President Barack Obama signed the first-ever initiative aimed to improve the academic success of African-Americans in higher education this past summer. Announced in July during Obama’s speech at a National Urban League conference, the initiative stimulates an ongoing debate surrounding African-Americans facing unequal opportunities in the academic sphere.
While this is an interesting development, what officials at the White House failed to do through this act was specify exactly which types of African-Americans the program would benefit. Which blacks are benefiting most from programs meant to help them in the sphere of education is sparking controversy. According to a study produced by Princeton and the University of Pennsylvania, immigrants, who make up 13 percent of the nation’s college-age black population, account for more than a quarter of black students at Ivy League and other select universities.
In fact, “census data show that the children of these immigrants were more likely to be college-educated than any other immigrant or U.S.-born ethnic group, including white Americans,” a September 2012 Washington Post story states.
The result of this phenomenon is that policies created to compensate the descendants of American slaves for the deprivations caused by slavery and Jim Crow segregation are benefiting blacks of recent African and Caribbean origin disproportionately. Researchers of this discrepancy have varying theories as to why this trend has developed and continues to grow.
“[Black immigrants] are hard workers who have played by the rules of the system and succeeded,” Nigerian-American anthropologist John Ogbu wrote of this actuality in his seminal 1998 study Involuntary and Voluntary Minorities.
Others believe it is not just a matter of a cultural work ethic. Lani Guinier, a Harvard Law School professor, told The Washington Post in 2007 that, “in part, it has to do with coming from a country, especially those educated in Caribbean and African countries, where blacks were in the majority and did not experience the stigma that black children did in the United States.” She sees a dark psychological background as a large impediment to native-born blacks’ ability to academically succeed.
Perspectives differ, but the roots of this phenomenon date back to education policies established in the late ’60s. Enacted by first President John F. Kennedy, then continued by President Lyndon Johnson, affirmative action has been identified as the main catalyst for the growing numbers of blacks at institutions of higher learning.
Initially intended to level the playing field for native black Americans — just as Obama’s initiative could — some argue that the policy has changed shape over the past several decades, with college administrators boosting racial and ethnic diversity using foreign-bred blacks. Instead of offsetting the socioeconomic inequalities faced by slaves’ descendants by providing educational restitution, it is alleged that schools prefer black students who do not come from this group.
In a 2006 study exploring the proliferation of Caribbean and African immigrants in U.S. colleges, University of Pennsylvania professor Camille Z. Charles and her fellow authors considered that social biases could play a large part in the admission process.
“To white observers,” they wrote, “black immigrants seem more polite, less hostile, more solicitous and ‘easier to get along with.’ Native blacks are perceived in precisely the opposite fashion.”