OPINION: Disproportionate representation at elite schools hurts those it’s suppose to help

When I first immigrated to the U.S. from Cameroon, I couldn’t really care less about school. I was focused on fun in my home country, I was last in my class and in my 6-year-old mind, America wasn’t going to change that. 

Well, that could only last so long. Now I’m at one of those fancy American colleges, busting my butt on the daily.

For most of my life, I thought I understood what it meant to be black in America.

But under the guidance of some of my upperclassmen mentors, I came to realize that there seems  to be a significant lack of American-born black people at Pomona College and other elite schools around the country compared to black immigrants. Specific data about the number of black immigrants and American-born black students at Pomona is not publicly available.

This apparent overrepresentation of black immigrants — in comparison to black students whose families have been in the country for several generations — at elite schools has stirred discontent at schools across the U.S.

For example, in 2017, students at Cornell, in addition to protests against racist occurrences, stood against the disproportionate representation of voluntary immigrants. According to Scott Jaschik of Inside Higher Ed, Cornell students issued a statement demanding more representation of “underrepresented black students,” defining these kinds of black students as, “black Americans who have several generations (more than two) in this country.” 

Professors from Princeton and the University of Pennsylvania examined how, in 1999, first- and second-generation black immigrants only comprised 13 percent of the African American population aged 18-19. But immigrants represented 36 percent of the black population admitted at some of the most selective colleges.

And Asia T. McCleary-Gaddy and Carol T. Miller demonstrated in the journal Basic and Applied Social Psychology that when black American native students and second-generation African immigrant students were compared in a college admissions simulation, the immigrant students were more likely to be chosen. 

This discrepancy has helped fuel deficiency studies on black Americans. Studies also overstate the influence of culturally embedded practices of black immigrants. 

These comparisons have sprung nefarious divides between black Americans and black immigrants. Sadie Pendaz from the University of Minnesota found evidence that black Americans are disproportionately affected by mass immigration, thereby increasing negative attitudes toward immigrants. With black immigrants, we see that “many first generation immigrants have found it economically beneficial to distance themselves from African Americans.”

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This distance stems from a “blaming the victim” mentality that has upheld harmful systems and processes. In his book of the same name, psychologist William J. Ryan outlines the process of “blaming the victim” where, instead of addressing systems that harm people, we resort to laying the blame on the individual actions of those in the disadvantaged group. 

Ryan’s hypothesis can be observed in the “cultural deprivation” explanations for black American underachievement in academics. For years, psychologists published “studies,” such as Carl Bereiter, Siegfried Engelman, et al.’s “An academically oriented pre-school for culturally deprived children,” that propagated the notion that black American students were underperforming because they had large families and working mothers. 

The victim blaming model assumes the mother is the problem, not the economy that requires her to have two jobs. As such, we accuse black Americans instead of addressing their socioeconomic status. 

Additionally, according to Min Zhou’s analysis on immigrants and assimilation, there prevails the notion that “ethnic resilience” (adhering to messages received at home around seeking education and resisting “Americanization”) is a predictor of strong GPAs. Yet countless studies, including Ispa et al., indicate that African American households emphasize education as the route to upward mobility. 

Given that black immigrant and African American cultures have the importance of education both embedded in them, “ethnic resilience” fails to explain why black immigrants score higher academically than native-born African Americans. 

Not to mention, arguments such as “ethnic resilience” put into question the intelligence of the American population as a whole. According to Pew Research Center, Nigerian, Kenyan and Ghanaian immigrants get college degrees at higher rates than the U.S. population. 

Upholding arguments about some inherent superiority of mentality in immigrant communities would imply that the U.S. population lacks some inherent quality for academic success. 

Psychologists such as Derald Wing Sue, Robert Paul Walker, Annie Roy-Charland, Ryan and many others have shown that phenomena such as stereotype threat, standardized tests that don’t actually test aptitude, psychological effects of microaggressions on performance and so many socioeconomic disadvantages are preventing African Americans from obtaining upward mobility. 

It’s time to challenge the U.S. systems that are disadvantaging its own country’s citizens.

Black immigrants seem to be “taking up a lot of space” in black communities because the social, cultural and educational systems only allow for so few slots for black people. 

There is no inherent intellectual deficit in black Americans. The preferential treatment of black immigrants over black Americans is a reflection of the educational system failing the Americans it said it would help.

To increase black American representation in elite institutions, there needs to be fundamental changes to how education is conducted in America. The problem is not with the students, but with the systems that tell descendants of enslaved blacks that there’s no space for them. 

Magali Ngouabou PO ’22 was born in Douala, Cameroon, and raised in Silver Spring, Maryland (a significantly less spicy place). She’s seeking to listen and become more aware of other people’s perspectives.

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