Barack Obama has broken racial barriers. But his stint at Columbia was not one of them.
Obama’s status as a son of an African immigrant puts him in a category and debate that largely remains behind Ivy League walls: black students from immigrant families are overrepresented in Ivy League schools.
"Immigrant blacks," who come from families who have emigrated from the West Indies or Africa (mostly Ghana or Nigeria), make up 41 percent of the black population of Ivy League schools, according to a 2007 study by Princeton and University of Pennsylvania researchers. In contrast, black immigrants only make up 13 percent of the black population of 18-19 year olds in the United States.
The overrepresentation of immigrant blacks on Ivy League campuses is forcing students to redefine their own "blackness" and black culture, while raising questions about affirmative action and access to the best universities in America.
At Harvard, which has 16 different black student associations, from the Nigerian Students Association to the Black Men’s Forum, in the undergraduate college alone, it takes some time to get used to the fact that there is more than one kind of "black."
"I think for all of us at first, the idea that there would be black people who weren’t like the people we knew at home was just an adjustment," said Damon King, a 2004 Harvard graduate born in Guyana and raised in New Jersey.
The affirmative action debate, which swelled to cacophonous levels in 1978 when the Supreme Court ruled that affirmative action policies in universities were constitutional, has evolved as the demographics of the country have changed. With more students of Asian and Latino descent coming in since affirmative action was first instituted, the diversity element of the policy has become more and more emphasized.
"Am I exempted from the cultural show if I scored a 2400 [on the SATs?]" asked Brandon Terry, Harvard class of 2004 and a self-classified "Black American." "Are we using race as a mark of culture? If our interest is cultural diversity, it makes sense that we’re admitting Africans over black Americans," he said.
When Terry first arrived on campus, he felt uneasy. He would sit by himself in the dining hall, feeling the stares of others. One time, while walking through Harvard Yard, the woman in front of him picked up her pace and soon broke out into full-out running.
He soon found his niche as the Black Men’s Forum president, but encountered other problems, this time within the black community on campus. "I had a really difficult time fitting in at first," he said. "I felt sort of prepared to not fit in with the white kids, but I wasn’t prepared to not fit in with the black kids." Personal identity converged with issues of collective identity- the native black American experience was different than the Nigerian-, Ghanaian-, or Jamaican-American experience, and this manifested itself in various ways.
"You realized there were these great divergences, socially, politically," said Terry. "Sometimes they were small things like music, but sometimes they would be full blown prejudices."
Timothy Turner, a Harvard senior from Tennessee (who would be classified as a "native black" in the study) and 2008-9 president of Harvard’s Black Student Association, wondered whether or not the immigrant mentality and work ethic contributed to the larger proportion of immigrant blacks at his school.
He had decided to apply to Harvard when a diversity recruiter from the school called him. Before that, he hadn’t even considered the school.
"You just don’t think that you fit the mold to get into Harvard. It just didn’t seem real," he said. Turner mentored minority students in Boston, and said it struck him how some of the brightest high school students still felt like Harvard was out of reach.
"Some of the intelligent students don’t feel like Harvard is attainable, " he said. "At the same time, the way the Harvard is perceived, you understand why that would be the case… the legacy of classism, elitism, racism. You understand how that’s passed on to the children. That history is something a lot of immigrants aren’t aware of. They think this is the land of opportunity and take any chance they can get."
Discussions about the different groups of black students on campus would come up frequently. While black students of all backgrounds could compare notes about racist treatment or expectations, the intensity of impact would vary. In addition, cultural backgrounds would differ so much that it would seem that racism or the color of their skin were one of the only things black immigrants and black natives had in common.
Terms like "pan-Africanism," and "the Diaspora" figured into the lexicon of these ethnicity-within-a-race discussions. "We had lots of conversations about this in college," said Onyi Offor, Harvard class of 2005 and a Nigerian immigrant. She is currently a third-year Yale medical student. Her parents, a doctor and an information technology professional, pushed her to excel academically, and excel she did. Yet Offor still found herself subject to questionable treatment.
When she told her high school guidance counselor that she was going to apply to Harvard, "she didn’t bat an eye and pulled out catalogues of different colleges."
Offor believes that her experience is still fundamentally different than that of blacks born here, however. "I’ve heard people talk about how if you don’t grow up in this country, you don’t feel the racism, you don’t grow up with that burden on your back," she said.
Perhaps it was just an issue of time, she said. She did not experience enough racism for it to have a serious psychological impact, or any that would prevent her from striving academically and professionally.
Whatever divisions exist within the black population on campus, the media and society continue to superficially treat African-Americans as the same. "I can’t claim that my descendants were slaves, because they weren’t," said Chiduzie Madubata, Harvard class of 2006. "My experience in the States was actually really driven by Nigerian culture, in keeping with Nigerian food, developments in Nigeria."
Yet at the same time, "in the grand scheme of things, both groups are classified as black, on the street, and when we enter into a certain building," Madubata said. "That’s how our society treats us, in that sense, we are common."
With Obama’s presidency, a whole generation of black youth- from America or abroad- has a larger-than-life role model to which to aspire. But perhaps just as importantly, there is hope that new, constructive dialogues and better understandings of the nuances of race will occur.
"As a generation, we got kind of blindsided by the rapid change of the composition of the black community," said Terry. "We weren’t willing to do the sociological, philosophical work to figure out what this was about."
I think that this article does a good job of capturing how I feel about being an African-American, which was drastically altered when I attended Harvard. I definitely had to re-think what ‘black’ meant, and coming from a predominantly African-American (descent) community, being outnumbered was a major culture shock. It’s even affected how I view race and culture to this day. I’m happy I was able to get a new perspective, but damn was my world rocked.