Some weeks ago, we were quoted in an article of “The Daily Pennsylvanian,” the newspaper of the University of Pennsylvania, that focused on how a Cornell University student group, Black Students United, was publicly advocating to alter the definition of ‘underrepresented black students’ in admissions so it is defined as African American students who have been in the United States for more than two generations. Today, we read an editorial in “The Brown Daily Herald” by Bami Oke entitled “Defining blackness in college admissions” in which Oke, a Brown University student in the Class of 2020, essentially voices his support for this platform of the Cornell student group. And while Oke make an eloquent argument to draw a distinction between African students and African American students whose families have been in our country for at least two generations, it’s an argument we wholeheartedly disagree with as a matter of principle.
Defining Blackness in College Admissions
In the editorial, Oke writes, “When the Common App asks an applicant to indicate their race, the Black/African-American checkbox takes none of these nuances into account. The result is exactly what you see on Brown’s campus: a disproportionately large number of high-achieving (and often financially privileged) first or second generation African students, lumped together with a handful of African-American students. If affirmative action worked the way it was intended — to ‘end and correct the effects of a specific form of discrimination’ — these statistics would surely be reversed.”
We don’t disagree with Oke that colleges, including Brown University, can and must do more to encourage underrepresented African American young people to not only apply but to also enroll in the event they’re offered admission. But to characterize the breakdown of the black student population at Brown as “a handful of African-American students” and “a disproportionately large number of high-achieving first or second generation African students” is misleading in its characterization. In fact, the vast majority of students who attend America’s highly selective colleges who check the Black / African-American box are African American. A smaller percentage are from countries across the African continent.
The Argument To Define Blackness in College Admissions Is Flawed
More significantly, there are not quotas at America’s most highly selective universities. An institution like Brown University doesn’t admit a certain number of Black / African American students each admissions cycle. You can bet that Brown’s admissions office is actively trying to recruit underrepresented African American students to not only apply but to also attend the institution. So to pit students from Africa against African American students (and that is indeed what this group is doing — even if unintentionally) is not only divisive but it’s also nonsensical. There are not fewer African American students on Brown’s campus because they also happen to admit Native American, Latino, Jewish, Muslim, LGBT, or, yes, black students from Africa, among many other groups.
We imagine — and this is just conjecture — that the vast majority of the Black Students United group did not vote for the current occupant of the White House. And yet the rhetoric of this group has an anti-immigrant sound to it. The group only wants to count African American young people whose families have lived in the United States for at least two generations in college admissions statistics by ethnic breakdown. While we fully understand that the objective of the group is to help the descendants of American slavery, their objective need not be at the expense of others. Their cause, after all, is just. We believe schools like Brown University can and must do more for the descendants of American slavery in the admissions process. But they can do so without trying to divide people. In fact, we have a feeling they’d find much more success with a different, more inclusive approach.
Years after the Holocaust, many folks claimed to be Jewish, even though they were not, in order to be granted German citizenship. Under Article 116 of Germany’s Basic Law, any German citizen during the Nazi regime, or their descendants, who lost their citizenship for religious, racist, or political reasons was eligible for reinstatement of citizenship. Now some folks tried to take advantage of this law by claiming to be Jewish — in order to be granted German citizenship. While it was well known that some folks were taking advantage of this system, it was decided that never again would Germany decide who is Jewish and who is not — not after the terror of Hitler’s Nazi regime. We would encourage the Black Students United group to reflect on the spirit of this decision in a nation that all these years later now serves as a leader of the free world.
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