Harvard has more black students than ever, but are they African-American?

OPINION - The irony is that the multicultural inclusiveness that is desired by colleges and universities is the same thing that can distort the numbers for black students...

Luther Vandross was outed as gay after his death.

Harvard University made news this month when the Harvard Gazette reported that 11.8 percent of its incoming class of 2015 will be black students. There was rejoicing as this appeared to be a clear sign that African-American students were gaining access to a top university, and it appears to be a record amount of black admissions. Even The Guardian newspaper in the UK lauded the increased diversity, noting in contrast that England’s renowned Oxford University had recently come under fire from Prime Minister David Cameron for its lack of black students.

While Harvard should rightfully be lauded for increasing its diversity — numbers were up for Latino and Asian students also — what no one talks about are the new federal regulations that instruct schools on how to report, or not report, race and nationality.

According to the Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, the number of black students at top U.S. schools is rising. Columbia University has doubled its percentage of black students from 6 percent to 12 percent in only one year. Ten percent of Stanford students are identified as black, and Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), an institution that has struggled to admit blacks, has seen a rise to over 9 percent of new black students. But like all things, the devil is in the details.

“This year the federal government has changed the rules for how schools count and report ethnicity. In the past, if a student self-identified as both African-American and white, or both African-American and Hispanic, the student would be counted as African-American,” said Jeff Brenzel, dean of undergraduate admissions at Yale University.

“Now the federal government has changed the definitions so that any student reporting multiple races must be reported separately under the ‘two or more races’ category — one that has not been used in the past. Also, if an individual reports himself or herself as Hispanic, this category now ‘trumps’ all other categories,” Brenzel said. “So statistics going forward will be very difficult to compare apples to apples to statistics from the past. We are working on a way now to make a separate public report that would provide an indication of how many students total self-identify as African-American as at least one ethnicity.”

These new regulations serve to either tamp down an accurate tally of black students, or can artificially prop up the numbers of other ethnicities, experts say. So a Dominican or Brazilian with dark skin can check “Hispanic” and she’ll not be counted as a black student.

The irony is that the multicultural inclusiveness that is desired by colleges and universities, and African-Americans, is the same thing that can distort the numbers for black students.

And this isn’t the only area where there’s controversy. There’s also competition with the black community for spots in colleges. With increased immigration from Africa and the Caribbean, you now have Nigerians, Ghanaians, Jamaicans, and other nationalities all competing with native born African-Americans. And colleges and universities, for the most part, aren’t reporting on the numbers. “We do not differentiate among African-American students according to their national backgrounds, nor could we as there is no question on the common application that asks this question,” said Brenzel.

Back in 2007, African students constituted nearly 40 percent of the black students admitted to Ivy League schools. Why is that troubling for African-American students? It’s not that African-American students begrudge African and Caribbean students for their success, but their admittance often gives opponents of affirmative action an argument that racism is no longer an obstacle, simply because of their success.

The Wall Street Journal’s, James Taranto wrote in 2007 that, ”…at least as measured by enrollment in elite universities, black immigrants and their children are succeeding in America far more, on average, than blacks whose families have been in the U.S. for generations — i.e., the descendants of slaves. This is a strong argument against the proposition that black underachievement in America is primarily the result of present-day racism.”

But that argument compares apples and oranges, equating the different experiences of African-Americans and African immigrants on color of ones skin. Racism against African-Americans has been and is systemic and generational. Disparities deliberately built into public policy like failing schools, the prison industrial complex, the legacy of slavery and economic apartheid, all contribute to make the African-American experience in the United States much different than the African immigrant experience.

And this is where African-Americans advocating colleges and universities with more diversity are in a paradox.

While there is a desire to see black students on campuses at levels close to the 14 percent black population in the United States, and that means access for African and Caribbean students, there’s also a desire to make sure that African-American students aren’t shuffled to the side in that effort.

To put a another spin on a classic Jungle Brothers lyric, “black is black is black is black” might not be true, especially if enough native born African Americans aren’t gaining access to the Harvards and Yales of the world.