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Affirmative-Action Not Helping the Needy

Posted on Tuesday, 4th October 2011 @ 12:18 PM by Text Size A | A | A

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Ivy League Fooled: How America’s
Top Colleges Avoid Real Diversity

 

harvard

Back in March, as colleges began to herald their newly admitted classes
for PR purposes, the Ivy League schools got to patting themselves on
the back.

The Harvard
Gazette
bragged
that Harvard’s newest batch of accepted
students included record numbers of blacks and Latinos. Brown said its
admitted class was “the most racially … diverse“ in the school’s
centuries-long history.  Dartmouth
shared actual percentages
, declaring that a full 44 percent of its
newest class was composed of students of color. Coincidentally, that was
the same
percentage
of minorities in Penn’s freshman class.

Numbers
like these might lead someone to believe that diversity is no longer an
issue at America’s most elite colleges. Like everyone else, students of
color have long strived to make it to the Ivy League, where the
education and connections can set a person up for life. Now, evidently,
huge numbers of minorities are getting their chance. When nearly half of
an Ivy League school’s accepted class is made up of people of
color—America as a whole is only 47
percent non-white
(PDF)—aren’t we nearing perfect equality? If only.

It turns out the Ivy League’s racial diversity stats are only half the
story. People in search of egalitarianism at places like Harvard and
Columbia shouldn’t just be asking what color students are, but where
they’re from, too.

Call it the Ivy League’s dirty little secret:
While America’s most elite colleges do in fact make it a point
to promote ethnic diversity on their campuses, a lot of them do so by
admitting hugely disproportionate numbers of wealthy immigrants and
their children rather than black students with deep roots—and troubled
histories—in the United States.

The problem, of course, isn’t
that black immigrants are going to Ivy League schools in large numbers;
educational success should be applauded no matter where the student is
from. But the large numbers of African immigrants on American college
campuses, coupled with the remarkably small numbers of native blacks on
those same campuses, calls into question the effectiveness of America’s
affirmative action programs. While affirmative action started as a
system to right the wrongs of slavery and institutional anti-black
racism, helping wealthy immigrants who weren’t here for those struggles
doesn’t serve any of the program’s original intentions.

“Very few
black students [at Harvard] were able to be categorized under the term
‘just black,’” says Joy Alison Cooper. Cooper graduated from Harvard in
2006 and is now a Fogarty Scholar doing clinical research in Nairobi,
Kenya. “There was an overrepresentation of Africans,” she says, “and
specifically Nigerians. Nigerians were so numerous that in my senior
year, my best friend helped start the Nigerian Students Association.”

The statistics are striking: Though African immigrants, many of them
from Nigeria and Ghana, make up less
than 1 percent
of America’s total population, first- and
second-generation black immigrants comprise 41 percent of all black
students at Ivy League schools, according to 2007 research
from teams at Princeton and Penn. Another study, this one published in Sociology
of Education
in 2009
, found that immigrant blacks attended
select colleges at almost four times the rate of native-born African
Americans. Outside of the Ivy League, almost 44 percent of African
immigrants graduated from a four-year college, compared to just
18 percent
of native blacks.

None of this would matter if
black Americans and their immigrant counterparts were gunning for the
Ivies from a level playing field. But they’re not. Data shows that
African immigrants, Nigerians in particular, are far wealthier and more
highly educated than many Americans of any race. In 2000, when the
median household income for African Americans was about
$30,000
, the median income for Nigerian immigrant families was more
than $45,000
(PDF). Where education is concerned, in 2007, African
immigrants were likelier
to have obtained a college or graduate
degree than any other immigrant population, and 20 percent likelier than
the U.S. population as a whole.

It’s easy to chalk these numbers
up to the myth that immigrants work harder than native blacks, but
studies say that’s wrong. According to the aforementioned sociological
research from 2009, immigrant students don’t value education more than
native blacks or perform significantly better academically. Rather, they
have the financial resources required to get a leg-up into the highest
echelons of academia.

“When we compare immigrant blacks to
African Americans from similar family socioeconomic backgrounds, we find
no significant differences between them in their chances of attending
college,” says Pamela Bennett, one of the study’s authors and an
assistant professor at Johns Hopkins. “Our findings indicate that
[African immigrants] have greater resources, in the form of family
structure and private school attendance, that are universally helpful in
providing opportunities to go to college.” (“Family structure” means
that African immigrants are less likely to live in single-parent
households than native blacks.)

Teresa Wiltz, senior editor of
black politics and culture website The
Root
, graduated from Dartmouth in the 1980s. She says that a lot of
her black peers did benefit from programs helping low-income minorities,
but the African immigrants with whom she went to school were very
affluent. “There was a group of Ethiopian students there, two of whom
were the relatives of [Ethiopian Emperor] Haile Selassie,” she tells me.
“Yes, they came from highly privileged backgrounds, but they were also
exiles thanks to the revolution there. There was also a group of
Ghanaian students—all men.”

Emails and phone calls to Brown,
Yale, and Princeton requesting interviews about their admissions
processes went unanswered. Emails to members and former members of
Harvard’s Nigerian Student’s Association also went unanswered. Harvard
senior communications officer Jeff Neal wrote in an email, “Harvard
College seeks to admit the most interesting, able, and diverse class
possible, regardless of individual background. … There are no quotas of
any kind. We rely on teachers, counselors, headmasters, and alumni to
share information with us about applicants’ strength of character, their
ability to overcome adversity, and other personal qualities—all of
which play a part in admissions decisions.”

In his book The
Trouble With Diversity: How We Learned to Love Identity and Ignore
Inequality
, University of Illinois at Chicago English professor
Walter Benn Michaels laments that colleges have abandoned real
affirmative action programs in order to promote a more general sense of
diversity, which presumes that all black people are alike regardless of
income or place of birth. “The trouble with
diversity
… is not just that it won’t solve the problem of economic
inequality,” he writes, “it’s that it makes it hard for us to even see
the problem.”

For her part, Cooper, the Harvard graduate, says
what she observed in black immigrant students wasn’t more smarts or a
lot more money, but a will to succeed that hadn’t been quashed by
decades of oppression. “Descendants of slaves came here on a ship as
chattel, not on a plane or inner tube with hopes of an American dream,”
she says. “Honestly, I believe it’s difficult to strive for better when
you already live in what people name the American dream, but what you
have lived is a nightmare.”

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