Friday, June 25, 2004

U.S.: Black, yes, but are you the "right kind" of black?

Lani Guinier and Henry Louis Gates Jr. are somewhat bothered by the fact that two-thirds of the black students at Harvard are Caribbean or African immigrants or the offspring of the same, or are biracial. The remaining one-third are students who are descendants of American slaves. In Guinier and Gates's view, that numerical imbalance is troubling because the "right kind" of black students aren't getting into the Ivies.

So, what is the "right kind" of black? According to Guinier and Gates, the "right kind" kind of black is not one who has the academic background to compete and excel at the Ivies, but those "who were intended as principal beneficiaries of affirmative action in university admission." In other words, the "right kind" is a "descendant." Interestingly, it is the historically African-American students who have taken to calling themselves "the descendants" because of the paucity of their numbers at Ivies.

Both Guinier and Gates say they don't wish to exclude immigrants from Harvard, but are upset that students "whose families have been in America for generations were being left behind."

For Anthony W. Marx, president of Amherst College, addressing the ethnicity of black students is important because the point of the admissions is not education but about "correct[ing] past injustice" and making sure that there are African-Americans on campus.

Other Ivies around the country, such as Princeton, U. of Penn, Yale, Columbia, Duke, U.C. Berkely note that 41% of their black students are not the "right kind" either.

Furthermore, Douglas S. Massey of Princeton and Andrew A. Beveridge of Queens College, NY, both concur that the numbers of the "wrong kind" of blacks at Ivies are far in excess of their measly 9% population share.

Jamaican-born Orlando Patterson, author and Harvard sociologist, remarked that those raising the issue are stirring up trouble unnecessarily, especially since "[t]he doors are wide open - as wide open as they ever will be - for native-born black middle-class kids to enter elite colleges."

Louis Gates mourns that the "wrong kind" are beating the "descendants" to places at Ivies, so the "descendant" community needs to discover the secret of the "wrong kind" and utilize it to reinvigorate themselves. Says Gates, "[w]e need to learn what the immigrants' kids have so we can bottle it and sell it, because many members of the African-American community, particularly among the chronically poor, have lost that sense of purpose and values which produced our generation."

Read the unexpurgated version of the article.

Earlier this year, I noted that American college recruiters were heading down to the Caribbean to recruit academically prepared students for their colleges. In fact, when I was in TT in January, I visited with a friend who runs a private college whose business is preparing students for scholarship places in American universities. She is tremendously successful at what she does, as are her students.

All of that aside, the critical question that needs an answer is this: is the purpose of affirmative action just to have black faces on Ivy League campuses, or is it to have students who can excel academically at Ivy colleges? Given the response of Guinier and Gates, one would imagine that their priority is the first. How numerical supremacy sans academic preparedness can be advantageous is something that neither Guinier or Gates address. Before any progress can be made, both would have to acknowledge that the marked difference between Caribbean, African, and "descendant" blacks is the attitude to education. For Caribbean and African blacks, education is the key to upward mobility; for many "descendants," being educated is acting white. With such a mindset, is it any wonder that two-thirds of the blacks on Ivy campuses are either foreign born or of foreign ancestry? This positive view of education is that quality possessed by immigrant blacks and which Gates would like to bottle.

Gates needs no look further than Bill Cosby to discover the "descendant" version of the secret. Were the community to take Cosby's words to heart, neither Guinier or Gates would have to agonize over the numerical supremacy of the "wrong kind" of blacks at Ivies. With the Bill Cosby formula as the reinvigoration factor, the black community's competition for space at the Ivies can be a fierce one. However, unless the youth wise up, the Cosby formula is likely to be rejected; for, we know how many 'leaders' in the "descendant" community reacted to his stark message.

What can the Ivies do to address Gates's and Guinier's affirmative action concerns? Well, they can do their colleges and "the descendants" a gross disservice by admitting many who are unprepared and ill-equipped for academic life there. Then, they can sit back and watch as students drop out or are receive diplomas which are not genuinely reflective of their academic strengths. Or, they can ignore Gates and Guinier, insist on high academic standards as a more cherished value than race and continue to recruit students who are likely to graduate. Given the statements of many Ivy presidents, it is quite likely that they'll focus on having black faces rather than black achievement at the Ivies.

Should these college presidents act to equalize the numbers of "descendants" to match that of the johnny-come-latelies, without demanding a concomitant academic preparedness, then they will only deflect attention away from the sources of the problem: the state of public education in the inner cities and black community, and the negative attitude of many blacks to education.

Affirmative action by itself cannot engender black success; in fact, affirmative action is not necessary to black success if there is commitment to educational achievement. The individual himself has to prize education and value its essential role in ensuring upward mobility. Were the majority of the "descendants" to do that, then that would obviate the need for affirmative action programs; for, as Orlando Patterson has said, "the doors are wide open -- as wide open as they will ever be" for a strong "descendant" presence at Ivies. For that numerical supremacy to be realized, though, commitment to education requires a corresponding improvement in the quality of public education, one which has not to do with increased expenditure, but with higher standards for student performance and for quality of teaching. In that way, colleges will have a huge pool of applicants of all races from which to select their student body.

The net result of Gates's and Guinier's waking the sleeping dogs is to create another divide between the ethnic groups which comprise the black community in this country.

I'd suggest they focus on changing the "descendant" culture as a means of realizing true academic achievement and ridding the community of the stigma that comes with affirmative action policy.


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