The election of Barack Obama -- African American because of his African father, distinguishing him from how the phrase is commonly used -- has brought unprecedented attention to the diversity of backgrounds of those covered by the term. Within higher education, one of the more sensitive issues in discussion of admissions and affirmative action in recent years has been the relative success of immigrant black Americans compared to black people who have been in the United States for generations.
A new study has found that among high school graduates, “immigrant blacks” -- defined as those who immigrated to the United States or their children -- are significantly more likely than other black Americans to attend selective colleges. In fact, immigrant black Americans are more likely than white students to attend such colleges.
The research -- published in the journal Sociology of Education (abstract available here ) -- is the second major study in two years to try to define the “advantage” of some black applicants to top college. In 2007, a team of researchers published a study  in The American Journal of Education finding that while only about 13 percent of black people aged 18 or 19 in the United States are first- or second-generation immigrants, they made up 27 percent of black students at the selective colleges studied.
The new study focuses on the entire population of high school graduates to see where they go to college, comparing immigrant black people, “native-born blacks” (the authors’ terms for others), and white students. The authors are two assistant professors of sociology -- Pamela R. Bennett of Johns Hopkins University and Amy Lutz of Syracuse University.
They begin their study by noting that previous research has documented that a smaller proportion of black high school graduates than white high school graduates enroll in college. But when students of similar socioeconomic status are compared, the black high school graduates are more likely than their white counterparts to enroll. Given the debate about the immigrant factor in analyzing black enrollments, the authors set out to determine “whether this net black advantage is very African American.”
Using data from the National Education Longitudinal Study of 1988, Bennett and Lutz found that among high school graduates, 75.1 percent of immigrant blacks enrolled in college, a slightly higher percentage than that of whites (72.5 percent) and substantially larger than for native blacks (60.2 percent).
In terms of the college destinations of those who enrolled in college, the rates for immigrant blacks compared to other black students were similar for two-year colleges and non-selective four-year colleges that are not historically black. The biggest gap was at selective colleges, which enroll only 2.4 percent of native black high school graduates but 9.2 percent of immigrant blacks (and 7.3 percent of whites). Native black students are more likely than immigrants to enroll at historically black colleges. But the authors noted that historically black colleges are clearly appealing to some percentage of the black immigrant population, even though those students wouldn’t have the same multi-generation ties to the colleges that are found among many African Americans.
Destinations of High School Graduates Who Enrolled in College
|Type of College||Native-born blacks||Immigrant blacks||Whites|
|Historically black college||25.5%||18.9%||0.1%|
|Non-selective, non historically black four-year colleges||30.2%||30.0%||54.0%|
The authors of the new study note that there are key differences in the demographics of the black Americans whose families are new to the United States and those who aren’t. Immigrant black students are more likely than other black students to grow up In two-parent families and to attend private schools -- both characteristics that, across all sorts of groups, tend to indicate a greater likelihood of attending a selective college.
While their study found success for non-immigrant black students in enrolling in some kinds of colleges, the authors note that the sector -- selective colleges -- in which this is less likely is also the sector most likely to lead to many kinds of high wage careers. More examination of the issue is needed, the authors write, to combat “continued socioeconomic inequality.”
That scholarly phrasing may not do justice to the tensions raised by such issues. In 2003, at a reunion of black alumni of Harvard University, Lani Guinier, a law professor, was quoted by The Boston Globe as raising the question of whether black students who are “voluntary immigrants” should be the beneficiaries of affirmative action.
"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."