Affirmative Action: An Ongoing Failure?

Qaren Quartey, Harvard University

“Why do African women look down on Black men?” My eyes widened as the front desk security guard asked me this question. We had been talking about my transition to Baltimore for a few minutes beforehand and I was taken aback by his words. I hesitated for a second, considering how to address his very valid question. I mumbled a short response about negative perceptions of Black Americans in American society. Right before his question, he mentioned using ancestry.com to try to trace his roots. I showed support and excitement for his discovery of Moroccan roots, quietly thanking God that I knew my roots were 100% Ghanaian. We chatted for a few minutes more as I described my career aspirations. He questioned why I would want to be a doctor of all things, to which I replied “What else am I going to do with my time? I’m going to live till 80 hopefully.” The conversation died down soon afterwards and I headed back home with my brother.

Before that conversation I had discussed the African Immigrant-Black American divide with my best friend. We met in college and have been friends for the last 5 years. These years have been filled with great conversations about differences within the Black community, which are often unrecognized by outsiders looking in. In higher education, the disparate outcomes between native-US born and foreign born Black students are telling. In the past few decades, an influx of African and Caribbean immigrants has contributed to an increasing population of Black people in America. As immigrants strive for inclusion in American society, their interests may align or clash with those of native Black Americans. As sociological giants like DuBois and Frazier have noted, successful incorporation into American society often involves distancing from Blacks. In my experience, African immigrants frequently fall into this trap, despite being viewed as Blacks themselves. Blackness is complex, coming in many forms. Similarity in skin tone may unite us at times, but it simultaneously masks ethnic differences within our community.

America’s heightened focus on the use of affirmative action at institutions of higher education calls the erasure of ethnicity within the black community into question. The data do not lie and a quick look at educational attainment with a breakdown by ethnic origin spells this out loud and clear. Black African Immigrants’ four-year college degree attainment stands at 23% in comparison to a percentage of 10% for native-born Black Americans. Similarly, Black African Immigrants go on to earn postgraduate degrees at a rate three times that of the Native-born counterparts (Waters et al 2014). Immediately it becomes clear that serious discrepancies exist in access to higher education. By all means, the importance of diversity in recruitment of college students is relevant to the conversation.

Despite its original designation for native-born minorities, affirmative action extends to recent immigrants and their children as a matter of civil rights (Kasinitz et al 2008). In their categorization of blackness, institutions of higher education may include Black immigrants in the same pool as native-born Black Americans. However, the experiences of individuals from these two groups can diverge in many ways. Do we do Black Americans a disservice by ignoring these differences? Are African Immigrants reaping benefits from Civil Rights-era policies not specifically intended for newcomers? These questions linger in my mind. I hope they start conversation within our community as we navigate the inevitable tensions that result from a shared racial identity coupled with divergent ethnicities.