Kwasi Enin, a first-generation Ghanaian-American who got into all eight Ivy League schools, lit up network news channels last year. The remarkable feat could be easily interpreted as another comforting sign of the nation’s increasing level racial equality. A black student got into all of the nation’s top colleges while a black man was sitting in the Oval Office. What other evidence could you need to validate America’s post-racial status?
But Enin and Obama have something in common besides their skin shade and intellect – both are the children of African immigrants, rather than descendants of those subject to this nation’s history of violent racial oppression.
Now at Yale, Enin has likely realized that many of his black peers are first-generation Americans too. In fact, a recent study of 28 public and private colleges of varying selectivity found that 27% of black students were immigrants (defined as those with at least one parent born outside the US), even though immigrants make up only 13% of the country’s college-age black population. That figure increases with selectivity, as 40% of black students at Ivy League schools identified as immigrants. “Native” blacks (defined as those whose parents were both born in the US), therefore, compose an even smaller share of students at elite universities than one might expect after looking at overall percentages of “black” students.
For example, about 11% of students in Harvard’s class of 2017 are black. Only about 6-7%, however, are native black, even though this demographic composes about 12% of the US population.
Current Department of Education (DOE) race-reporting standards place native and immigrant blacks in the same category, meaning that affirmative action programs fail to distinguish between immigrant blacks and the descendants of slaves. We certainly cannot assume that affirmative action programs specifically helped Enin achieve this remarkable accomplishment, but we do know that these programs have substantially increased the number of minority students at the nation’s best schools over the last several decades.
The members that comprise these two groups may have similar skin tone, but they demonstrate salient socioeconomic and cultural differences. Native blacks descended from involuntary immigrants who were shipped across the ocean in slave ships, and their ancestors endured long periods of de jure racial discrimination. In contrast, black immigrants and their parents had the resources necessary to voluntarily come to the US in search of greater opportunity.
This historical distinction continues to impact socioeconomic status, and has resulted in greater educational opportunity and attainment for black immigrants. Black immigrants in the US earn about 40% more annually than native blacks do. The children of black immigrants also tend to grow up in more integrated and less violent neighborhoods than do native black students. In the aforementioned study of 28 colleges, researchers found that 70% of black immigrants’ fathers were college graduates and 44% had advanced degrees. Among native black students, these figures were just 55% and 25%. The same study revealed that black immigrants at the selective schools on average scored 57 points higher on the SAT out of 1600 than did black natives.
Immigrants also internalize and experience racial oppression differently, further advantaging them over black natives. Black immigrants tend to identify with their national origin and immigrant status rather than their race, in part to avoid stigmas associated with blackness. Research by Hunter College Professor Nancy Foner has revealed that whites feel more comfortable interacting with black immigrants compared to native blacks, resulting in disparate levels of discrimination.
Affirmative action programs thus fail to target the group they were designed to benefit most – descendants of slaves and those who struggled under Jim Crow. Rather than amalgamating all people of African descent into a single monolithic category, the DOE should collect data on both immigrant and native blacks, and selective universities should take these distinctions into account during recruiting and admissions.
If you believe remedial justice is affirmative action’s most important rationale, then this change is necessary to compensate for the distinct level of racial disadvantage native blacks face. If you believe diversity is the most important rationale, then this change is necessary to help alleviate the significant underrepresentation of native blacks on college campuses. Failing to act will likely result in the continued dilution of native black representation at the nation’s top colleges.