Some one mailed this long Article. Very interesting read.
Somali-African American conflict in Linden:
Postcolonial Realities and the Implications for Radical Democracy
A Senior Honors Thesis
Presented in Partial Fulfillment of the Requirements for graduation
with distinction in Geography in the undergraduate colleges of
The Ohio State University
The Ohio State University
July, 12 2005
Project Adviser: Nancy Ettlinger, Department of Geography
“They live in the same neighborhood. They share the same skin color. They were expected to
get along. But they didn’t” (Latta 2003).
This is the first line of a newspaper article that ran in the Columbus Dispatch on June 6,
2003. “They” are low-income African Americans and Somalis; the “neighborhood” is Linden
(on the northeast side of Columbus, Ohio); the “skin color” is black; and the expectation that
“they” would “get along” came from Columbus non-governmental organization (NGO) and
government officers responsible for diversity management. The conflict implied in the quote
persists (Latta 2003, personal interview with local journalist, 12/07/04; personal interview with
African American Linden school counselor, 03/09/05).
In the mid-1990’s, Somali refugees took advantage of the opportunity to migrate to the
United States after having fled from their native country’s civil war. Since immigration, more
than 30,000 Somalis have migrated to Columbus (personal interview with Somali NGO worker,
02/16/04). Upon resettlement, local NGO workers led Somalis to settle in public housing
projects in Linden, a predominantly low-income African American neighborhood (personal
interview with city/NGO complex official, 02/07/04). Over the next few years, tensions began
mounting between low-income African American residents and Somali newcomers (personal
interview with local journalist, 12/07/04; personal interview with city/NGO official, 04/11/05;
personal interview with African American minister, 10/13/04). In 1998, these tensions mounted
into physical fighting between Somali and low-income African American residents in public
housing facilities and public schools (personal interview with local journalist, 12/07/04; personal
interview with city/NGO official, 04/11/05).
The city/NGO complex of decision makers1 (henceforth, I will refer to the city/NGO
complex of decision makers as the “city/NGO complex”) diagnosed the primary cause of the
conflict without adequately consulting Somalis or low-income African Americans involved with
the conflict. Only the middle-class and predominantly male “leaders” of each community were
consulted, not those directly involved with the conflict (personal interview with middle-class
African American male, 12/01/04; personal interview with member of city/NGO official,
04/11/05; focus group with Somali women 01/24/05). The city/NGO complex assumed that the
African American and Somali communities were homogenous and cohesive and that the primary
cause of the conflict must be a misunderstanding of differences in one another’s group-specific
behaviors (personal interview with city/NGO official, 01/21/04). More specifically, the
city/NGO complex believed that African Americans started the conflict and that Somali
aggression was primarily retaliating (personal interview with city/NGO official, 01/21/04).
Furthermore, it was believed that this conflict would be temporary, assuming that Somali’s
would assimilate into African American culture, thereby eliminating differences (personal
interview with city/NGO official, 01/21/04).
To catalyze a peaceful resolution, local NGOs such as the United Way, Somali Women’s
and Children’s Alliance, and the Urban League created an initiative known as “Project
Brotherhood” following the first outbreak of conflict in 1998 with a $35,000 grant from United
Way to pay personnel and rent space (Latta 2003, personal interview with city/NGO official,
01/21/04; personal interview with local journalist, 12/07/04 Interview). This initiative focused
on uniting African Americans and Somalis in public housing projects (Latta 2003, personal
1 The city’s relationship with the NGOs is interesting, but not central to understanding issues surrounding the
conflict. Basically, the city utilizes the NGOs as a knowledge bank. When the conflict broke out, city officials
consulted NGO workers to gain an understanding of what was happening (personal interview with city/NGO
official, 01/21/04). The city then included some of the NGOs in the decision making process. These NGOs were
then responsible for implementing these policies.
interview with local journalist, 12/07/04). Project Brotherhood was a three-step process that
attempted to teach African Americans and Somalis about one another (personal interview with
city/NGO official, 02/26/04). The first step involved an African American speaker, who taught a
group of Somalis about the plight of African Americans in the United States. The second step
involved a Somali speaker teaching African Americans about Somalis. The final step attempted
to coordinate an integrated discussion group involving the same Somalis and African Americans
from steps one and two. Despite such efforts, conflict continues in Linden in public schools and
public housing projects (Narcisco 2004, personal interview with Somali woman, 11/15/04;
personal interview with African American Linden school counselor, 03/09/05).
Purpose & Methods
The persistence of the African American-Somali conflict suggests problems with the
city/NGO complex’s diagnosis and their policy solutions. Presumably, if the city had correctly
diagnosed the problem and prescribed the correct solution, then the conflict would have abated.
The purpose of this paper is to explore the failures of governance in Columbus to reinterpret the
problem, and to suggest an alternative course of action based on a re-presentation of the issues.
This paper answers the following questions: If the city/NGO complex has misdiagnosed the
problem, then what is the cause of the conflict? Why was the city/NGO complex’s diagnosis
wrong? What changes should be made in governance to prevent misdiagnosis of important
problems? Under what conditions are such changes viable?
Answering these questions requires a combination of primary and secondary research. In
January 2004, I began primary research for this project. The Ohio State University Honors and
Scholars program, the college of Arts and Sciences Honors, and Undergraduate Student
Government funded my field research. Beginning with local publications (newspapers and local
magazines), I gathered information on the location of the conflict occurring between low-income
African Americans and Somalis. I then traveled to these locations to meet people and gather
primary data pertaining to the issues surrounding the conflict and the nature of Somali
resettlement to Columbus.
