Jewish World Review July 8, 2004 /19 Tamuz 5764
At colleges, immigrants are 'minorities' too
Smiles turned to tightened jaws at the most recent reunion of Harvard University's black alumni.
The mood shift, as reported recently in The New York Times, occurred when two very prominent black faculty members reported encouraging increases in Harvard's black enrollment, then raised questions as to where those new black students were coming from.
Harvard law professor Lani Guinier and Henry Louis Gates Jr., chairman of Harvard's African and African-American studies department, reported that 8 percent, or about 530, of Harvard's undergraduates are black, but somewhere between one-half and two-thirds of them are "West Indian and African immigrants or their children, or to a lesser extent, children of biracial couples."
Not counting those who are classified as "foreign students," Guinier and Gates said, only about a third of the students classified as "black" at the nation's most prestigious university were from families in which all four grandparents were born in this country.
I was not surprised by those findings. Like many other African-Americans, I have been noticing for years how the children of black immigrant families tend to be much better represented among high school honor-roll achievers than their native-American black counterparts are.
Now that they are showing up in disproportionate numbers at selective colleges like Harvard, both advocates and opponents of affirmative action are raising a howl in their various ways.
"Here's something I bet you never thought you'd hear a liberal say: Harvard is letting in too many Africans," razzed Tucker Carlson, conservative co-host of CNN's "Crossfire" when the Times story broke.
Actually, the Harvard "liberals" were worried less about too many immigrants than too few blacks of American slavery-descent.
Now Harvard has to ask itself what its affirmative action plan is supposed to accomplish. If its goal is simply "diversity," it may not matter how American the roots of its black and brown faces happen to be. But if its goal is to address historical racial inequalities in American life, Harvard may have to take black ethnicity into account in the way that some institutions have argued over which nationalities should be counted as "Hispanic."
A bigger question to me is this: Why are black students whose families have been in America for generations being left behind by newcomers, including black newcomers from other countries?
Gates plans to organize a study group around that question. I can offer the group one easy possibility, no charge: Immigrant kids work harder.
They work harder, in part, because their parents work harder and their parents work harder because of their relentless optimism: Where others might see a dead-end job, immigrants of all colors see an entry-level opportunity.
Where others may see inequities, immigrants tend to see a ladder to be climbed. With a hyperoptimism, they move ahead, upward and outward, undeterred by discrimination, short-term poverty, substandard housing, lack of financial capital or any other barriers that fate throws in the way of their hopes and dreams.
And they pass this spirit of enterprise on to their children. A University of Chicago study in 1995, for example, found children from a variety of minority groups whose mothers are immigrants outperform students from their respective ethnic groups whose mothers were born in the United States. "Family optimism" about the future played a crucially important role in determining school success, according to sociology professor Marta Tienda, an author of the study.
And the more recent the family's arrival, the better the children perform, according to a study of Asian and Hispanic families by Laurence Steinberg, a Temple University social scientist whose latest book is "The 10 Basic Principles of Good Parenting."
That immigrant optimism is not unknown to black folks born right here in the USA. Many of us saw it drive our parents or grandparents in their desperate migrations from the rural South to the urban industrial North during the last century. Unfortunately, much of the later wave, having run up against the lost jobs and deindustrialization of factory towns over the past half-century, were left stranded in poverty, even as others moved on to more prosperous jobs and neighborhoods.
"We have had successful black students tell us they felt they had to make a choice between doing well in school and having friends," Steinberg told me in a telephone interview. "Almost any American kid, given that choice, would choose having friends, regardless of their race."
Some forward-thinking high schools have responded by helping older black students mentor younger ones, encouraging them to regard academic stardom with something approaching the godlike stature they normally award to sports stars.
That's a very lofty goal and it's worth striving for. With the optimism of our elders, we can make affirmative action obsolete.
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