Posted on February 14, 2007

Affirmative Action Helps Immigrants Above Slave Descendants, Study Finds

Nathan Burchfiel,, Feb. 7, 2007

A new study suggests that black immigrants benefit from affirmative action policies in the U.S. more than descendents of slaves or African-Americans who suffered under Jim Crow laws.

The findings, published in the American Journal of Education, suggest that the original goal of affirmative action policies—to right past wrongs and provide opportunities to disadvantaged groups—is not being met because the policies focus on race instead of heritage.

Written by researchers from Princeton University and the University of Pennsylvania, the study found that while first- or second-generation immigrants make up only 13 percent of the 18- to 19-year-old black population, they comprise 27 percent of black freshmen entering 28 top colleges and universities.

The difference was most startling at the Ivy League level, where immigrant blacks comprise more than 40 percent of the incoming black population.


If the goal of affirmative action admissions policies is still to address injustices committed against slaves and the victims of the Jim Crow era, he added, the system should be adjusted to look at more than skin color.

“I think there was an over-emphasis on race as a master category in admissions, and it’s important to look at a broader picture looking at race, class, heritage, as well as simply skin color,” Massey said.

[Editor’s Note: The abstract for this study can be read here. A copy of the study is available at the same site.]

In a groundbreaking new study from the American Journal of Education, researchers from Princeton University and the University of Pennsylvania reveal that first- or second-generation immigrants comprise a disproportionately high percentage of the of Black student population at U.S. universities, with the percentage increasing in proportion to the selectivity of the institution. In the Ivy League, more than 40 percent of the Black population is of immigrant origin, despite comprising just 13 percent of the Black population overall.

In recent years, prominent African American intellectuals such as Henry Louis Gates Jr. have called attention to the perceived overrepresentation of children of immigrants among African Americans attending selective colleges and universities in the United States. This fact has become the focus of vigorous debate about the purposes of affirmative action in higher education and whether Blacks of immigrant origins—as opposed to Blacks who are the descendants of slaves—are the appropriate beneficiaries.

However, the debate has transpired largely in the absence of statistical information. Using data from the National Longitudinal Study of Freshman (NLSF), NLSF codirector Douglas Massey, Margarita Mooney, and Kimberly C. Torres (all of Princeton University), and Camille Z. Charles (University of Pennsylvania), found that overrepresentation of Black immigrants was greater in private than in public institutions. In addition, immigrants constituted 35 percent of the Black students at the ten most selective schools, but just 24 percent in the least selective schools in the survey. (The researchers defined students who had at least one parent born abroad as immigrants. Thus, many of the students defined as “native” may well have one or more immigrant grandparents.)

The researchers found few differences in social and economic origin between Black immigrant and Black native student groups, with one notable exception: Black immigrant fathers were far more likely to have graduated from college than native fathers, reflecting the fact that Africans and Afro-Caribbeans are the most educated immigrant group, with many originally coming to the Unites States to pursue a degree.

Perhaps as a result of this advantage, immigrant children were more likely to have attended private school, where they experienced lower exposure to violence and modestly more exposure to members of other racial groups.

However, once enrolled at the college or university, Black immigrants perform no better than their native counterparts, implying that the factors influencing the performance of Black students in higher education affect immigrants and natives alike.

“Ultimately, the data we have presented cannot answer the question of whether the children of Black immigrants are worthy beneficiaries of affirmative action, for the answer rests largely on a moral judgment,” conclude the authors. “All we can say is that, with several notable exceptions, Black immigrants and natives display similar traits and characteristics and, more important, evince equal levels of academic preparation. Whatever processes are happening on college campuses to depress Black academic performance below that of whites with similar characteristics, they function for immigrants as well as natives.”


Massey, Douglas S., Margarita Mooney, and Kimberly C. Torres, “Black Immigrants and Black Natives Attending Selective Colleges and Universities in the United States.” American Journal of Education: 113:2.