Field research entailed participant observation, focus groups. and unstructured interviews
with members of the Somali and low-income African American community (I focused on a
range of members from each community to gain an understanding of any potential intracommunity
gender and/or class differences), local journalists, NGO’s, academicians, school
workers, city officials, and others. I conducted participant observation at Somali and lowincome
African American businesses to get a general impression of community strength and
cohesion and entrepreneurship in each community. My specific participation in these businesses
involved buying goods and interacting to the fullest extent possible with those around me. In
Somali settings, this would sometimes involve hour-long talks with store owners who were eager
to discuss a variety of topics ranging from their personal entrepreneurial activities to the plight of
their families throughout the Somali civil war. This sort of extensive interaction rarely occurred
in low-income African American businesses. This relative lack of interaction with African
Americans exists because of the expectations of the different business owners. As one Somali
pointed out: “The only White Americans that come in here are the ones that are curious to know
about Somalis” (personal interview with Somali male business owner, 03/18/05). However,
“White Americans” that come into African American owned businesses rarely enter for a
“cultural experience,” but just to conduct quick, convenient business (i.e. get a haircut, buy a
pack of cigarettes, etc.) (participant observation at African American owned business). In either
case, it is rare for White Americans to enter whether for business or cultural experience at many
of these businesses. Questions that I asked myself before, during, and after interviews included:
Were the people in these places behaving naturally, or behaving differently given my presence as
a Caucasian in their workspace? How differently did they behave due to my presence?
Though the participant observation was essential to various aspects of my study, I
conducted no participant observation in schools and residences where the fighting occurred for
three reasons. First, school officials were hesitant and preferred that I spend little time in the
school as an observer. Second, residents seemed nervous at my presence near their homes.
Third, I could gather the information I needed through participant observation at local businesses
and NGO’s. Indeed, I encountered the Somalis and low-income African Americans that live in
Linden at the local businesses.
Beyond participant observation, I conducted 52 interviews. These interviews ranged
from 15 minutes to three hours in length. I conducted interviews with a variety of audiences
(members of the Somali and African American community, local journalists, NGO’s,
academicians, school workers, city officials, and others) to include a multiplicity of voices. The
interviews complemented the participant observation in a number of ways. First, although
participant observation allowed me to understand general differences between the two
communities based on my interpretation, interviews allowed the Somalis and African Americans
to speak for themselves. Furthermore, interviews highlighted the thoughts and feelings of those
not involved in the conflict (i.e. journalists, ministers, middle-class African Americans, members
of the city/NGO complex, etc.). Therefore, interviews served as a way to highlight people’s
perceptions of the conflict and to gather narratives from people’s varying perspectives of the
I conducted focus groups (five) when data gathered from interviews indicated that my
research might benefit from a focus group. This happened in two instances. When I conducted
interviews at an NGO, it would occasionally become apparent that workers performed
individual, discrete tasks that led to a collective task. In interviews with members of such an
NGO, a common answer to a question would be something like: “I don’t know, you’d have to
ask Barb, she’s in charge of that.” Under these circumstances, when possible, I would set up a
focus group and ask general questions to a group of NGO workers to understand the goals of the
NGO and the workers collective thoughts and feelings on the communities that they were trying
to help. I conducted three focus groups with NGOs.
I conducted the other two focus groups with Somalis. Most members of the Somali
community gather and disseminate news about activities in the Somali community through group
discussions on the lawns of residences and in the local businesses (participant observation at
Somali-owned businesses). This facilitates for gathering potential Somali interviewees together
into a focus group simple. One focus group was conducted with six non-English speaking
Somali women; a Somali man translated. The other focus group was conducted with a number2
of Somali men, mostly English speaking business owners. The English speakers would translate
for the non-English speakers throughout the focus group. In these focus groups, I would ask a
few questions about the conflict and about African Americans and listen to the Somalis talk
among themselves and to me about their thoughts and feelings.
I conducted no focus groups with Linden’s low-income African Americans. Though I
felt that a focus group with African Americans was beneficial (such a focus group would have
shown how Linden’s African Americans talk about Somalis and the conflict while conversing
amongst themselves), such a focus group did not materialize. This does not indicate a personal
failure, but rather it informs my research: though I put the same amount of effort as I did to
organizing a focus group with Somalis (if not more) into organizing a focus group with African
Americans, I landed no focus group. This shows that the Somali community is more cohesive
than the African-American community in Linden. For most of my African American contacts
that share a sense of community, community/family time happens on Sundays after church
(personal interview with African American female Linden resident, 09/20/04). Most of the
2 I do not have an exact number here. I began the focus group in a Somali business with five participants. Others
would come join in or leave the discussion throughout. The discussion lasted 90 minutes, and three of the original
participants stayed for the duration while a total of eight Somali men contributed and while approximately five
others stopped by to listen but contributed nothing other than their presence to the focus group.
African Americans with family ties explained that their family bonds are strong, but expressed
concern that they did not get to spend as much time with family and friends as they would prefer.
Therefore, family time was a special and relatively rare occasion that they were unwilling to
share. By contrast, the African Americans that had weak or no family ties described the African
American community as fragmented (personal interview with African American male Linden
resident, 11/02/04). In short, this meant there were no apparent windows of opportunity for
conducting a focus group through these interviewees.
These three methods worked together to re-present the narratives of Somali immigration,
African American marginalization, and the Somali-African American conflict. Participant
observation provided an on-the-ground view of the Somali and African American communities
in Linden by permitting a general assessment of community strength and cohesion. Interviews
provided the inclusion of a multiplicity of narratives from the city/NGO complex, journalists,
and members of these communities, thus giving this paper multiple perspectives of the Linden
area. Focus groups then allowed the Somali community to define itself. The interrelation
between these three methods provides a multidimensional look at both of these communities,
how others perceive them, the needs of these communities, and the reasons for conflict.
