‘Who Counts as a Black Student’ Is Not a New Debate

Ifeyinwa Onyenekwu and Chrystal A. George Mwangi offer context behind a recent debate at Cornell University.

November 27, 2017

On Sept. 20, the Black Students United organization at Cornell University presented a letter to university president, Martha Pollack, demanding a campus environment that is safe and supportive for black students. One of the demands requested “a plan to actively increase the number of underrepresented black students on this campus,” defining underrepresented black students as “black Americans who have several generations (more than two) in this country.”

The debate regarding who counts as a black student in U.S. higher education is not new. Thirteen years ago, Harvard professors at a black alumni event stated, “The majority of them [black students at Harvard], perhaps as many as two-thirds, are West Indian and African immigrants or their children.” Almost annually there is a news article highlighting the success of a black high school student who is accepted to every Ivy League institution -- often followed by the question of whether this student is of American or immigrant origin.

As faculty members whose research focuses on diverse black populations in higher education, we see this revived debate as focused on the wrong questions and the wrong framing. Black immigrants are not unicorns -- magical beings reflecting a fantasized postracial society that transcends racist U.S. structures. They are wrongly used by universities and media outlets to undermine critiques of structural racism and oppression as well as to reify tensions among native and immigrant blacks. An article following the Cornell incident clearly demonstrates this, in its misleading and divisive title, “Cornell University Black Student Group Complains of Too Many African, Caribbean Students.”

We refuse to play into this construction of the racial wedge that uses “model” racial group stereotypes to subvert the real and lasting effects of systemic racism. White supremacy is a global phenomenon, and the racial wedge reinforces cultural racism and racial-ethnic hierarchies. Instead, we focus on four important considerations in understanding the presence of transnational black bodies in American higher education. We offer context and focus on how universities can create safe spaces, access and support for all black students.

The Presence of Black Immigrants in the U.S. Didn’t ‘Just Happen’

Around the time when many African and Caribbean countries were gaining their independence from European countries, the U.S. passed the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965. This policy had a major role in U.S. demographic shifts. By removing immigration restrictions that discriminated against non-Northern Europeans, this policy unintentionally increased the migration of diverse black populations to the U.S. By focusing immigration policy on the skilled and educated, the U.S. continues to benefit from black immigrants’ human capital, which has further developed this country into a major international superpower. Yet this has been at the expense of African and African diaspora countries experiencing brain drain. Given this context, defining blackness in the U.S. is complex, and universities will have a hard time trying to contend with its slipperiness.

Antiblackness in the U.S. Impacts Black Immigrants

Because of the racial caste system that relegates people of color to second-class citizenship, black immigrants may unsuccessfully try to use an ethnic/foreign identity as protection from racism. While this behavior is reflective of the racial realities of the U.S. -- namely, antiblackness -- this form of coping is only smoke and mirrors, as the lives of black immigrants are touched in every way by systemic racism.

Research indicates that black immigrants in the U.S. do not earn incomes or have occupational status commensurate with their education levels and are more likely to be underemployed than other foreign groups. Compared to other immigrant groups, they are more likely to be detained and deported for criminal convictions. Moreover, black immigrants like Amadou Diallo, Alfred Olango and Charly Keunang died at the hands of police. Identity politics do not and will not save black immigrants from the U.S. racialization process. They experience the consequences of the historical, institutionalized and systemic marginalization of black Americans. They are black people living in an antiblack U.S. society, and this society is a racial mirror of what is happening on predominantly white college campuses.

Black Immigrants as Model Minorities Is a False Narrative

The model-minority myth began as a homogenizing narrative of Asian-Americans, describing them as a monolithically hardworking racial group, and was used to undermine claims of oppression that were being highlighted in the civil rights movement. Similarly, today we see black immigrant success narratives used to perpetuate racism. Contributing favorable cultural attributes to black immigrants’ success distracts from systems of oppression that harm communities of color. While the media often suggests a “black immigrant advantage” in gaining access to college, they conveniently omit when black immigrants experience similar social and academic challenges as their black American counterparts.

Further, black international students perceive more discrimination on campus than their white international peers. These outcomes shatter the ahistorical single story of the model minority and demonstrate that black immigrants experience both challenges and achievements in college.

U.S. Higher Education Reinforces the Racial Wedge

We see the outcomes of identity politics play out on predominantly white campuses, where black Americans are seeking answers to dwindling resources for multicultural centers and black student organizations. In addition, the underrepresentation of black faculty and staff members, coupled with the eradication of African-American studies programs, is also concerning.

Black American students are seeing their opportunity structures narrowed at every turn, and they rightly want their universities to stop describing their increasing numbers of black students without disclosing that all these students are not native. Universities reify the racial wedge by presenting the narrative that black students are positioned as part of a finite pie in which the more black immigrants/internationals present on their campus, the less presence black Americans will have or direct support they will receive. This divisive university practice only reinforces white supremacy by pitting communities of color against one another.

Refocusing and Reframing the Issue

White supremacy is a global phenomenon, and organizations such as Black Lives Matter are inclusive of the diaspora. Let us not forget the long history of liberation movements that involved transnational leaders. For example, the civil rights movement included black activists like Stokely Carmichael and Audre Lorde who had immigrant backgrounds. Thus, we are asking the wrong question with “who counts as a black student?” These questions distract us from failed structural systems such as affirmative action, which continues to benefit white women the most.

More importantly, we understand that all black people count because all black lives matter. Universities should engage in intentional efforts to recruit and retain diverse and further marginalized black backgrounds such as the working-class, low-income, rural, international and immigrant populations.


Black immigrant and international students should not be made a proxy for black American students, as they often are. In order to address this in a sustained and systemic way, we must begin with dismantling antiblackness and addressing the failures of the performative nature of inclusion and diversity policies. Thus, it should not be an either black immigrants/internationals or black Americans issue, especially given that these terms are complicated and multifaceted. It should be a both/and one.

It is imperative that universities take into consideration the historical legacy of slavery and Jim Crow while acknowledging that black international students comprise a minuscule proportion of the overall percentage of international students on any college campus and that this is not accidental. Black students are an asset and add value to a college campus. Universities need to value black students, acknowledge the diversity present within this population and fight antiblackness locally and globally. It should not be up to black students to make this happen, although we support their efforts to bring to our attention when universities fail.

While we know that tension can exist among diverse black students on college campuses, solidarity often exists as well. It is within these spaces that we rely on each other as navigational and social brokers. We would like to change the conversation from who counts as black to how we can continue to provide access, support and safe spaces for diverse black populations, while giving serious credence to black American students as they communicate their feelings about failed efforts by universities to recruit and retain them.

We recognize the major gaps of knowledge in the research literature and encourage more studies that investigate diverse black students in different institutional contexts including community colleges, for-profit institutions, online platforms, HBCUs, regional institutions and urban and private schools. We implore practitioners who work with students of color, and in particular black students, to return to the social justice meaning of diversity, which aims to improve and redress past wrongs.

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Ifeyinwa Onyenekwu is assistant professor of practice in the Graduate School of Education and affiliate faculty in the Center for African Studies at Rutgers University. Chrystal A. George Mwangi is assistant professor in the Educational Policy, Research and Administration Department at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

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