What Is Diaspora? Definition and Examples

Jewish Refugee Group Holds Rally Against Trump's Immigration Ban
HIAS, the global Jewish nonprofit that protects refugees, holds a rally against President Trump's immigration ban at Battery Park on February 12, 2017 in New York City. Alex Wroblewski / Getty Images

Diaspora is a community of people from the same homeland who have been scattered or have migrated to other lands. While most often associated with the Jewish people expelled from the Kingdom of Israel in the 6th century BCE, the diaspora of many ethnic groups is found around the world today.

Diaspora Key Takeaways

  • A diaspora is a group of people who have been forced from or chosen to leave their homeland to settle in other lands.
  • People of a diaspora typically preserve and celebrate the culture and traditions of their homeland.
  • Diaspora may be created by voluntary emigration or by force, as in the cases of wars, enslavement, or natural disasters.

Diaspora Definition

The term diaspora comes from the Greek verb diaspeirō meaning “to scatter” or “to spread about.” As first used in Ancient Greece, diaspora referred to people of dominant countries who voluntarily emigrated from their homelands to colonize conquered countries. Today, scholars recognize two kinds of diaspora: forced and voluntary. Forced diaspora often arises from traumatic events such as wars, imperialistic conquest, or enslavement, or from natural disasters like famine or extended drought. As a result, the people of a forced diaspora typically share feelings of persecution, loss, and desire to return to their homeland.

In contrast, a voluntary diaspora is a community of people who have left their homelands in search of economic opportunity, as in the massive emigration of people from depressed regions of Europe to the United States during the late 1800s.

Unlike diaspora created by force, voluntary immigrant groups, while also maintaining close cultural and spiritual links to their countries of origin, are less likely to wish to return to them permanently. Instead, they take pride in their shared experience and feel a certain social and political “strength-in-numbers.” Today, the needs and demands of large diaspora often influence government policy ranging from foreign affairs and economic development to immigration. 

The Jewish Diaspora

The origins of the Jewish diaspora date to 722 BCE, when the Assyrians under King Sargon II conquered and destroyed the Kingdom of Israel. Cast into exile, the Jewish inhabitants were scattered throughout the Middle East. In 597 BCE and again in 586 BCE, Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar II deported large numbers of Jews from the Kingdom of Judah but allowed them to remain in a unified Jewish community in Babylon. Some of the Judean Jews chose to flee to Egypt’s Nile Delta. By 597 BCE, the Jewish diaspora was scattered among three distinct groups: one in Babylon and other less-settled parts of the Middle East, another in Judaea, and another group in Egypt.

In 6 BCE, Judea came under Roman rule. While they allowed the Judeans to retain their Jewish king, the Roman governors maintained real control by restricting religious practices, regulating trade, and imposing ever-higher taxes on the people. In 70 CE, the Judeans launched a revolution which ended tragically in 73 BCE with the Roman siege of the Jewish fort of Masada. After destroying Jerusalem, the Romans annexed Judaea and drove the Jews from Palestine. Today, the Jewish diaspora is spread throughout the world.

The African Diaspora

During the Atlantic trade of enslaved people of the 16th to 19th centuries, as many as 12 million people in Western and Central Africa were taken captive and shipped to the Americas. Made up mainly of young men and women in their childbearing years, the native African diaspora grew rapidly. These displaced people and their descendants greatly influenced the culture and politics of the American and other New World colonies. In reality, the massive African diaspora had begun centuries before the trade as millions of Sub-Saharan Africans migrated to parts of Europe and Asia in search of employment and economic opportunity.

Today, descendants of the native African diaspora maintains and celebrates its shared culture and heritage in communities around the world. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, nearly 46.5 million people of the African diaspora lived in the United States in 2017.

The Chinese Diaspora

The modern Chinese Diaspora began in the mid-19th century. During the 1850s to the 1950s, large numbers of Chinese workers left China in search of jobs in Southeast Asia. From the 1950s through the 1980s, wars, starvation, and political corruption in mainland China shifted the destination of Chinese diaspora to more industrialized areas including North America, Europe, Japan, and Australia. Driven by the demand for cheap manual labor in these countries, most of these migrants were unskilled workers. Today, the growing Chinese diaspora has evolved into a more advanced “multi-class and multi-skilled” profile needed to satisfy the demands of the high-tech globalized economy. The current Chinese diaspora is estimated to consist of some 46 million ethnic Chinese living outside China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Macau.

The Mexican Diaspora

Emerging in the 19th Century and gaining traction in the 1960s, the population of the Mexican diaspora is based mostly in the United States. The Mexican-American Wars of 1846 and 1848 resulted in many Spanish-speaking Mexicans settling in the Southwestern United States, particularly in California, New Mexico, and Arizona. By the time the Gadsden Purchase was ratified in 1853, around 300,000 Mexican nationals were living in the United States. Until the late 19th century, the lack of immigration restrictions allowed for easy Mexican immigration throughout the United States.

The rate of Mexican immigration to the United States exploded after the Mexican Revolution of 1910 caused widespread discord and subsequent violence throughout the country. This resulted in a major wave of Mexican immigrants relocating to the United States in the early 20th Century. The economic opportunities and political stability of the U.S., with the lax immigration laws applying to Mexicans, spurred a major growth of the Mexican community in the United States.

This growth was halted by the devastating impact of the Great Depression in 1929. As widespread unemployment in the United States resulted in anti-immigration sentiment, large numbers of Mexicans were repatriated to Mexico. By 1931, Mexican immigration had virtually ended. These anti-immigration sentiments ended in 1941 when the outbreak of World War II caused a drastic shortage of workers in the United States. In 1942, the Bracero Program actively recruited millions of Mexicans into the United States where they worked for low wages under poor conditions with virtually no civil rights.

With the dissolution of the Bracero Program, illegal Mexican immigration rose, resulting in intense anti-immigration measures from the U.S. government. In 1954, “Operation Wetback” forced the mass deportation of as many as 1.3 million Mexicans who had entered the U.S. illegally. Despite these restrictions, Mexican immigration continued to increase. Today, over 55 million Hispanic and Latino Americans are residents of the United States, representing 18.3% of the US population, according to the U.S. Census. Hispanic Americans—of which Mexicans form a large majority—account for over half of the United States’ labor workforce. Despite lingering tensions between Mexicans and Americans, the story of the Mexican diaspora is inextricably tied to the United States, where it plays a vital role in the country’s cultural and economic fabric. 

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Longley, Robert. "What Is Diaspora? Definition and Examples." ThoughtCo, Sep. 9, 2021, thoughtco.com/diaspora-definition-4684331. Longley, Robert. (2021, September 9). What Is Diaspora? Definition and Examples. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/diaspora-definition-4684331 Longley, Robert. "What Is Diaspora? Definition and Examples." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/diaspora-definition-4684331 (accessed September 22, 2021).