Developing an alternative framework
As previously mentioned, if the city/NGO complex had correctly diagnosed the problem
and prescribed the right policy solution, then fighting would not persist. Indeed, data gathered
during field research supports the claim that the city/NGO complex’s perspective may be off
base. Therefore, an alternative framework is necessary to challenge the city/NGO complex’s
assumptions and provide a new frame of reference for policy implementation.
Assumption: Misunderstanding one another’s group-specific behaviors caused the conflict
The city/NGO complex made the assumption that a misunderstanding of one another’s
group-specific behaviors caused the conflict. As previously stated, the city/NGO complex made
this assumption without adequately consulting African Americans or Somalis involved with the
conflict. To understand the cause of the conflict requires going to Linden and talking to African
Americans and Somalis involved in the conflict. Here, revised postcolonial/postdevelopment
literatures are helpful to understand how the city/NGO complex misdiagnosed the cause of the
Revised postcolonial/postdevelopment literatures are an offshoot of traditional
postcolonialism. Traditional postcolonialism, popularized by Edward Said (1979) (in reference
to the Middle East) and Arturo Escobar (2000) (in reference to Latin America), focuses on
deconstructing accepted views of history by introducing the perspectives of the subaltern, or the
formerly colonized people. Said and Escobar recognize the effect discourse has on material
realities and are concerned with how it is that current accepted discourses3 of history are onedimensional
and “Western.” On the ground, such an understanding of history leads dominant
groups to colonize and neocolonize “Third World” countries through a development discourse
that is void of local knowledges4 (Nanda 1999). Therefore, a traditional postcolonialist would
argue that it becomes necessary to recognize history from the vantage point of the subaltern to
make discourses of history multidimensional and to open up opportunities for inclusion of the
subaltern in decision making processes (Said 1979, Prakash 1992, etc).
By contrast, revised postcolonialism does not share this spatial/temporal specificity. For
example, revised postcolonialism does not only view the subaltern as the formerly colonized, but
as marginalized groups in any place (Lubiano 1991, Hanchard 1990, Stoler 1989). Therefore,
one can view the Somalis and African Americans in Linden with a postcolonial lens.
3 An accepted discourse is a discourse that decision-makers utilize to create policy.
4 Or the idea that since people in these countries cannot think well enough for themselves (otherwise they would not
be in the poor economic conditions they are in), then the Westerners must think for them. Therefore, “local
knowledge” (or the thoughts, feelings, and know-how of the people in Third World countries) will be ignored in
favor of the analyses of the Westerners.
Furthermore, revised postcolonialists recognize difference across multiple axes; broadening the
scope of research to gender, race, etc.5, not just difference in nationality (Mohanty 1991, Carby
Conversations with Linden’s African Americans reveal that the cause of the conflict is
more than a misunderstanding of group-specific differences. The contrast between their
longstanding marginalization and the early entrepreneurial success of the Somalis (evident by the
two incubator business malls that serve approximately 100 Somali-owned businesses in Linden)
fuels the frustration felt by many of Linden’s African Americans (participant observation,
personal interview with Somali business owner, 11/13/04). As one African American man put it:
“We’ve been here for 400 years and haven’t gotten a break yet. They got a break after just a
decade” (personal interview with African American male Linden resident, 03/08/04). Implicit
within this quote is the idea that many of Linden’s African Americans believe Somalis are
getting money from the government. City officials have denied these claims (personal interview
with city/NGO official, 04/11/05).
Local NGOs provide start-up capital for businesses to refugees that the city matches
dollar for dollar; African Americans do not have access to these funds because African
Americans are not refugees (Personal interview with local journalist, 12/07/04; Focus group with
NGO, 1/26/05). The City/NGO complex helps to fund Somali businesses in which there are now
over 200 in Columbus, and the African Americans want a piece of the pie (Personal interview
with Somali male community leader, 01/19/05). The city/NGO complex’s response to the
African Americans’ demand -- to challenge the African American view that Somali’s have
access to capital that African Americans do not -- misses the point that African Americans want
5 Thus, based on my interpretation, revised postcolonialism encompasses any work focused on providing voice
directly to a ‘subaltern’ group, whether the work is feminist, focused on race, ethnicity, nationality, etc.
access to start-up capital and that structural reasons exist that prevent African Americans from
One structural reason that prevents African Americans from gaining access is the
difference in the kind of aid offered to African Americans versus the kind of aid offered to
Somali refugees. Although there have been urban policies focused on providing economic
resources to low-income African Americans (government-sponsored programs focused on
bussing people to jobs or on providing incentives to firms to locate in low-income areas to
counter spatial mismatch are two such examples), these efforts were/are centered around
providing African Americans with low-wage jobs working for others (Mueller and Schwartz
1998). From the African American perspective, the Somalis are getting the better deal (personal
interview with African American male Linden resident, 03/08/04).
Another structural barrier is welfare dependency, or a dependence on the state for
sustenance. Linden’s African American population has fallen into this common trap (welfare
dependency) (Cruse 1987, personal interview with African American minister, 10/20/04).
