As black immigrants collect degrees, is affirmative action losing direction?

March 20, 2007

WASHINGTON -- Do African immigrants make the smartest Americans? The question may sound outlandish, but if you were judging by statistics alone, you could find plenty of evidence to back it up.

In a side-by-side comparison of 2000 census data by sociologists including John R. Logan at the State University of New York, Albany, black immigrants from Africa averaged the highest educational attainment of any population group in the country, including whites and Asians.

For example, 43.8 percent of African immigrants had earned a college degree, compared with 42.5 of Asian-Americans, 28.9 percent of immigrants from Europe, Russia and Canada, and 23.1 percent of the U.S. population as a whole.

That defies the usual stereotypes of Asian-Americans as the only "model minority." Yet the traditional American narrative has rendered the high academic achievements of black immigrants from Africa and the Caribbean invisible, as if that were a taboo topic.

Instead, we should take a closer look. That was my reaction in 2004 after black Harvard law professor Lani Guinier and Henry Louis Gates Jr., chairman of Harvard's African-American studies department, stirred up a black Harvard alumni reunion with questions about where the university's new black students were coming from.

About 8 percent, or about 530, of Harvard's undergraduates were black, Mr. Gates and Ms. Guinier said, but somewhere between one-half and two-thirds of the black students were "West Indian and African immigrants or their children, or to a lesser extent, children of biracial couples."

If we take a closer look, I said at the time, I bet we'd find that Harvard is not alone. With all of the ink and airwaves that have been devoted to immigration these days, black immigrants remain remarkably invisible. Yet their success has long followed the patterns of other high-achieving immigrants.

Now comes a study that finds a consistent pattern of Ivy League and other elite colleges and universities boosting their black student populations by enrolling large numbers of immigrants from Africa, the West Indies and Latin America.

Immigrants, who make up 13 percent of the nation's college-age black population, account for more than a fourth of black students at Ivy League and other selective universities, according to the study of 28 colleges and universities published recently in the American Journal of Education. The proportion of immigrants was higher at private institutions, 28.8 percent, than at public colleges, where they made up 23.1 percent of enrollment.

Are elite schools padding their racial diversity numbers with black immigrants who do not have a history of American slavery in their families? This development calls into question whether affirmative action admission policies are fulfilling their original intent.

But, as Walter Benn Michaels, a professor of English at the University of Illinois, Chicago, writes in his book The Trouble With Diversity, the original intent of affirmative action morphed in the 1970s from reparations for slavery into the promotion of a broader virtue: "diversity." Since then, it no longer seems to matter how many of our colleges' black students have slavery in their families. It only matters that they're black.

That said, I don't begrudge black immigrants or any other high-achieving immigrants for their impressive achievements. I applaud them. I encourage more native-born American children, particularly my own child, to take similar advantage of this country's hard-won opportunities.

But I also think we need to revisit the question of diversity. Unlike our system of feel-good game-playing, we need to focus on the deeper question of how opportunities can be opened to everyone who was left behind by the civil rights revolution. We tend to look too often at every aspect of diversity except economic class.

Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune. His column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun. His e-mail is cptime@aol.com.

Columnist Trudy Rubin is on vacation.

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