The language of culture obscures its limitations. From time seemingly immemorial, African Americans have fought within culture’s contradiction—to be oneself, and to be black. But there exist more nuances to the black community than the majority might think.
At the 2004 reunion of Harvard University’s black alumni, Lani Guinier, a Harvard law professor, and Henry Louis Gates, Jr., the chair of Harvard’s African and African-American studies department, broke the cordial atmosphere when they asserted that the black students at Harvard might not be the right ones.
While about 8 percent of Harvard undergraduates are black, these scholars pointed out that the majority of them—perhaps as many as two-thirds—are the products of recent Caribbean and African immigration. Thus, only a third of black students represent descendants of slaves, those disadvantaged by the legacy of Jim Crow, who were intended as the principal beneficiaries of affirmative action.
On Valentine’s Day, at a forum organized by Duke’s Reginaldo Howard Memorial Scholars, Professor William “Sandy” Darity, Jr., highlighted the challenges posed by this divisive topic. “It is no longer legitimate to think of the black population of the United States as ethnically undifferentiated,” he said.
In 2000, while Africans represented 1.6 percent of the American black population and Afro-Caribbeans 4.6 percent of this same population, Darity estimated that 30-50 percent of the black student population at Duke were individuals of families recently immigrated from Africa or the Caribbean. And while there has been no concrete study done to verify this assertion, black students at Duke can confirm its validity.
Why does all this matter? First, one has to ask if affirmative action measures were designed to help just those who suffer from the legacy of American slavery, or all those who suffer from current, ongoing racism practiced in our society. Because if affirmative action is to correct for existing discriminatory practices, then Africans and Caribbeans should certainly benefit. To most anti-black racists, black is black, regardless of one’s family history.
However, it can be argued persuasively that affirmative action should only benefit native blacks. The story of America is a story of immigrants—except for them. Coming to America with an education and a visa beats coming in chains, any day.
And this dichotomy bears itself out even for the poor, uneducated black immigrants in this country. The immigrant hypothesis would suggest that the desire to leave one’s own country for another self-selects the population we observe in the United States; thus, even if initially destitute, these immigrants have made the choice to live in America—an incredibly empowering decision, which exerts no small influence on their aspirations once within our borders. In short, these black immigrants visualize America as a land of opportunity, not one of struggle. They believe in the Dream.
Second, universities can assert that they have a significant black presence without it being a native one. “Wesleyan University systematically pursued a strategy of trying to move away from having native blacks in their population toward having black students of recent immigration,” Darity said, noting that admissions offices frequently perceive that immigrant families are less confrontational about race and other issues.
Third, anti-black racism in some African and Caribbean families—nurtured by the prevailing mindset of American white supremacy—reinforces the idea of native black cultural deficiency. The argument goes as follows: if we can do it, why can’t you?
The native black community in America faces a two-fold challenge: the socioeconomic burden of being one or two generations removed from de jure segregation and just a few more from slavery; and the psychological burden of being the only American group without claim to ancestral roots abroad.
Disaggregation of the black community on college applications will provide a starting point for understanding more precisely who comprises the “monolithic” black masses. But recognizing who should qualify for programs designed to correct historic inequality is another issue. To be sure, this subject hits at the core of the authenticity debate: who’s the realest, who’s the most down, who’s suffered the most.
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While these questions may not seem fruitful, they are necessary if we wish to ever move forward from America’s enduring debt to African Americans.
Philip Kurian is a Trinity senior. His column appears Mondays.