Linden’s low-income African Americans expressed a concern that they face few options: lowwage
jobs in the formal economy (which is the extent of the workfare aid provided to African
Americans as mentioned above) OR be on welfare AND/OR take part in informal economic
activity (i.e. panhandling, theft, selling drugs, buying/selling collectible goods on auction
websites such as E-bay, gambling, and creating/building and selling arts/crafts and other goods)
(personal interview with City/NGO complex official, 02/26/04; personal interview with African
American minister, 10/13/04; personal interview with African American female Linden resident,
02/10/04). Since cannot have a formal job and be on welfare, Linden’s African Americans that
are eligible for welfare6 can attempt hold a formal job and engage in informal economic activity
or they can apply for welfare and engage in informal economic activity. If one selects the
former, one is in a low-wage job with a glass ceiling on upward mobility (personal interview
with African American male, 03/08/04). If one selects the latter, one receives the same benefits
indefinitely with no chance for upward mobility. Furthermore, informal entrepreneurial practice
yields minimal results and/or is illegal. Regardless of which option Linden’s residents select,
they become relatively class-locked with only small informal opportunities for entrepreneurship.
Welfare dependency does not indicate that these African Americans are inherently lazy
and/or ignorant as some racist discourses (i.e. Ronald Reagan’s description of “welfare queens”)
might indicate (O’Connor 1998). Linden’s African Americans have proven savvy as they have
continued to gain access to welfare despite the 1996 reforms President Bill Clinton made, which
place a time limit on the length in which one is allowed access to welfare (O’Connor 2002,
personal interview with African American minister, 10/20/04). Furthermore, the desire that
many of Linden’s African Americans share shows that these African Africans have the requisite
motivation but they lack the resources (personal interview with African American male Linden
resident, 03/08/04). Many in Linden’s African American population would rather work for their
Until recently, only single-parent households could obtain welfare (Gillon 2000).
Therefore, if the mother and the father of a child need welfare to provide for their child, then the
mother or father will have to move out. This policy established a trend of single-parent
households in low-income African American communities that led to the fragmentation of the
African American household and, subsequently, the community at large. As a result, even if the
6 Indeed, most of Linden’s residents that I spoke with about this matter are eligible for welfare because if they were
not impoverished enough to be eligible for the state-sponsored welfare system, they would reside somewhere in the
suburbs (personal interview with African American male Linden resident, 02/19/05).
City/NGO complex would offer African Americans access to start-up capital the African
American community in Linden would likely fail to capitalize on this opportunity due to the
fragmentation evident in their community. This suggests that the City/NGO complex must go
above and beyond the policies offered to the Somalis if the City/NGO complex hopes to provide
realistic economic hope for Linden’s African Americans.
Understanding how this structural racism can affect one black group (African Americans)
while leaving another black group relatively unscathed (Somalis) and how Somalis have been
able to maintain the social networks necessary for entrepreneurship while African Americans
have not requires understanding the role of migratory circumstance. When evaluating the
success of a migrant group, it is necessary to evaluate pre- and post-migratory circumstances
(Waldinger 1990). Indeed, Somalis have had more entrepreneurial success in the last 10 years
than the African Americans have in their history because of the positive pre- and post-migratory
circumstances the Somalis have faced. Indeed, the pre-migratory circumstances facing the
Somalis that migrated to Columbus are positive: “The Somalis that came to the United States are
the elites, the ones capable of escaping Somalia when things began to fall apart, the ones that
were already educated and already had built lives. In the United States, we had to rebuild”
(personal interview with Somali male community leader, 03/01/04). Many Somalis in Columbus
speak at least three languages, have run a business before, and are well educated (a number of
them have doctoral degrees) (personal interview with Somali male community leader, 09/13/04).
Post-migratory circumstances are also positive. As already mentioned, Somalis have
access to money to begin small businesses. This coupled with the reality that many Somalis
already know how to run small businesses makes it clear as to how Somalis are capable of
creating and managing over 200 small businesses in Columbus in such a short period of time.
Furthermore, Somalis maintain strong family bonds which mold their community together (focus
group with Somali women, 01/24/05). Even when Somali families are spatially separated (either
because they live in different cities in the United States or because they have relatives still living
in Somalia and in refugee camps in Kenya) they stay connected through phone calls, e-mail
(there are a number of Somali-owned internet café’s in Columbus and Somalia), letters, and
remittances (Winter 2004, participant observation in Somali businesses, focus group with Somali
male business owners, 02/12/05). Relative to African Americans, Somalis’ pre- and postmigratory
circumstances provide them with an advantage to access to capital and to meeting
Some academicians have claimed that there is not a correlation between an increase in
immigration and economic opportunity for domestic marginalized groups such as low-income
African Americans (Neal and Bohon 2003). However, this discussion is not relevant to my
study. As indicated above, instead of arguing that immigrants are making economic conditions
worse for them (African Americans), Linden’s African American population is pointing out that
they are continually set in a marginalized position while an incoming immigrant groups finds
economic growth and success.
The reason African Americans in Linden are engaging in conflict with Somalis is not
because of a misunderstanding of Somalis’ group-specific behaviors. Nor is the cause an issue
of who wins in an economic bout between Somalis and African Americans. As my fieldwork
indicates, structural problems are the primary reason Linden’s African Americans are engaging
in conflict with Somalis. Linden’s African Americans face more structural racism (based on the
history of racism in which they are a part), are relatively class-locked into the lower-classes
(because of welfare dependency), and lack community cohesion (due to the nature of welfare
policy). Meanwhile, as a result of their relatively positive pre- and post-migratory
circumstances, Somalis are not facing racism or classism to this degree.
