Who Counts as a Black Student?

Cornell protest revives debate on whether first-generation immigrants from Africa and Caribbean make up disproportionate share of black students at top colleges, and what -- if anything -- should be done as a result.

October 9, 2017
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Cornell University, like other colleges, regularly reports to the federal government on the demographics of its students. The new edition of College Scorecard says that 6 percent of Cornell undergraduates are black.

But who counts as black? That is a question that has been debated periodically at colleges, especially those that are highly competitive in admissions but struggle to admit black students.

Black students at Cornell have held a series of protests this fall -- at one point including a building takeover -- to protest racist incidents and what they consider an insufficiently inclusive campus environment. Cornell administrators have responded with new programs and pledges.

One issue raised by the Cornell protesters has the potential to reverberate far beyond Ithaca. That demand centers on how Cornell counts black students.

The demand: “We demand that Cornell admissions come up with a plan to actively increase the presence of underrepresented black students on this campus. We define underrepresented black students as black Americans who have several generations (more than two) in this country.
 The black student population at Cornell disproportionately represents international or first-generation African or Caribbean students. While these students have a right to flourish at Cornell, there is a lack of investment in black students whose families were affected directly by the African Holocaust in America. Cornell must work to actively support students whose families have been impacted for generations by white supremacy and American fascism.”

Cornell counts students for race and ethnicity much like other colleges do -- the figures for black students are for those who are U.S. citizens or permanent residents, not international students. So a student from Ghana or Trinidad, enrolling as an international student, would not count in the total of black students.

But Cornell does not ask those who are U.S. citizens or permanent residents who identify as black how many generations their families have lived in the United States. So the child of immigrants from Africa or the Caribbean, born as a U.S. citizen and who identifies as black, counts. The university does not track what percentage of its black students meet the standards set in the demands of Black Students United.

Groups that track enrollment demographics -- like the National Student Clearinghouse -- do not attempt such analysis, either.

The Cornell student demands signals a revival of the question of whether elite colleges overstate their progress in enrolling black students by including students from relatively recent immigrant families as opposed to those whose families endured slavery, Jim Crow and all manners of discrimination that continue in society today.

And the issue can be deeply personal for many, and raise uncomfortable questions. President Obama, as the son of an African man and a (white) American woman and celebrated as the first African-American president, wouldn’t have been the kind of student Cornell’s black students want as a recruitment focus.

Among the previous times when the question of difference among black students became much discussed was in 2004, when two prominent black professors at Harvard University -- Lani Guinier and Henry Louis Gates Jr. -- raised the question during reunion weekend. In 2004, about 8 percent of Harvard undergraduates were black. Guinier and Gates said that a majority of those students -- perhaps as many as two-thirds -- were either immigrants from Africa or the West Indies or their children.

“I just want people to be honest enough to talk about it,” Gates told The New York Times at the time. “What are the implications of this?”

At the time, Gates and Guinier stressed that they were not trying to limit the opportunities available to black immigrant families. The Cornell students have made the same point.

Discussions of the issue are made difficult by the lack of institutional data on the backgrounds of black students. But some research on the subject suggests that Gates, Guinier and the Cornell students are correct that a disproportionate share of black enrollment at top colleges comes from families whose members have not been Americans for several generations.

A 2007 study published in The American Journal of Education (abstract available here) found that black immigrants made up 27 percent of black college students in the United States, a greater percentage than would be expected based on their share of the population. Further, the percentage was much higher at private colleges and at colleges with selective admissions. The study was based on data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Freshmen.

A key finding was that the immigrant students are not getting ahead because of wealth relative to other black students. The socioeconomic status of the two groups was, on average, similar, with many facing poverty.

The demand of Black Students United is drawing opposition from some at Cornell who don't fit the definition of black students on which the group would like to see the university focus. "Combating White Supremacy Should Not Entail Throwing Other Black Students Under the Bus" was the headline of a column in The Cornell Daily Sun, the student newspaper. The author, Yvette Ndlovu, is from Zimbabwe. She noted that only about 3 percent of Cornell's international student population is from Africa, suggesting that limiting international student recruitment of people who are black should not be the focus of those who want more African-American students on campus.

"Some students I’ve talked to argue that there are some African, Caribbean and first-generation students on BSU’s executive board, so BSU could not possibly be biased against foreign and first-generation students," Ndlovu wrote. "This seems to have the same tone as a white person claiming that they could not possibly have any racial bias because they have a black friend. Instead of alienating black students who aren’t American, or are first-generation American, and seeing them as competition, I urge BSU to rethink the ways it appears to view other black students and to reword its divisive demands, because we are all in this struggle for equality together."

That piece prompted a reply column arguing that an emphasis on students from families in the United States for generations was needed, and noting both similarities and differences in the experiences of different groups of black students.

Because Cornell meets the full financial need of domestic students and not international students, those from Africa or the Caribbean are wealthier, on average than are African-American students, the author, Marquan Jones, wrote.

And the experience of racism is different, Jones added.

"Everyone from the African diaspora may all experience racism on the individual level (being called the N-word and being restricted from a white frat party being only the tip of that iceberg)," Jones said. "But international students who call another place home don’t have to deal with the ingrained institutional and structural forms of oppression in the same way American black students do. (Housing discrimination, mandatory-minimum sentencing, war on drugs, school-to-prison pipeline, etc.)"


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