Black Immigrant Population at Elite Colleges Grows

A new study has found that black immigrants from Africa and the Caribbean are disproportionately represented at elite colleges and universities. A co-author of the study, Camille Charles, Associate Professor of Sociology at University of Pennsylvania, talks to Farai Chideya about race, immigration and affirmative action in the Ivy Leagues.

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FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

And out last headline comes from a campus near you. A new study shows that growing number of black college students are not African-American. They're immigrants or the children of immigrants from Africa and the Caribbean, and their numbers skyrocketed if you look just at Ivy League admissions. Now, some folks who look at racial progress in America are worried. Are the descendants of slaves losing out to people who are black but not black American?

We'll talk next to two Harvard university students. But first, Camille Charles co-authored the new study. She's a professor of sociology at the University of Pennsylvania. Welcome.

Professor CAMILLE CHARLES (Sociology, University of Pennsylvania): Hi. Thanks.

CHIDEYA: So Camille, I happened to go to Harvard University, and I am the daughter of an African man and a black American woman. First of all, how would I be drafted into your study?

Prof. CHARLES: If your father was born on the continent, then you would have been categorized as a second-generation immigrant.

CHIDEYA: Now, that's true in one way. But on the other side, I mean, I am descended from black Americans who've been here for generations. Does that cause a confusion in how you look at this issue?

Prof. CHARLES: Well, we were really interested in the potential for cultural differences and in particular the possibility that an immigrant parent would be sharing aspects of his or her home culture, but also sort of national ties that might prompt the child to identify with that particular country, so that a lot of the students in our immigrant category are there because on the self-identify question they identified as other and wrote in Jamaican or Haitian or Ghanaian.

CHIDEYA: That is definitely an increasing issue in American society, how people self-identify. So why don't we go to the numbers? What did your study find?

Prof. CHARLES: Well, we find that if roughly 13 percent of the U.S. population of college age was African or Caribbean, so either immigrants or children of immigrants in 1999, which was the year that we went into the field with this study, more than a quarter of the black students at the selective colleges that we studied were either immigrants or children of immigrants, so that they are roughly double their share of the general population in these colleges. And when you - as schools get more selective, the overrepresentation of immigrants and children of immigrants increases.

CHIDEYA: That's definitely a huge disparity. I know that Harvard has had some discussions about it, and whether or not this is a good thing or a bad thing. Did you go into this because there was already controversy or why did you decide to take a look at this?

Prof. CHARLES: No. In fact, a colleague and I were just doing a study really trying to understand minority underachievement in college. We chose selective colleges and universities because you'd have a bigger - a larger level of diversity in terms of social class status and other things that are known to impact achievement. And really, one of the unexpected findings that people really latched onto out of our first book was this overrepresentation of black immigrants at these colleges and universities. So it really was something we stumbled upon.

And in fact the statements by Henry Louis Gates and Lani Guinier at the Black Alumni Function at Harvard a couple of years ago really were about a year after our book came out and people kind of started talking about this.

CHIDEYA: Well, Camille, we're going to keep you with us and bring in some student perspectives.

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