Thursday, June 24, 2004

NYT - Top Colleges Take More Blacks, but Which Ones?

At last, here's an article that touches on something I've long noticed - that a disproportionate number of the black students enrolled at the most competitive colleges in America aren't actually of African-American heritage in the strictest sense of the term.

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — At the most recent reunion of Harvard University's black alumni, there was lots of pleased talk about the increase in the number of black students at Harvard.

But the celebratory mood was broken in one forum, when some speakers brought up the thorny issue of exactly who those black students were.

While about 8 percent, or about 530, of Harvard's undergraduates were black, Lani Guinier, a Harvard law professor, and Henry Louis Gates Jr., the chairman of Harvard's African and African-American studies department, pointed out that the majority of them — perhaps as many as two-thirds — were West Indian and African immigrants or their children, or to a lesser extent, children of biracial couples.

They said that only about a third of the students were from families in which all four grandparents were born in this country, descendants of slaves. Many argue that it was students like these, disadvantaged by the legacy of Jim Crow laws, segregation and decades of racism, poverty and inferior schools, who were intended as principal beneficiaries of affirmative action in university admissions.

What concerned the two professors, they said, was that in the high-stakes world of admissions to the most selective colleges — and with it, entry into the country's inner circles of power, wealth and influence — African-American students whose families have been in America for generations were being left behind.

"I just want people to be honest enough to talk about it," Professor Gates, the Yale-educated son of a West Virginia paper-mill worker, said recently, reiterating the questions he has been raising since the black alumni weekend last fall. "What are the implications of this?"


Researchers at Princeton University and the University of Pennsylvania who have been studying the achievement of minority students at 28 selective colleges and universities (including theirs, as well as Yale, Columbia, Duke and the University of California at Berkeley), found that 41 percent of the black students identified themselves as immigrants, as children of immigrants or as mixed race.

Douglas S. Massey, a Princeton sociology professor who was one of the researchers, said the black students from immigrant families and the mixed-race students represented a larger proportion of the black students than that in the black population in the United States generally. Andrew A. Beveridge, a sociologist at Queens College, says that among 18- to 25-year-old blacks nationwide, about 9 percent describe themselves as of African or West Indian ancestry. Like the Gates and Guinier numbers, these tallies do not include foreign students.

In the 40 or so years since affirmative action began in higher education, the focus has been on increasing the numbers of black students at selective colleges, not on their family background. Professor Massey said that the admissions officials he talked to at these colleges seemed surprised by the findings about the black students. "They really didn't have a good idea of what they're getting," he said.

But few black students are surprised. Sheila Adams, a Harvard senior, was born in the South Bronx to a school security officer and a subway token seller, and her family has been in this country for generations. Ms. Adams said there were so few black students like her at Harvard that they had taken to referring to themselves as "the descendants."

The subject, however, remains taboo among some college administrators. Anthony Carnevale, a former vice president at the Educational Testing Service, which develops SAT tests, said colleges were happy to the take high-performing black students from immigrant families.

"They've found an easy way out," Mr. Carnevale said. "The truth is, the higher-education community is no longer connected to the civil rights movement. These immigrants represent Horatio Alger, not Brown v. Board of Education and America's race history."
In fact, this tendency is even noticeable within the top schools, once one begins to look at things like SAT scores and GPAs - the more impressive the numbers, the greater the odds that their possessor is an African immigrant: in my years in college, virtually every single one of the black students I knew with SAT scores above 1400 was an African.

Now, one ought to keep in mind when talking about Affirmative Action that foreign students do not get to benefit from it - and in reality, at most elite colleges the foreign student body is of a much higher calibre than the rest of the students - so one shouldn't jump to the conclusion that all Africans are occupying AA spots that ought "rightfully" to have been taken up by the descendants of the victims of American racism. Even so, it still is true that of the permanent residents and US citizens who do get admitted to schools like Harvard and Yale, a very large proportion are individuals whose only real tie to the African-American experience is that they too just happen to be of the same skin color.

Whether a situation in which a program originally intended to benefit the descendants of the victims of American slavery and Jim Crow ends up primarily boosting the academic opportunities of the children of recent immigrants is acceptable depends greatly upon what one thinks Affirmative Action's intended effects ought to be. If the goal is to be able to say that there are black graduates of Brown and Stanford who are doing well in the larger world, so that they can serve as role models for black Americans of all origins, then such a situation is perfectly fine; if the goal remains to directly lift the descendants of America's exploited black citizens to a higher level, then the current state of affairs will likely seem far more problematic.