A Success Story: Immigrant Blacks In Colleges

Yet another statistical study reveals that the high school-age offspring of black immigrant families enroll in America’s elite colleges at a vastly higher rate proportionate to their numbers than the offspring of U.S.-born blacks, and even at a slightly higher rate than whites.

This latest study, published in the journal Sociology of Education (abstract here), raises one more time the question of who exactly are supposed to be the beneficiaries of the race-based “diversity” goals that are part of the admissions policies at all selective colleges, whether Ivy League or in the top tier of public institutions such as the University of Michigan and the University of California at Berkeley.

The study, conducted by researcher Pamela Bennett of Johns Hopkins University and Amy Lutz of Syracuse University, using data from the National Educational Study of 1988, found, first of all, that among all U.S. high school graduates, the offspring of immigrant blacks were slightly more likely to head for college than whites (75.1 percent compared with 72.5 percent) and far more likely than native blacks, only 60.2 percent of whom enrolled in college after graduation. When it came to top-ranked, academically selective colleges, immigrant blacks enrolled as freshman at the rate of 9.2 percent, compared with 7.3 percent for whites and only 2.4 percent for native blacks.

Bennett’s and Lutz’s findings comported with those in a 2007 study published in the American Journal of Education noting that while immigrants or their offspring made up only about 13 percent of black people aged 18 and 19, they made up 27 percent of black students their age at selective public and private colleges and 41 percent of black students attending Ivy League schools.

Earlier in the decade a Harvard University undergraduate researching her senior thesis had looked at the birthplaces of Harvard’s 530 or so black undergraduates (about 8 percent of the total number of Harvard undergrads) and found that only one-third hailed from families in which all four grandparents were born in the United States. Since one purpose of college admissions policies favoring blacks is to make up for disadvantages engendered by generations of slavery and Jim Crow segregation that included inferior schools, such findings provoked a debate about whether immigrant blacks, typically hailing from West Indian and African countries where blacks constitute the majority, should count in deciding whether a college was meeting its affirmative-action goals. Several academics argued that admissions officers at elite schools should effectively ignore higher-achieving immigrants and focus their affirmative-action efforts on native-born African-Americans so as “to correct a past injustice,” as Amherst College’s president, Anthony Marx, told the New York Times.

That course of action is one that most elite colleges have declined to take, however, and some of them, including Harvard itself, have actively discouraged examining the ancestry of their minority students. Lee Bollinger, president of Columbia University, who had vigorously defended affirmative action in two Supreme Court cases during his previous tenure as president of Michigan, insisted that country of origin was irrelevant to race-based admissions decisions and that the key issue was “whether you grow up black or white,” as he told the New York Times.

The reason for universities’ ancestry-blind stance when it comes to admitting blacks may lie in some of the other findings in Bennett’s and Lutz’s study: that the families of immigrant blacks tend to be more stable and more committed to their children’s education than those of native-born blacks. Bennett and Lutz found that both groups of blacks were generally poorer than whites, but that a greater percentage of immigrant blacks attending selective colleges came from two-parent families than their native African-American counterparts. Perhaps for that reason, their families were also generally better-off economically than those of native African-Americans. Furthermore, immigrant blacks at selective institutions were more likely to have attended private schools, indicating that their parents were ambitious enough for their children to scrape together tuition payments or encourage them to win scholarships to more academically focused environments than the chaotic inner-city high schools that many native African-American young people attend. The payoff in grades, test scores, and other achievements undoubtedly accounts for the overwhelming predominance of immigrant offspring among blacks attending top universities.

The top schools, in turn, get to pat themselves on the back for looking good, affirmative action-wise, by pointing to significant numbers of blacks in their student bodies, even though the immigrant families of those blacks have never suffered the sort of entrenched discrimination that affirmative action was supposed to remedy. This happy situation papers over the dismal, not-ready-for-the Ivy-League academic achievements of large numbers of native African-American young people and the role that dysfunctional inner-city culture clearly plays in narrowing their prospects. The Bennett-Lutz study is strong evidence that two-parent families and a home atmosphere shaped by economic and educational striving make a difference for young blacks.

Henry Louis Gates Jr., chairman of Harvard’s African and African-American studies department, has been in the news lately over his hyper-sensitivity to what he perceived as racial slights. But in 2004 Gates, who can trace his ancestry back to slaves, had something wise to say about the preponderance of offspring of immigrants among Harvard’s black undergraduates. “We need to learn what the immigrants’ kids have so we can bottle it and sell it, because many members of the African-American community, particularly among the chronically poor, have lost that sense of purpose and values which produced our generation,” he told the New York Times.

The Bennett-Lutz study tells us what those black immigrants’ kids have.

Charlotte Allen

Charlotte Allen blogs for the Los Angeles Times and writes frequently about cultural trends for the Weekly Standard.

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