Should we be concerned about the number of black students at Harvard?

OPINION - Despite the increased diversity and record number of blacks at Harvard, those black students sometimes feel marginalized on campus and their qualifications scrutinized, as if their voices are not heard...

Luther Vandross was outed as gay after his death.

The news that Harvard University has accepted a record number of African-Americans gives many a reason to celebrate. With around 170 black students in its class of 2018, or 12 percent of the class, Harvard is apparently leading the way in diversity.

But is that good enough? What is diversity? And why does the news from Harvard resonate as it does with the black community, given the traditional role of the Ivy League as the academic representation of a white male elite?

Indeed, this is something to consider.

To be sure, Harvard has come a long way from the days of Richard T. Greener, its first black alum, who graduated in 1870 (Beverly Garnett, the first African-American admitted to the college in 1848, died before the start of the academic year and never attended).  W.E.B. DuBois was the first black person to earn a doctorate from Harvard in 1895. Typically the elite universities were racially exclusive, with quotas and barriers to entry for Jews, blacks and others until the 1960s and early 1970s.

Between 1968 and 1969—during the time of the assassination of Martin Luther King and urban unrest throughout America— the Ivy League doubled its black enrollment.  Certainly, this was part of a recognition by elites that the status quo was unworkable, and the social order threatened to unravel if they didn’t work on diversity.

But what exactly is diversity?  It is far more than simply skin color.

For example, many black students in the Ivy League are from immigrant families from Africa and the Caribbean. A 2007 study found that African immigrants—who tend to be wealthier— accounted for 41 percent of all black Ivy League students, while a 2009 study showed that blacks from immigrant backgrounds attended elite schools nearly four times frequently than their native-born counterparts.  This is not to drive a wedge between groups in the African-American community, though it does raise questions about opportunity for the descendants of American slaves.

Then there’s economic diversity.  The top universities are expensive—really expensive, as in a $50,000 or $60,000 per year proposition.  And most top students from low-income backgrounds do not apply to the nation’s most competitive colleges.

Schools such as the 378-year-old Harvard—whose $32 billion-endowment is larger than the GDP of some nations—can afford to spread the wealth.  Through its financial aid programs, Harvard has made it a priority to attract talent from families of low and moderate income.  And yet, low-income students are underrepresented at select colleges.  For example, at Harvard, 45.6 percent of students come from households with incomes over $200,000, while such households comprise the top 3.8 percent of families in the U.S.  Meanwhile, the median U.S. household income is $52,700.

Despite the increased diversity and record number of blacks at Harvard, those black students sometimes feel marginalized on campus and their qualifications scrutinized, as if their voices are not heard.  A multimedia project called ”I, Too, Am Harvard” reflects on the racial tensions these students experience.  The project, which has included a photo exhibit, a video and a play, has spread to other campuses and has become a focal point for black student activism.

“As black students at Harvard, a place of power and privilege,” said Kimiko Matsuda-Lawrence, a sophomore and one of the participants in the project, “we have an obligation to the larger black community.”

For right or wrong, the Ivies and other elite universities have become symbols of American prestige, leadership and opportunity.  They are an example of successful branding that has left their graduates overrepresented in the business of running things.  This is not to negate the role of HBCUs such as Morehouse, Spelman and Howard as vital crucibles of black scholarship and leadership, which provide a nurturing environment that validates young people.

At the same time, while Ivy League institutions are imperfect, their diversity efforts are a key to breaking up the Old Boy’s Network that has kept people of color and women back in this country.

And that’s why black folks should and do care about the news coming out of Harvard.

Follow David A. Love on Twitter at @davidalove