Obama Education Initiative Sparks Debate on Black Immigrants and Achievement

The announcement by President Obama over the summer that the White House was creating an office to focus on the educational achievements of African Americans has sparked a debate in some segments of the black community about whether these initiatives should include foreign-born blacks and their children, who tend to enjoy more academic success than native African Americans.

This is an issue that has created raging debates in academia and educational circles for years, as educators have posited many reasons why black immigrants tend to do better in school relative to American-born blacks.

The White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for African Americans, housed within the Department of Education, was created to address the alarming under-performance of African-American students in the nation’s school. But should black immigrants and their children be a part of this effort?

An oft-cited study in 2007 by researchers from Princeton and the University of Pennsylvania found that at the nation’s Ivy League and other top colleges, immigrants account for more than a quarter of the black students while accounting for just 13 percent of the nation’s college-age black population.

The study’s authors said that the large representation of black immigrants developed as schools shifted the focus of their affirmative action programming from restitution for decades of excluding black Americans from campuses to embracing wider diversity. The more elite the school, the more black immigrants were enrolled.

In a piece in the Washington Post last month, Curtis Valentine, executive director of the education advocacy organization MarylandCAN (Maryland Campaign for Achievement Now) examined the various data focused on this issue and concluded that we can benefit and learn from the struggles and successes of both groups without framing it as a competition between immigrants and American-born blacks.

Valentine wrote that first- and second-generation immigrants from Africa and the Caribbean, though only 13 percent of the nation’s blacks as a whole, represent 41 percent of all those of African descent at 28 selective universities and 23 percent of the black population at all public universities.

“Census data show that the children of these immigrants were more likely to be college-educated than any other immigrant or U.S.-born ethnic group, including white Americans,” Valentine wrote.

He pointed to several studies that delved into the reasons for immigrant academic success, such as the seminal study, “Voluntary and Involuntary Minorities: A Cultural-Ecological Theory of School Performance with Some Implications for Education,” by John Ogbu, then a professor of anthropology at the University of California at Berkeley. Ogbu contended that immigrant black Americans live in more racially diverse communities and aren’t burdened by perceived black underachievement on standardized tests—primarily because they lack a connection to predominantly U.S.-born black communities and they trust white institutions more than non-immigrant blacks.

“This leads them them to make housing choices based on the potential for greatest opportunity in education and employment, which tend to be in more diverse communities,” Valentine writes.

A piece on The Root by Patrice Peck referenced a 2006 study by University of Pennsylvania professor Camille Z. Charles exploring the proliferation of Caribbean and African immigrants in U.S. colleges. The study concluded that social biases could play a major part in the admission process.

“To white observers,” Charles and her fellow authors wrote, “black immigrants seem more polite, less hostile, more solicitous and ‘easier to get along with.’ Native blacks are perceived in precisely the opposite fashion.”


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