Does the Black College Population Reflect America? Douglas Massey, a professor of sociology at Princeton University, is co-author of a study that examines how the number of black college students in the United States does not truly represent the African-American population.
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Does the Black College Population Reflect America?

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Does the Black College Population Reflect America?

Does the Black College Population Reflect America?

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This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

Coming up, demystifying Masons. But first, in 1961, President John Kennedy first introduced the concept of affirmative action as a way to redress past discrimination against African-Americans. Four years later, President Lyndon Johnson began to enforce it and explained his intentions at Howard University's commencement.

(Soundbite of archived speech)

President LYNDON JOHNSON: You do not take a person who, for years, has been hobbled by chains and liberate him, bringing up to the starting line of a race, and then say, you are free to compete with all the others. And still justly believe that you have been completely fair. Thus, it is not enough just to open the gates of opportunity. All our citizens must have the ability to walk through those gates.

SIMON: That was 1965. Sometime in the 1970s, the concept of affirmative action began to shift from creating a level playing field for the victims of discrimination to creating diversity in workplaces and schools. As a result, black college students are not now representative of the black American population as a whole. More than a quarter of those students are foreign born, are the children of immigrants. At Ivy League Schools, the number is 40 percent.

Douglas Massey, professor of sociology in public affairs at Princeton University, is the co-author of a recent study that examines these changes. He joins us from Princeton. Thank you for being with us.

Professor DOUGLAS MASSEY (Sociology and Public Affairs, Princeton University): A pleasure to be here.

SIMON: What are some of the factors at play, do you think, that led to this?

Prof. MASSEY: Well, I think in the United States race is what sociologists call a master status, so people see race and they see very little else. So when admissions officers are searching for black students to adhere to their commitments to affirmative action, they simply saw well-qualified black students. And they didn't ask how they came to be qualified or where they came from. They don't observe immigrant origins necessarily. And this all happened, kind of, under the radar without people even being aware of it.

SIMON: When you refer to immigrants in the black student population, maybe we ought to be specific, you mean a combination of African students or youngsters coming from Caribbean families?

Prof. MASSEY: About 43 percent of the students that we interviewed in our study were from the Caribbean region, about 29 percent were from Africa - or their parents were - and about seven percent from Latin America.

SIMON: Did you find any significant differences when you looked at, let's say, the high school records of youngsters from immigrant families versus African-American students?

Prof. MASSEY: Immigrant origin black students were much more likely to go to private schools and much more likely to go to parochial schools. And the schools that they attended were somewhat more integrated than native origin African-Americans.

SIMON: And any differences in the records once they're in college?

Prof. MASSEY: Once they're in college, they seem to earn comparable grade rates. The grades they earn are about the same as other African-American students, and both groups display significantly lower grades than whites and Asians.

SIMON: Any feeling you have as to what some of the factors that might be responsible for that are?

Prof. MASSEY: Oh yeah. A lot of work we've done point to the issue of stereotype threat, which is basically every time an African-American student or a black student generally is called upon to perform academically in a public way, it's a very threatening situation because of the stereotype of black intellectual inferiority.

Everyone, when they perform, runs the risk of failure. But if you're a black student, you not only fail individually, but you fulfill a very negative stereotype about your group. And the added pressures that this involved, both internally and externally, have been shown in a variety of studies to significantly undermine black performance.

The other factor is the continuing consequences of segregation. We still live in a very residentially segregated society and our school system is quite highly segregated. And students who came of age under segregated circumstances experienced on average a lower - less preparation for college and were exposed to higher levels of disorder and violence when they were growing up.

And their family networks, even while they're in school, extend back into a segregated world where violence and disorder are more common. And all these things combined to continue to undermine their performance.

SIMON: Douglas Massey, professor of sociology and public affairs at Princeton. Professor, thanks very much.

Prof. MASSEY: Thank you. It's a pleasure.

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