My fieldwork also challenges the city/NGO diagnosis that Somali aggression was
retaliation. To the contrary, Somalis fought to reinforce differences between Somalis and
African Americans. The reason Somali leadership worked so hard to intentionally exclude
African Americans is two fold. First, Somalis were aware of the poor representations associated
with being dark-skinned in the United States (personal interview with Somali NGO worker,
10/04/04). Second, Somalis were protecting themselves from potential assimilation into African
American culture, which would threaten the long-term sustainability of their ethnic ties (focus
group with Somali women, 01/24/05). In refugee camps in Kenya, Somalis were told by
community leaders to be aware of lazy “black Americans” before moving to the United States
(personal interview with Somali NGO worker, 10/04/04; personal interview with city/NGO
official, 02/26/04). As one refugee put it: “Black Americans are lazy, they don’t like work, and
they are not successful” (personal interview with Somali male new to Linden, 01/07/05).
Clearly, these warnings were effective. Therefore, according to my field research, Somali
aggression was more of a proactive measure than a retaliatory effort; active discrimination
against “blackness” in the United States fueled Somali aggression.
Based on my fieldwork, the city/NGO complex’s diagnosis is insufficient. Had the
city/NGO complex actively sought the perspective of Somalis and African Americans in Linden,
then perhaps the city/NGO complex would have seen that the conflict was more than a
misunderstanding of group-specific behaviors and that Somalis were more than retaliating.
However, the city/NGO complex did not do this. For this reason, the city/NGO complex failed
to make a proper diagnosis.
Assumption: Assimilation is necessary for the resolution of conflict
The city/NGO complex assumed that the conflict would not cease until assimilation
eliminated the differences between the two groups (personal interview with city/NGO official,
02/26/04). Such a viewpoint is consistent with a conventional view of immigration. In this
view, it is assumed that migrants are cut off from their homeland and are left with no option but
to assimilate into the new culture that now surrounds them (Portes 2001). However, little
empirical evidence exists to support the immigration-assimilationist model universally (Schiller
and Fouron 1999).
Critics of the immigration-assimilationist model point out that many migrants remain
connected to their homeland through transnational networks, or the cultural and financial ties that
connect a migrant group in a place to their place of origin and/or other nodes of migration along
the network (Zhou and Tseng 1999). Migrants belonging to these transnational networks have
little reason to assimilate into a local culture on foreign soil. Instead, these migrants have a stake
in preserving their culture to maintain their financial lifeline and sustain their cultural ties
through which these migrants sculpt and re-sculpt their identities. Therefore, understanding
transnationalism rather than migration supports a non-assimilationist perspective.
Whether or not a migrant group is “transnational” or “traditional immigrant” depends on
the nature of the migrant group i.e. if the migrant group maintains transnational ties, then the
group is “transnational”; if the group is cut off from their homeland, then the group is
“traditional immigrant). There are serious consequences when policymakers assume a migrant
group is “traditional immigrant” or “transnational” without empirical support for such a claim.
The policy implications when one assumes a migrant group to be “traditional immigrant” is
assimilationist. However, if this assumption is wrong, then governance will be working counter
to the needs of a falsely labeled transnational migrant group. Effective policy geared towards a
transnational migrant group requires that the migrant groups’ social space remain uninterrupted.
By contrast, effective policy geared towards a traditional immigrant group might indicate that the
migrant group’s social space be merged with the local social space (depending on the thoughts
and feelings of the local group as well as of the migrant group).
The city/NGO complex labeled the Somalis “traditional immigrant” under the
presumption that since Somalis fled their native country as refugees, then the Somalis have
become disconnected to their homeland (personal interview with city/NGO official, 04/11/05).
The assumption is that accepting refugee status indicates a willingness to forgo any connection to
one’s place of citizenship. Indeed, why would anyone accept refugee status if not facing direct
persecution? Further, why would someone facing persecution from their place of citizenship
want to remain connected to their place of citizenship?
Although most of the Somalis in the United States left as refugees, this does not imply
disconnectedness between the refugees and friends and family in Somalia. Actually, some of the
Somalis I interviewed indicated that fear of persecution was not their primary reason for leaving
Somalia. They left because they could not find jobs in Somalia and they needed some way to
keep their families financially stable and that Somalia was no longer providing jobs (personal
interview with Somali male new to Linden, 01/07/05). The political dimension of Somalis’ lives
actually is the reverse of what the city/NGO complex assumed.
Some of my Somali contacts noted that their family members in Somalia have pleaded
with them to return to Somalia because they fear an anti-Muslim sentiment in the post-9/11
United States. Somalis in Somalia fear that their relatives in the United States will face angry
mobs of American citizens and/or false imprisonment under the Patriot Act7 (focus group with
Somali male business owners, 02/12/05). They sense that the political and social climate in the
United States is more dangerous for Somalis than the political and social climate in their
hometowns in Somalia. This indicates that though Somalia is in turmoil, there are places within
Somalia that Somalis deem more safe than the places they inhabit in the United States (evidence
to support a point I make later in this paper on the progressive nature of place). This is not to
suggest that Somalis have not endured hardship in their native country, or that there was not
reason to fear warlords, or that the civil war in Somalia is something to be taken lightly.
However, because these safer places within Somalia no longer afford enough economic
opportunity to provide adequate sustenance, Somalis have chosen to migrate. In sum, my field
research revealed that Somalis are economic refugees determined to preserve their national
identity, linkage with family and friends in Somalia, and that they are intent on not being
assimilated into any social group in the United States.
Since migration, Somalis have effectively maintained their financial and cultural ties to
Somalia. All of the Somalis I spoke with send remittances to family members in Somalia.
Furthermore, many Somalis view their time in the United States as temporary: “Somalis hope to
preserve a bright future for their children, this includes rebuilding Somalia” (personal interview
with Somali NGO worker, 10/04/04). By this, the Somali NGO worker means that if Somalia
can afford enough economic opportunity to provide adequate sustenance to his family, he would
return to Somalia.
