortly after the decision was announced, hundreds of people took to Ferguson’s streets; some peacefully protesting, some looting, some setting fires. By the third night, the National Guard moved into the town and more than 400 people were arrested. Protests spread to New York, Boston, Los Angeles and other cities across the country about the decision that sparked not only conversations about race in America, but where the immigrant’s place in this conversation belongs.

 

“Haitian immigrants have to reassess their self-definition as a distinct group of individuals with their own history, culture nationality and racial identity,” wrote Gemima M. Remy, in an essay examining the Haitian and African American relations in the U.S . “Like many other Caribbean immigrants, Haitians suffer double invisibility… as immigrants and black immigrants or double visibility as blacks in the eyes of whites and as foreigners in the eyes of native-born blacks.”

Growing up, in my home, “there was no distinction between white Americans and black Americans,” Paul, said. “You were either Haitian, or you weren’t. It was more about your cultural identity than race.”

The experience that a Haitian American or any other black immigrant to this country has is different than that of an African American. “Americans don’t understand that,” he said. “Here in the U.S. race comes before a person’s ethnic background. In other parts of the world it’s not like that. So it’s odd at first when as an immigrant, you’re being told you have to identify with being African American.”

When Haitians began migrating to the U.S. in the early 1960s, tensions simmered between them and black Americans. But as Haitians settled into America, they soon realized that the color of their skin didn’t shield them from racism and many of them began to feel the sting of discrimination.

In 1997 Abner Louima, A Haitian immigrant, was the victim of one of the most heinous police brutality cases when a police officer sodomized him with a plunger. The case galvanized the Haitian community and changed Haitian relations with African Americans.

Abner Louima and the late Johnny Cochran, who worked as his defense lawyer. Ten years have past since he was sexually assaulted by New York Police.  Abner Louima and Johnny Cochran during 1997 when this case gained international attention.

Abner Louima and the late Johnny Cochran, who worked as his defense lawyer. Ten years have past since he was sexually assaulted by New York Police.
Abner Louima and Johnny Cochran during 1997 when this case gained international attention.

Another case that stirred up controversy in the overall black community in New York City, was a grand jury’s decision not to indict a police officer who shot and killed unarmed Patrick Dorismond outside of a Manhattan club in 2000.  Controversy arose when conflicting reports regarding whether the police officer, who was undercover at the time, initiated the altercation and whether or not he identified himself as a cop. Black activists and the city’s Haitian community were especially enraged when former Mayor Giuliani released Dorismond’s juvenile criminal record and toxicology reports.

“Haitians and African Americans have remained connected throughout the centuries both by oppression and by a common struggle for freedom that make the peoples of the black diaspora what they are today,” Leon Pamphile wrote in his book Haitians and African Americans.

Haitian revolutionaries have a history of undermining racist ideas of black inferiority and docility, Pamphile said.  The idea of Haiti as a “beacon of black freedom” was reinforced by black and mulatto Haitians who were brought to the U.S. by their white Haitian masters in the 1790s during the slave uprisings on the island.  “Black Haitians became community leaders, established schools and newspapers, and supported black freedom and rights.”

Over the years however, black America’s perception of Haiti changed as the country became marred by political and economic instability. Although negative stereotypes of each other and cultural differences existed, the experience both groups endured because of racism pushed them together, inspiring Haitian Americans to become active politically in the U.S.

Based on conversations I’ve had with my Haitian constituents, I know many are angry, Assemblywoman-elect Rodneyse Bichotte said. Bichotte made history in November when she became the first Haitian American from NYC elected to the New York State Assembly. She represents one of the largest Haitian communities in the U.S. “They see Ferguson as more of the same… police brutality against people of color with no consequences. Many expressed their anger and protested the decision this week.”

Despite the fact that second-generation Americans like Paul know they have a separate cultural identity from other blacks in the country, they recognize that the plight of the African American in the U.S. is their fight as well.

“White people don’t make a distinction between Haitians, Jamaicans, etc.,” Paul said. “I think of my nephews and how they need to be told what they should do or how they should act because they won’t be perceived as average teens. They’ll be looked at as different, as a threat.”

We’re at a critical point to reform the justice system, Bichotte said. “We’re losing the limited common ground we were building between the police and the larger black community. Not just here in New York or in Ferguson, but nationwide. That common ground between our law enforcement and our communities has to be maintained, it’s the only way we can heal wounds, move forward together and keep our communities safe from all threats. “

“We are profoundly disappointed that the killer of our child will not face the consequence of his actions,” the Brown family said in a statement. Their words echoed the sentiments of thousands of people who took to social media to express their feelings over the decision.

It was as though there weren’t enough words that could be said about the non-indictment. Although, shocking and equally expected for some, for many, the general tone underlying everyone’s rant or seemingly endless posts and tweets, was a sense of utter disrespect. They recognize that Brown’s killing is part of a larger institutional pattern within police departments toward the mistreatment of black people.

I can’t help but wonder if there’s ever going to be a time when I won’t question whether an unpleasant encounter is about racial animosity, Paul said. “Will I ever not be considered an ‘other’?”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dec. 02, 2014

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