Black Harvard Students Discuss Immigration Divide

Jason Lee, head of Harvard's Black Student Association, and Amara Omeokwe, a Harvard junior whose parents came to the United States from Nigeria, talk to Farai Chideya about how native blacks and immigrants relate on campus. Camille Charles, Associate Professor of Sociology at University of Pennsylvania, and co-author of a new study looking at the number of black immigrants at colleges, joins the discussion.

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FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

We've got Jason Lee. He was president of the Harvard Black Students Association until last week, descends from a long line of black Americans transferred from Morehouse College, actually. And with him is Amara Omeokwe, former vice president of the Association of Black Harvard Women. She is also finishing her junior year, like Jason. And she was born in the U.S., grew up in the Bronx, but her parents came from Nigeria.

So welcome guys.

Mr. JASON LEE (Harvard Student): Great to be here, Farai.

Ms. AMARA OMEOKWE (Harvard Student): Hi. Thanks for having us.

CHIDEYA: So I'm going to start with you guys both - Amara first and then Jason. Do you feel a tension between the African-American and the African or Caribbean communities, Amara?

Ms. OMEOKWE: I would say for the most part no, at Harvard. I think that black students at Harvard, regardless of origin, are generally really cooperative and really try to work with each other academically, socially, politically. I would say we're a pretty united community.

CHIDEYA: Jason, you came from Morehouse. So that's obviously a context that probably has - I mean it's a historically black college. And you probably also had a lot more black American students there. What's your perception of Harvard?

Mr. LEE: I think Harvard is definitely a unique environment. I think the definition of what it means to be black at Harvard is more varied and more diverse. We have people from the full spectrum of the socio-economic levels. And we also have people from a wide range of ethnicities. And so we start from a different point in how we work together and how we interact with each other.

But on the flipside of that, there also is room for great strength and learning from each other and, you know, developing respect for cultures. And when we can combine to facilitate dialogue, I think we derive a lot of strength and a lot of growth from that.

CHIDEYA: Amara, when I went to Harvard there were certainly black students from Africa and from the Caribbean, but I don't think there were as many as there are today. What's your sense of how things have changed over time? Do you have any sense that there are more people who were of African descent, African being from the continent, and Caribbean descent?

Ms. OMEOKWE: Yes, I would say that there are a lot of people, students here who are of African descent and Caribbean descent, but I would say more African descent. And I think that has definitely increased over time. But I really think that one of the problematic areas with this topic is that the focus is always on the numbers of - people of African and Caribbean descent rather than the lack of numbers of people of black American descent. And I think the issue is often looked at as problematic, but solutions are never really posed to the issue.

CHIDEYA: So Jason, listening to Amara, do you think that it's a situation where African-descended students are being stereotyped like, oh, there's too many of you, as oppose to saying, well, there's just not enough black American students?

Mr. LEE: I think that's a good question. I think due to how our community is structured, I don't think there's a lot of animosity towards African or Caribbean students on behalf of all black Americans; more so concern about what the issues are, why they're not defined, why Harvard and other Ivy League schools aren't making a greater effort to understand these issues and correct any type of overrepresentation what have you, similar to what you would do if you have other type of diversity needs.

For instance, if you were trying to diversify the region from which Harvard drew its students, it would be one thing to get people from the South, and it be another thing to get people from the South who all went to boarding school in the Northeast. That would be counter-intuitive to your goals. And so if you have certain goals within diversity or within different affirmative action policies, then you want to look closely and analytically at them so you can determine exactly how effective you are and what can be done to correct it if your not being as effective as you would like.

CHIDEYA: Camille, let me bring you back into this conversation. Given what you've studied, how are people using your data? What are people looking for from the kind of information that you brought to the table?

Professor CAMILLE CHARLES (Sociology, University of Pennsylvania): Well, I think they are sort of looking for answers. It's hard, you know, to pinpoint sort of when this started. But certainly I think that as the definition of affirmative action changed to sort of incorporate diversity for it's own sake and sort of benefiting everybody, which I think is an important thing for colleges and universities to do. I firmly believe that the more exposure we have to all kinds of people, the better that is for everyone.

The other thing, I think, to take into account is that if you also think about affirmation action as continuing to be necessary because there is still prejudice and discrimination, then it really doesn't matter where black people come from because all black people continue to face prejudice and discrimination in U.S. society. So again, even if you're making an affirmative action argument, I think there is room for black immigrants and the children of immigrants in that debate. I think Jason makes a very good point. It's not so much that black students are arguing among themselves or feeling, you know, competition from one another.

It really is a source of concern that one segment of the black population, because, you know, by and large, this is a group that gets along very well. They create friendships. They create social and political coalitions and all sorts of things in order to get what they need from their universities. I think there is just some concern that one subset is that community is sort of being left behind and why is that happening. And if you think the rest of the society, there are these general stereotypes that black immigrants are preferable to, you know, multi-generational African-American, as I like to call them, because the children of immigrants are natives.

CHIDEYA: Well, Camille, we're going to have to leave it there. And, unfortunately, Jason and Amara, we're going to have to leave it there too. But I hope we can catch up with you guys soon. Thank you, everyone.

Prof. CHARLES: Thank you.

Ms. OMEOKWE: Thank you.

CHIDEYA: From WXPN in Philadelphia, we had Camille Charles, professor of sociology at the University of Pennsylvania. And from WGBH in Boston, we had Jason Lee and Amara Omeokwe, finishing their junior years at Harvard.

(Soundbite of music)

CHIDEYA: Just ahead, our African Update with Charlayne Hunter-Gault and the UN lifts a ban on Liberian diamonds.

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