At a reunion of black alumni of Harvard University in 2003, Lani Guinier set off a discussion on a sensitive subject: whether black immigrants are the beneficiaries, perhaps undeserving, of affirmative action.
Guinier, a Harvard law professor, was quoted in The Boston Globe at the time as saying that most minority students at elite colleges were "voluntary immigrants," not descended from slaves. "If you look around Harvard College today, how many young people will you find who grew up in urban environments and went to public high schools and public junior high schools?" she said. "I don't think, in the name of affirmative action, we should be admitting people because they look like us, but then they don't identify with us."
The comments sparked much discussion among educators nationally about whether Guinier's observations were accurate and -- if so -- what they said about affirmative action. When The New York Times explored the issue the next year, it noted that a major study of students at elite colleges was finding that a disproportionate number of black students were from immigrant families.
That study was released Wednesday with its publication in the American Journal of Education (available to the journal's subscribers here ), and it seems likely to inspire more discussion of the issues Guinier raised.
The study -- by sociologists at Princeton University and the University of Pennsylvania -- used the National Longitudinal Survey of Freshmen  to look at the black students enrolled at 28 selective colleges and universities. Of all black people aged 18 or 19 in the United States, about 13 percent are first- or second-generation immigrants, but they made up 27 percent of black students at the selective colleges studied. The proportions of immigrants were higher at the private colleges in the survey than at publics, and were highest among the most competitive colleges in the group, hitting 41 percent of the black students in the Ivy League.
Percentage of Immigrants Among Black Students in Selective Colleges Studied
|Category Within Group Studied||Percentage|
|10 Most Selective||35.6%|
|10 Least Selective||23.8%|
In many respects (including their academic performance once enrolled), the black students who are immigrants did not differ from those who are African Americans. But the demographic analysis did note a number of areas where the immigrant students are statistically different:
- Parental roles: Immigrant students were more likely to be raised by two parents (56.9 percent to 51.4 percent) and were more likely to have a father present (61.2 percent to 55.6 percent).
- Fathers' education: While the educational attainment of students' mothers wasn't notably different, immigrants' fathers were much more educated, as is consistent with immigrant populations generally. Among black students, 70 percent of immigrants' fathers were college graduates, compared to 55.2 percent of other black students. And 43.6 percent of the immigrant students' fathers had advanced degrees, compared to 25.3 percent of native black students.
- Religion: The immigrant students were more than twice as likely as the other black students to be Roman Catholic (30.2 percent to 13.1 percent) and less likely to be Protestant. (Levels of religious observance, however, were quite similar, and minimal.)
- Schooling: The immigrant black students were more likely to have attended private schools (41.7 percent compared to 27.3 percent for other black students) and less likely to have been exposed to violence in schools (55.3 percent to 63.1 percent).
- Academics: The immigrant students had slightly higher grade-point averages and took slightly more Advanced Placement courses, but they had a statistically significant advantage on SAT average (1250 to 1193).
The study also provides information on where the immigrant students are coming from. By world region, the Caribbean is the leader, with 43.1 percent of the black immigrants at selective colleges, followed by Africa with 28.6 percent, and Latin America with 7.4 percent. By country, the leaders are Jamaica (20.5 percent) and Nigeria (17.3 percent), both countries that the study's authors note are "former British colonies where the educated classes speak English." They are followed by Haiti, Trinidad and Ghana, with Haiti being the only country where English is not widely spoken.
The study's authors -- Douglas S. Massey, Margarita Mooney and Kimberly C. Torres of Princeton University, and Camille Z. Charles of the University of Pennsylvania -- write that they believe the most significant factor in understanding the success of black immigrant students may be their fathers' higher educational attainment, which in turn is likely to result in the students being enrolled in better (frequently private) schools and less likely to be exposed to violence. But the authors note repeatedly that this study -- while providing more demographic data than has previously been available -- leaves many questions unanswered.
The authors also acknowledge the way this subject relates to the evolving debates over the purpose of affirmative action. They quote President Johnson's 1965 speech that set out his rationale for affirmative action: "You do not take a person who, for years, has been hobbled by chains and liberate him, bring him 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."
They note that Asian and Hispanic students began to benefit from affirmative action as "the moral justification for affirmative action shifted subtly from restitution for a legacy of racism to the representation of diversity for its own sake." As this shift took place, they note, many of the Asian and Hispanic students enrolling in competitive colleges were immigrants, but immigrants made up very large shares of the Asian and Hispanic populations in the United States over all. "Whereas the presence of second-generation Latinos and Asians on college campuses to a large extent reflected the demographic composition of their respective populations, black immigrants were over-represented relative to their share in the African-American population."
Anyone hoping that the new study will answer the question of whether black immigrant students "deserve" to benefit from affirmative action will be disappointed. Write the authors: "Ultimately, the data we have presented cannot answer the question of whether the children of black immigrants are worthy beneficiaries of affirmative action, for the answer rests largely on a moral judgment about whether the policy is a form of restitution for past racial injustice or a mechanism to ensure that selective schools continue to reflect the racial and ethnic diversity of a nation that is being transformed by immigration."