In Diversity Push, Top Universities Enrolling More Black Immigrants
Critics Say Effort Favors Elite Foreigners, Leaves Out Americans
By Darryl Fears
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 6, 2007; A02
The nation’s most elite
colleges and universities are bolstering their black student
populations by enrolling large numbers of immigrants from Africa, the
West Indies and Latin America, according to a study published recently
in the American Journal of Education.
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 selective
universities, according to the study, produced by Princeton University
and the University of Pennsylvania.
The large representation
of black immigrants developed as schools’ focus shifted from
restitution for decades of excluding black Americans from campuses to
embracing wider diversity, the study’s authors said. The more elite the
school, the more black immigrants are enrolled.
“A lot of these
institutions have been promoting the increase in their black
populations, but clearly this increase reflects a growth in their black
immigrant populations,” said Camille Z. Charles, an associate professor
of sociology at the University of Pennsylvania who co-authored the
Black American scholars
such as Henry Louis Gates and Lani Guinier, two Harvard University
professors, have said that white educators are skirting long-held
missions to resolve historic wrongs against native black Americans by
enrolling immigrants who look like them.
In an interview, Guinier
said that the chasm has less to do with immigrants and more to do with
admissions officers who rely on tests that wealthier students,
including black immigrants, can afford to prepare for.
“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,”
Guinier said. “The fathers of these students tend to be much better
educated. This is not just true of immigrants from Africa and the
Caribbean, this is true across the board. We have an admissions system
that prefers wealth, that rewards wealth and calls it merit.”
Officials at several top
universities, including Harvard, the University of North Carolina and
Princeton, did not respond to calls or e-mail messages seeking comment
on the study.
The University of
Pennsylvania’s dean of admissions, Lee Stetson, said that although the
university takes note of students’ backgrounds, “we do not focus
specifically on whether students are Caribbean American, African
American or African. We do not involve ourselves with exact roots.
“They bring diversity to
the campus,” Stetson said. “We try to find students from all walks of
life, including African American students who have their roots in the
southeastern United States.”
The study relied on data
from the National Longitudinal Survey of Freshmen, which included 1,028
black students, 281 of whom were immigrants. Black immigrants were
defined as students who emigrated directly from Africa or the
Caribbean, including countries such as Guyana that are on the South
American continent and nations in the black diaspora or their
American-born sons and daughters.
Stanford, Duke, Columbia,
Vanderbilt and Harvard universities had the highest percentages of
black students in their fall 2006 freshman classes, according to the
Journal of Blacks in Higher Education. The percentage of black freshmen
at elite colleges and universities ranged from a high of 12.3 percent
at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill to 1.4 percent at
the California Institute of Technology.
The study’s authors
considered several possibilities to explain the large number of
immigrant students. They noted that black immigrants tend to come from
the uppermost classes of their native land and tend to be highly
motivated to succeed. The authors also considered that black immigrants
posted higher grades and test scores, and that admissions officers were
impressed by their work ethic.
But the final theory,
based on previous research by Nancy Foner and George M. Fredrickson,
who co-wrote a 2004 study on immigration, ethnicity and race, was the
“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.”
On campus, native black
Americans and immigrant students both embrace and wrestle with
diversity. At the University of Georgia, native black American and
African students met in the student union two years ago to discuss an
emotional topic, “Where’s the Africa in African American?” They were
quiet at first, senior Oluwatoyin Mayaki recalled, but with some
coaxing, the black American students spoke up.
“They were saying, ‘I
don’t think it’s fair that you get affirmative action like we do,’ ”
said Mayaki, the American daughter of Nigerian parents. ” ‘This country
was built on my parents’ backs, not on your parents’ backs. You didn’t
go through the years of slavery, discrimination or the civil rights
Mayaki counts many black
Americans as friends, but that was not always so. As a child, she was
steered away from black Americans by her protective Yoruban mother, who
emigrated from Nigeria in the 1980s.
“My mom wouldn’t let me go
next door for a sleepover with African American kids, but I could go
five houses down to Asian houses. I kind of got along better with
foreigners,” she said. “You don’t go to parties. You don’t go to
movies. You just study, stay at home, do your chores. My Indian and
Asian friends got it. All my other friends, they never got it.”
At Rutgers University in
New Jersey, Ghanaian immigrant Abena Busia said that drawing
distinctions between black Americans and Africans is divisive and
“What disturbs me . . . is
it immediately casts African Americans as unmotivated,” she said. “It’s
like a good Negro, bad Negro syndrome and I reject it. It creates more
problems than necessary. It’s also a myth.”
Busia grew up in Ghana’s
upper classes, was educated at Oxford University and received
additional education in the United States. Regardless, she said, U.S.
immigration laws were stacked against her and other ethnic immigrants.
“Look at me. Even with all
my degrees, when I adopted my daughter in Ghana it took more than seven
years to get her here,” she said. “They lost my papers twice. I had my
fingerprints taken three or four times. You have to do this and . . .
that. This country . . . has always been an inhospitable place for
Africans to enter.”