7 This is not a far-fetched fear. On November 28, 2003, a Somali man in Columbus was arrested for his alleged
involvement with Al-Qaeda in a supposed plot to plant a bomb in a local mall (Wasserman and Fitrakis 2004). The
Patriot Act justified the arrest, and some citizens have since expressed a fear of Somalis (personal interview with
Caucasian Columbus citizen, 06/16/04).
It is apparent that Somalis are transnationals and not traditional immigrants as the
city/NGO complex suggested. Therefore, implementation of assimilationist policies does not
match the needs of the Somali community. Assimilation is unnecessary, is contrary to the goals
of the Somali community, and the threat of assimilation is serious enough to cause Somalis to
fight. Somalis were willing to engage in conflict with African Americans to avoid assimilation.
Assumption: Groups are homogenous
The city/NGO complex assumed that there were no differences within groups, as
evidenced by two points: First, the city/NGO complex believes that assimilation would solve the
conflict by bridging the gap between the two communities. Second, the city/NGO complex’s
assumed that gathering information from the middle-class African Americans and Somali leaders
was sufficient. However, others have shown that differences within and between groups exist.
Revised postcolonialists have highlighted the multiplicity of voices existing within (Mohanty
1991, Stoler 1989, etc.) and between (Shohat 1988, McClintock 1995, etc.) different dominant
and subaltern groups. This attempts to undo the silences of history, regardless of whether these
silences are intra- or inter-group.
As mentioned earlier, the community leaders were not directly involved with the fighting
and could not speak for their entire community on this matter. There appear to be divisions in
the African American community along class lines. Some middle-class African Americans
living outside of Linden believe that Linden’s low-income African Americans overreacted to the
Somali transnationals: “Their [low-income African American] struggle is legitimate, but the
fighting is misplaced. We [middle-class African Americans] don’t agree with the idea of
fighting to get ahead.” (personal interview with middle-class African American male, 12/01/04).
Meanwhile, Linden’s low-income African Americans feel left out of the middle-class
community: “They [African Americans that gain access to capital] move out of their homes to
the suburbs. Once they [the new middle-class African Americans] get there, they don’t help me
out at all.” (personal interview with African American male Linden resident, 02/19/05). Clearly,
between-class divisions exist within the African American community in Columbus.
Further, the low-income African American community in Linden is fragmented. As one
African American inner-city school counselor mentioned, “We have to get over the fact that our
community is not well connected, I don’t think that will ever be fixed. We have to move on”
(personal interview with African American Linden school counselor, 03/09/05). The following
anecdote demonstrates this point well:
“I had a[n African American] parent in here [school counselor’s office] last week to fill
out a FAFSA8 form for her exceptionally bright daughter. The parent refused to fill out
the FAFSA form saying, ‘I didn’t get a chance to go to college, why should she?’”
(personal interview with African American Linden school counselor, 03/09/05).
Within community difference and fragmentation such as this makes it difficult to assess a
community-specific issue without directly consulting those involved. More evidence for this
comes from my participant observation, where the brevity of African American interactions with
one another (especially in comparison to the more cohesive Somali community) in places of
business seems to indicate that the African American community in Linden is fragmented.
Although more cohesive, the Somali community also have some rifts within their
community. Most noticeable are differences along lines of gender and generation. A majority of
the Somali men (and all five male Somali community leaders9) that I interviewed cite the
primary concern of the Somali community as generating access to capital. However, Somali
women (and the only female community leader) that I interviewed cite two different concerns:
8 The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is a form that allows prospective and current college
students in the United States to apply for grants and low-interest loans.
9 I spoke to six Somali Community leaders while conducting fieldwork. Five were men and one was a woman.
access to childcare and healthcare (especially psychological health as some of the Somali women
in Columbus were subjected to rape and other forms of torture in Somalia). This concern about
childcare is centered on the idea that “We [Somali women] don’t want our kids to be corrupted
by their [African American] kids” (focus group with Somali women, 01/24/05). Furthermore,
“the fact that some Somalis are wearing FUBU10 is making [Somali] parents nervous” (personal
interview with Somali NGO worker, 09/17/04).
This “corruption” of the Somali youth highlights the generational gap that appears to be
forming. Although Somalis hope to sustain their culture, some of their children are growing
apathetic toward this goal (as the change in their clothing style indicates). Not all Somali
children share this apathy however: “The Somali girls are taking their own paths to
understanding themselves. In school, some wear the veil; others wear the veil with some more
tight-fitting gowns than their traditional garb; and others dress just like the African American
girls” (personal interview with African American Linden school counselor, 03/09/04). Thus, it
would appear that although the Somalis fit the “transnational” mold, the next generation will
feature some Somali-Americans and some Somali transnationals. Though the goal of sustainable
cultural ties to Somalia is not lost with the existence of some Somali children rebelling against
tradition, some first-generation Somalis are nervous.
Assumption: Conventional views of place
The city/NGO complex assumed that place is homogenous and spatially bound, that is,
that a place has—and should have—a singular cultural identity. This singular identity represents
all people in the place, is unchanged, and is defined without influence from other places. In this
10 FUBU is a brand of clothing predominantly worn by African Americans (but not exclusively African American as
FUBU operates in 15 countries) (Chappell 1999). FUBU is also an acronym that means “For Us by Us” (us refers to
African Americans) (Chappell 1999). The company, created and owned by four African American males, got its
start in 1992 (Chappell 1999). Somali children discarding traditional garb in favor of FUBU is what is making
Somali parents nervous.
view, places are discrete and disconnected from other places. Such a view is consistent with a
conventional view of place.
