Tuesday, 21 April 2009

Higher education in the US and a different kind of anti-immigrant sentiment

In an article at The Root last week, Keith Adkins, quoting the Journal of Blacks in Higher Education (JBHE), highlighted a new study published by the journal Sociology of Education. The study finds that Black immigrants to the US and their children are "significantly more likely to enroll at highly selective colleges and universities than blacks who are descendants of African slaves." Their data suggest that 75 percent of first- or second-generation Black immigrants enrolled in university after high school, versus 72 percent for White students and 60 percent of Black students whose families had been resident in the US beyond two generations. A similar trend holds for enrolment at the country's most selective universities.

Both the Root and the JBHE article then question
..whether immigrant blacks should benefit from the race-based affirmative action admissions programs at these selective colleges. A few years ago Harvard Law School professor Lani Guinier questioned whether “in the name of affirmative action we should be admitting people because they look like us and then they don’t identify with us.”

There are several problems with this discussion. First, according to the JBHE article, the study makes a distinction between African and Caribbean students (and a note to Adkins at the Root and others: I have never in my life heard a person from the Caribbean refer to herself as "a Caribbean". So just stop that.) and "blacks who are descendants of African slaves", which makes me wonder who, according to them, are the forefathers of Caribbean Black people. The US doesn't have the only legacy of slavery. There are descendants of slaves all over the world, and the Caribbean has large numbers. Furthermore, the African continent and its people are still suffering the effects of the slave trade; many of them may not be descendants of slaves, but they are descendants of slavery, and have inherited a land and culture that was repeatedly plundered in order to build and sustain the United States and other White empires. The Caribbean was also used as a stopover for slaves who were later transported to other colonies, including the US. So it is certainly possible that my grandmother then went on to be owned by an American landowner. So while the US may arguably not have an identical duty to these immigrants as it does to Black Americans, the labour of whose forefathers directly built the country, it does have some responsibility to make restitution for the global effects of the slave trade, which didn't have such neatly drawn geographical and other lines as these articles are suggesting.

Second, the argument that "many of these immigrant and "second-generationers" are not interested in identifying with "African-Americans" yet continue to benefit from affirmative action" smacks terribly of regular, White mainstream anti-immigrant sentiment, which purports that once someone lands on the shores of the United States, he must immediately renounce his own heritage and culture and run gleefully into the arms of American culture. That argument applied to Black immigrants with regard to African-American culture is just as xenophobic and presumptuous as it is when made of Asian, Hispanic and other immigrants with respect to White American culture. There is no difference. Caribbean people have a culture of which we are proud, and a history that has made us who we are today. Your history of slavery and freedom does not trump our history of slavery and freedom. Because some of us may identify more with calypso and reggae than with hip-hop does not mean that we do no also acknowledge the shared struggle of all descendants of slavery. When I write about the Obama era (scroll down for all posts), Haiti's violation of women and Zimbabwe's fall under a despotic leader, it is because I consider these all my issues as a Black woman. I identify with you on my own terms, thanks. Not on yours. I already have an identity, and I have my own struggle, parts of which we share as Black people, but other parts of which we do not.

And as is true of other groups of immigrants, African and Caribbean immigrants are also subject to the process of acclimatization which might maintain them in their own groups for a period of time while they come to terms with their new situation. Or they may simply feel more secure in their own communities, because as some African Americans may not appreciate, it's often no fun out there for an immigrant. But even so, I'm not sure how much credit I give this argument of non-integration, particularly with Caribbean people. While there are Caribbean associations on American campuses, as there should be, the majority of Caribbean people I know who have attended university in the US do become involved in the shared issues of Black Americans. But the fact is, not all issues are shared, and you cannot assume that we will cast off all our struggles simply to fight only yours. That then becomes a new form of appropriation and colonization in which Black Americans are the new masters and Black immigrants are the owned. And we will not allow that.

All this said, there are certain parts of this argument, obnoxious though it may appear, that I understand. Any system that is meant to benefit Black Americans but maintains them in a similar position to that which obtained before that system existed needs to be examined. (Although I'm not sure that this is the case. Those interpreting the study seem to suggest that in absolute terms, it is unacceptable that a group of Black people other than Black Americans achieve higher rates of matriculation, rather than holding Afr. Am. matriculation against a historical benchmark.) And it is true that certainly in the case of the Caribbean, those who migrate for academic purposes are not the poorest in those countries. They are not the poorest, but in many cases they are also not the wealthiest. Certainly in the case of Barbados, many people from very humble beginnings are able to access education abroad based on their own achievement at home. But I see no value in pointing fingers at groups of people who are taking advantage of opportunities provided them, especially opportunities that are arguably due them, though perhaps not on the same scale as they are due Americans. If the system of affirmative action is failing Black Americans, it should not be remedied at the expense of other Black descendants of slavery, some of whom are incidentally also Black Americans. It should be addressed so as to envelop the still marginalized without disenfranchising a second time the (in this context at least) previously marginalized.


