Black Immigrant Study Puts Spotlight Back on Affirmative Action Debate

One of the authors of a new study on the disproportionately high number of immigrants among Blacks attending U.S. colleges and universities says “there is no cause for alarm if diversity in higher education is what most matters. But for affirmative action values, it is problematic.”

According to “Black Immigrants and Black Natives Attending Selective Colleges and Universities in the United States” published in the American Journal of Education by Princeton University and University of Pennsylvania researchers, first- or second-generation immigrants comprise a disproportionately high percentage of the Black student population at U.S. universities, with the percentage increasing in proportion to the selectivity of the institution. More than 40 percent of the Black population at Ivy League colleges are of immigrant origin, despite comprising just 13 percent of the Black population overall.

The report raises important questions about diversity in higher education and affirmative action, says co-author Dr. Camille Charles, a faculty associate director at Penn’s Center for Africana Studies.

“For affirmative action values, it’s problematic,” she says. “It is more severe in selective schools, where immigrants are more privileged in terms of admissions.”

But if “diversity is what most matters, then this is interesting… but not any cause for alarm.”

Since little research has been done on the topic to date, the report documents similarities and differences between the Black American and Black immigrant populations. The disparity in college attendance, particularly at the nation’s premier universities, first gained national attention in 2003, when Harvard University professors Lani Guinier and Dr. Henry Louis Gates Jr. noted that of the university’s 530 Black undergraduates in 2003-2004, only about 180 could claim a completely Black American heritage.

Using data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Freshmen, the report found that 27 percent of the Black freshmen entering 28 selective colleges were first- or second-generation immigrants. That percentage rose when looking at private institutions. Forty-one percent of Black freshmen at Columbia, Penn, Princeton and Yale universities — the only Ivy League schools in the study — were of immigrant origin.

Just more than 43 percent of the Black immigrants surveyed hailed from the Caribbean, with 28.6 percent coming from Africa and 7.4 percent from Latin America. Jamaica (20.5 percent) and Nigeria (17.3 percent) were the home countries of the most students. The report’s authors note that both countries are “former British colonies where the educated classes speak English.”

The researchers also found few differences in socioeconomic origins between Black immigrant and Black American student groups, except for the fact that Black immigrant fathers were far more likely to have graduated from college than native fathers. Many of the Black immigrant fathers originally came to the Unites States to pursue a degree, the report says. While the author’s suggest that parental roles, schooling, religion and higher test scores for Black immigrant students play a role in the attendance disparity, Charles says there is no good evidence to suggest that a cultural affinity towards education may give Black immigrants an advantage over their African-American counterparts.

“Immigrants generally are going to have a heightened concern for upward mobility because they are doing so to improve their economic futures,” she says. “But I am not convinced that immigrants value education more. The American society that immigrants encounter is different from that which disadvantaged groups encounter. Immigrants get cut some slack. They work to maintain their ethnic heritage, so they can be treated differently from native Americans.”

By Shilpa Banerji

 

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