Alternatively, a “progressive sense of place” argues that places are diverse, bustling with
difference and power relations, dynamic, and unbound (Massey 1993). A place has multiple,
changing identities because it has multiple, changing people. People have multiple identities
because they have different connections outside of this place and because they might not be fully
connected inside the place (each person’s within-place social network looks different).
Therefore, place is dependent of other places as there is interconnectedness between what a
person is exposed to both within a place and outside of that place. Furthermore, processes
affecting the people in the place change the identity of that place. These processes happen at
various scales and in various places. In short, there is a strong relationship between space and
place that the conventional view fails to recognize.
To concretize this idea using Linden as the case study, let us take a look at how it is that
the city/NGO complex subscribes to a conventional view and how this fails to measure up to the
reality of place. Evidence that the city/NGO complex subscribes to a conventional view of place
is found in their general attitude toward the conflict. City/NGO complex officials view the
conflict as intrinsic to Linden. Arguing that the cause of the conflict is a misunderstanding of
group-specific behaviors presumes that the cause of the conflict is intrinsic to the two
communities. Such a view eliminates the possibility that processes beyond the neighborhood
might contribute to conditions conducive to conflict.
A number of city-wide, nation-wide, and international processes have affected Linden
and have led to the conditions for fighting. To cite several examples (some of which I have
already mentioned in this paper): At the city scale, local NGOs providing access to capital for
Somalis and not African Americans based on Somalis’ refugee status is a local process that
contributed to African Americans’ frustrations, similarly the assimilationist discourse that the
city/NGO complex adopted has given the Somalis good reason to hold their ground. At the
national scale, the welfare policies have locked many low-income African American
communities into a state of welfare dependency. It is this same dependency that has created a
community of frustrated low-income African Americans in Linden. At the international scale,
the process of transnationalism has given the Somali community a relative economic advantage:
the ability to mobilize capital across international boundaries. Such an advantage has magnified
the entrepreneurial success of the Somali community. This success, as discussed earlier, varies
directly with African American frustration. It would appear that processes have played a major
role in creating conditions conducive to conflict in Linden.
Further evidence that the city/NGO complex subscribes to a conventional view of place
can be seen in how the city/NGO complex believes assimilation is necessary. The conventional,
spatially restricted view of place is consistent with the traditional model of immigration and,
relatedly, the normative subscription to assimilation. The city/NGO complex views Linden as a
place in some sort of cognitive dissonance, as if this neighborhood is schizophrenically divided
into a duality: Somali vs. African American identity. The city/NGO complex believes that
assimilation provides a solution to this cognitive dissonance. Only after assimilation will things
settle into the necessary single identity, as if this sort of equilibrium necessitates peace. Such a
territorial understanding fails to recognize that dualities and pluralities11 can (and indeed do)
exist everywhere at all scales, and, importantly, are likely to persist.
11 though absent from this analysis there are more than African Americans and Somalis in Linden and once one
factors in their perspectives and an understanding that differences within groups exist, one quickly comes to
understand that plurality, not duality, is present in Linden.
And what is the consequence when governance subscribes to a conventional view of
place? In this case the consequence was that Somalis and African Americans became spatially
proximate as the city/NGO complex assumed (based on racial and spatial homogenization) that
such proximity would create the necessary conditions for assimilation. Indeed, NGOs
intentionally resettled Somalis in African American neighborhoods because of racial
homogenization (Personal interview with city/NGO official, 01/21/04). City/NGO complex
officials assumed that Somalis should be located in a place that is most familiar, and clearly
(from their perspective) this is in the predominantly low-income African American
neighborhood and not the predominantly low-income Latin American, Caucasian, or other
ethnicity in Columbus12. Spatial homogenization then occurred as the city/NGO complex
applied a conventional view of place to Linden (thus the surprised response of the City/NGO
complex indicated in the quote “They live in the same neighborhood. They share the same skin
color. They were expected to get along. But they didn’t”). Clearly, the city/NGO discourse of
homogenization and conventional views of place led Somalis into the predominantly African
American neighborhoods where the conflict began13.
The lack of a plural or progressive sense of history, immigration, identity, and place led
to the city/NGO complex’s incapability to listen to the concerns of the Somalis and African
Americans. The result was a misdiagnosis of the causes of conflict as well as policy that
exacerbated the conflict.
A new democracy
12 Since the city/NGO complex resettled the Somalis in public housing projects through the Section 8 voucher
program, Somalis had to be resettled in a low-income area (the only public housing facilities are in low-income
places), thus putting a residential burden on an already marginalized group (interview with African American
13 This is not a defense of segregation, but rather an argument for more progressive understandings of place. Had
the city/NGO complex recognized that heterogeneity was possible within a place, the city/NGO complex could have
seen differences within the two communities. This would have wiped out the city/NGO complex’s apparent
“surprise” by the conflict and could have rendered them more capable of prescribing effective policy.
The aggregative model
As a result of the nature of top-down governance, the city/NGO complex implemented
their plans to “promote peace” with inadequate consultation of Somalis or African Americans,
and this framework informed policy implementation. It has been shown that such a system is
fundamentally incapable of representing the needs of marginalized communities because the
marginalized have no voice (Kleniewski 1984).
To understand the changes necessary to prevent governing structures from misdiagnosing
important problems, I turn to the literatures on radical democracy. Radical democracy begins
with an understanding of the limitations of the current aggregative model of democracy that is
accepted in public policy discourse. In this model, voting rights define the basis of democracy
whereby democracy becomes an event and citizenship focuses on a set of rights, duties, and
responsibilities accorded to individuals by a constitution.