  1. I believe there is a very simple reason why people of the West Indies do better, all of their lives they are surrounded by faces of stuccessful blacks. The doctors,lawyers,business owners, teachers etc are for the most part black and they are therefore not faced with some of the worst racial stigmatizations that north American blacks are.

  2. 1) Yes yes...what IS the true goal of affirmative action: reparations, diversity or equal (proportionate) opportunity for blacks? Hmmm...
    2) Let us sit and continue to bicker the semantics of "When did our particular boat land in America" while the other races laugh at the "Negroes" and "Negritos" who still can't get it together!

  3. Renee: I think 'simple' does apply to the reason Caribbean students do well, but it is not the one you mention. The fact is that the people who tend to go abroad are already academically-minded students who have performed well. So we end up comparing above average students from the Caribbean with the average African American student, and in such a comparison, it will appear as if Caribbean students do better. If it were as simple as your reason, all Caribbean people would be outstanding students, which is obviously not the case.

    It is true that there is a different and more immediate racialized pressure brought to bear on African American young people that in many cases maintains their underperformance, and that is tied to the presence of an overwhelming majority of a White, privileged population. But as you know, minority is not just a question of numbers, but also of power and opportunity. Black people are a numerical majority in many Caribbean populations, but because of a small, White, power-majority population that has always existed, deal with similar issues to minorities in other places. And race-based factors do not occur in a vacuum, but, along with class; relative geographical size, position and power in the global architecture; gender, etc., act to reinforce poverty and lack of education and economic opportunity. This does not cease to be true in the Caribbean because we have immediate examples of successful Black people.

    This is of course not a competition: there are certain institutionalized, constantly reinforced and ever-present stigmas associated with growing up Black in America, including over the last 40 years, that are uniquely damaging. But the reality of growing up Black in the Caribbean is also not as simple as people indicate.

    Small Toe: The question of the goal of affirmative action is what those interpreting the study should be asking, I think. It would be a useful conversation to have.

  4. Marsha, I really do think you should consider Renee's view on this one. Now that Obama is president, black kids really do see their opportunities as different. All the teachers are saying how inspiring he is. This is true... but they as teachers want slapping because they never did anything to inspire these students are to empower them to think that they could do what he did.

    As for not identifying with them.... sure as heck don't. Now granted, my experience of residing in the USA is tinted by doing so in the rural south. The blacks here think that the only black experience is theirs. Jim Crow is not dead because they will not let him. They believe that everything that happens to them is because of discrimination. So if I fail your child, it is because of racism ( I think they missed the point where my skin was also brown) and not because your child did jack all in class. The whites here also assume a lot about me because of their experiences with blacks over their years. For one, they assume I am not going to like them or my parents will not be tolerant of my friendship with them. I do not identify with the race experience in this country at all.

    Oh, and by the way, many of my college-educated peers did not know that black Caribbean people were the descendents of slaves.

    As for affirmative action, I actually have a problem with it. It is not helping minorities to achieve their full potential because it lowers the standard for them. Have you heard about this case of the 20 white firefighters from Connecticut who are suing because the test they studied for and passed was deemed null and void because no blacks passed? Based on what I see, that does not surprise me. All of this wishy washy nonsense that passes for education because people are afraid of discriminating against these black children/people only serves to make them weak and maintain the status quo. Iron sharpens iron. If you want what they have, be able to do what they can do.

    Furthermore, I do not agree that it is just academically gifted Caribbean people who come here and do well. I have seen time and time again where students who are not doing well at home come here and excel. This system makes it doable for you. I think that coming from a culture where things are made difficult for you that we come and think "are you kidding me????". All my ex used to say was "Kerry, free money! Everywhere! You would mash up up here!" He left Bim failing.

    Anyhow, this is a discussion we really would have to have in person, because I could go on. Thanks for the stimulation though...

  5. Thanks for the comments, Kerry. Actually, much of what you say is not in disagreement with my position. And I also don't disagree with Renee. I just question that it is the 'simple' or main reason Caribbean people do well. I think it's an oversimplification of our racial and other dynamics.

    And I do realize that Obama's election has given many people a sense of potential. I haven't said otherwise and I've said that in many other posts. "The blacks here think that the only experience is theirs." is practically what I've said in the post myself. You're actually agreeing with me in terms of not identifying. My argument is that you don't have to.

    Of course it's not just academically gifted people who do well, but I think that is is academically DRIVEN people who tend to be the majority of Caribbean students abroad. Academically driven and gifted are not the same thing. But either way, you are not comparing the avg. Caribbean student with the avg. American student, (especially the Caribbean students who leave for the purpose of education, rather than who migrate with family and enter the education system at a younger age). You can't be. If you break the numbers down into first vs. second generation immigrants, then yes that shifts somewhat. And as for not knowing the Caribbean people are descendants of slaves, well, yes. Clearly that's what led to the misleading language of the research. In general, not to be obtuse but there's very little of what you say that disagrees with the message of the post. But please correct me if I'm missing it.

    The usefulness of affirmative action as a policy for Black Americans is a separate argument that I don't think there's an easy answer to. But your points on that are well taken.


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