Something in the crowd made Shirley Wilcher wonder. As a college graduate in the early 1970s, her black classmates were like herself—born in the United States, to American parents. But at an alumni reunion at Mount Holyoke College last year, she saw something different and asked for admissions data to prove it.
“My suspicions were confirmed,” said Wilcher, now the executive director of the American Association for Affirmative Action. She found a rise in the number of black students from Africa and the Caribbean, and a downturn in admissions of native blacks like her.
A study released this year put numbers on the trend. Among students at 28 top U.S. universities, the representation of black students of first- and second-generation immigrant origin (27 percent) was about twice their representation in the national population of blacks their age (13 percent). Within the Ivy League, immigrant-origin students made up 41 percent of black freshmen.
The researchers looked at data from a national survey of 1,028 freshmen at 28 top colleges and universities in 1999. The eight-year-old material was used because it was specially designed to help find reasons for underachievement by minorities at colleges and universities.
In terms of student background, it found few differences, noting only that far more black immigrant students had fathers with college or advanced degrees than did other black students.
But the authors suggested that the reason for high proportion of immigrant students may lie in how the students are perceived.
“To white observers, black immigrants seem more polite, less hostile, more solicitous, and ‘easier to get along with,’” the study said. “Native blacks are perceived in precisely the opposite fashion.”
That idea immediately found detractors.
One legal expert explained the bump in black immigrants by saying that now, decades since the civil rights movement’s peak, college diversity is aimed less at correcting American racial injustices and more at creating a variety of perspectives on campus.
Last month, a Harvard Black Students Association message board asked, “When we use the term ‘black community,’ who is included in this description?” A lively debate ensued, with some posters complaining that African students were getting an admissions boost without having faced the historical suffering of U.S. blacks.
The issue of native vs. immigrant blacks took hold at Harvard in 2004, when professors Henry Louis Gates and Lani Guinier pointed out at a black alumni reunion that a majority of attendees were of African or Caribbean origin. Gates and Guinier cited demographic information in the “Black Guide to Life at Harvard,” a survey of 70 percent of black undergraduates published by the BSA.