Habermas (1996) proposed a new, deliberative approach to democratic practice as the
solution to the problem of exclusiveness. Instead of being viewed as an annual event, in the
Habermasian model democracy is a process focused on participation. The issue in this model is
what groups of people within communities want. The way this model is implemented is through
public deliberation in which communities of people play an active role. Here, deliberation is
seen as the method to undermine the structural problems of aggregative democracy.
Although the Habermasian model of democracy offers a bottom-up alternative to the
aggregative model and is better than the existing top-down structure, it does not address all the
issues facing the current system. For example, revised postcolonialism and my fieldwork indicate
a need for unity, but not homogeneity within and between groups (Lorde 1984, hooks14 1984)
which both argue for unity and not homogeneity within and between groups) and my field of
research (which highlights the danger of homogeneity). The point that the Habermasian model
fails to recognize is that differences within and between groups are realities. Instead of
attempting to suppress them, my fieldwork and revised postcolonialism express the need to have
a democratic system of governance that recognizes difference in this manner15.
A second, more complete alternative is found in Laclau and Mouffe’s (1985)
foundational outline of a Post-Habermasian model of democracy. Iris Young (1990) discusses
the model more concretely16. The Post-Habermasian model extends the Habermasian model by
recognizing a plurality and multiplicity of voices within and between communities. Young’s
model advocates a respect and appreciation of these differences through what Young terms
“together-in-difference” (Young 1999). Young argues that discrimination along axes of
difference within and between groups needs to be dealt with. Instead of being indiscriminate
whereby policy would focus on equal treatment and/or integrated unity, Young argues that
different people have different likelihoods of gaining access to their specific needs (which varies
14 Although bell hooks’ work is categorized as feminist, here she can be viewed as a revised postcolonialist as well
as this article focuses on methods of generating political solidarity between different groups of women to provide
inclusion to women as women can be thought of as a subaltern group when focusing on a predominantly male
15Although the postcolonial literature does inform my research, this point on difference brings up a notable
limitation. Although revised postcolonial literatures discuss difference is such a progressive manner, these literatures
are critical of nationalism. National identity, according to many revised postcolonialists, is necessarily exclusive
and promotes a homogenized sense of ‘the nation’ (McClintock 1995, Shohat 1988, Nixon 1983, etc.). Although
this is true in the cases mentioned by the authors, it assumes that nationalism is essentially bad in all contexts and
should therefore be eliminated. Such thoughts on national identity run counter to the nature of revised
postcolonialism. Nationalism is another axis of difference, and the legitimacy of this axis should not be universally
challenged. Indeed, Somalis in Columbus embrace their national identity to help strengthen their transnational
financial and cultural ties (personal interview with Somali male, 02/22/04).
16 Indeed, all of Young’s arguments that I highlight here seem to be concretized reflections of what Laclau and
Mouffe call an “agonistic” model (1985).
from group to group and from person to person). Young’s framework calls for differences to be
highlighted. Instead of highlighting difference for the sake of discrimination (as the city/NGO
complex assumes is the consequence of the existence of difference – thus the need to eliminate
it), difference is highlighted for the sake of together-in-difference (personal interview with
city/NGO official, 04/11/05).
By focusing on deliberation and together-in-difference, this Post-Habermasian model
adequately answers the issues that postcolonial theorists and my fieldwork pose. However, such
changes are difficult, but are possible (Dagnino 1998). Theorizing the necessary conditions and
viability for such change is beyond the scope of this paper in its current form and would require a
thorough reading of the literatures on social activism17.
How the Post-Habermasian model might work
In such a system of inclusive governance, no one person should decide how things should
work (which is why I chose the word “might” in the subheading, not “should” or “will”). For
this reason, nothing I write in this section is to be taken as the way that the Post-Habermasian
model should be implemented. Rather, this is simply one way in which it might work.
Let us begin with a situation that the local system of aggregative governance did not
respond well to: Somalis migrating to Columbus. To recap, Somalis moved to Columbus and
were led to Linden based on assumptions of racial homogenization without adequate consultation
of Somali immigrants or Linden’s African American residents. The key difference between
what aggregative governance permitted and what Post-Habermasian governance would not
permit is that decisions were made without adequate consultation.
17 Although this beyond the scope of this paper in its current form, I hope to incorporate this more in the publishable
draft. Thinking about how I might theorize the plausibility of and conditions necessary for post-Habermasian
radical democracy did not cross my mind until recently, and so I did not have time to adequately incorporate it into
The question, then, is: What could one do to make certain all potentially affected
communities had the opportunity to be included in decision making processes? One way to
begin such a process could be focus groups. In this case, Somalis want to move to Columbus.
Let us assume that the easiest method to relocate Somalis is via the public housing system. The
first round of focus groups should focus on Somalis (do they want to live in the public housing
facilities? What are their pros/cons? How might the cons be dealt with?), current public housing
residents (Would they mind living near these Somalis? What are their concerns?), public housing
officials (Are there an adequate number of units to support the incoming community and the
current residents?). Again, to adequately consult each of these groups, multiple focus groups
must be conducted with different people within a group (i.e. focus groups with Somalis of certain
ages, all female Somalis, all male Somalis, Somalis of different family clans, Somalis in general,
etc.). A second round of focus groups might inter-mix groups (i.e. some Somalis and some
public housing residents might be brought together to discuss specific community goals,
expectations18, measures of compatibility, and discussions of specific group differences).
Furthermore, participants in each focus group should be randomly selected, and once selected,
the focus group should not be held until all participants decide on a time that works for