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"Roots" and Race

In June, a New York Times article raised a long-simmering issue: the origins and ancestry of Harvard’s black students. The piece described the celebratory mood at a reunion of African-American Harvard alumni, who applauded Harvard’s progress over the past three decades in enrolling larger numbers of black students. But it also noted that this mood was broken when "some speakers brought up the thorny issue of exactly who those black students are." The question arises because, even though in recent years 7 to 9 percent of Harvard’s incoming freshmen (8.9 percent for the class of 2008) have been African Americans, some studies suggest that more than half of these students, and perhaps as many as two-thirds, are West Indian or African immigrants or their children. A substantial number also identify themselves as children of biracial couples.

The figures are inexact partly because they are unofficial; there are no official data, because the Harvard admissions office does not collect information on the ancestry of incoming freshmen. But a handful of scholars have explored the question, which remains a lively one. "I’ve been teaching courses in race and ethnicity here for 18 years, and almost every time I teach a class, this issue comes up," says professor of sociology Mary Waters. "It is very commonly discussed among black students at Harvard." Four years ago, Waters advised an honors thesis—which she calls "the best study I know of on the topic"—by one such student, Aisha Haynie ’00, an African American whose family has long resided in the southern United States. Her research, published in the Journal of Public and International Affairs in 2002, tried to ascertain the provenance of Harvard’s black undergraduates.

Haynie went through copies of the Harvard Freshman Register and, based on the photographs therein, contacted fellow students who looked black. She also located subjects through Harvard’s black student organizations and black undergraduate listservs. Her sample, though not random, was large enough to yield at least some data on nearly a quarter of black undergraduates, by her estimate. Using questionnaires and interviews, Haynie found that, while a clear majority identified themselves as "black American," African and Afro-Caribbean identifiers combined made up more than a third of the subjects, and her "bi-ethnic or bi-racial" category accounted for about a quarter (see table).

Turning to ancestry, Haynie found that although first-generation (immigrants born outside the United States) black Americans showed up in her study in numbers proportionate to the U.S. Census, second-generation (born in the United States, with at least one parent born overseas) blacks made up 41 percent of her Harvard pool—but only about 3 percent of black Americans (see table). Fourth- (and higher) generation African Americans, who represent nearly 90 percent of the American black population, accounted for only 45 percent of the black students she studied. In pursuing her research, Haynie recalls meeting resistance from Harvard deans and admissions officials. "They were saying, ‘You shouldn’t be trying to divide students along ethnic lines,’" she says. "But they’re already divided! Just look at the data."

African Americans, who account for 13 percent of the U.S. population, are statistically underrepresented at Harvard and other selective colleges. Black students descended from multiple generations of American forebears may be underrepresented to an even greater degree. Within the United States, there are also regional differences: West Indian and African immigrants, for example, have predominantly settled on the East Coast. "Boston, Hartford, and Miami all have large West Indian populations," says Waters. "And in New York City, more than half the blacks are first- or second-generation immigrants." Haynie, who hails from the Carolinas, notes, "In the South, you don’t have the diversity that you do in the North. Southern black Americans are very often the descendents of slaves." (Of course, many West Indian and African families also are slave descendents.)

Those from abroad "have a different understanding of what it means to be black," says Boskey professor of law Lani Guinier ’71, noting that they are less vulnerable to being viewed through the lens of a negative stereotype. According to Haynie, "A lot of black American students wanted to go to Harvard because they wanted to prove something to white people—’I can do it, I can achieve, the stereotypes are wrong.’ But the African and Caribbean blacks wanted to succeed because they wanted to succeed—it was what they were supposed to do. Their parents had come to the United States to get opportunities, and they made sure their kids took advantage of what was out there. It is very different in a black American family, where you may not have a history of success in your family in the same way. It takes a special effort to go out and look for opportunities." Waters volunteers a general sociological observation: "An immigrant population will do better as compared with a native population, because with immigrants, you have a selected group."

According to Haynie’s study, the West Indian students’ parents were better off than the families of black American students, and more than 90 percent of the parents of Harvard’s African students had advanced degrees. Many immigrants come from black-majority societies, with black presidents and prime ministers. In contrast, the American blacks, Haynie says, "are a group that has never seen black leadership."

Guinier calls this "a window into the way that ‘meritocracy’ has been destroyed by privilege and cumulative advantage—not just among black students, but all students. White students are also disproportionately privileged. It’s about wealth, education, disposable assets, intergenerational wealth transfer." She cites research by Princeton economist Jesse Rothstein that "concludes that the SAT—the principal indicator of ‘merit’—is essentially noise, a way of laundering wealth. In Aisha Haynie’s data we are picking up the same phenomenon. It’s not located only there." Adds Waters, "Another aspect of diversity is social class—poor and working-class kids. If you look at the class backgrounds of black students here, you’ll see that many of them are rather well off."

"Harvard could do a better job of recognizing the differences between black students. The tendency is to see it as ‘a black face is a black face,’" says Haynie. "On the admissions form, you could put down where your parents and grandparents were born. If you have two black applicants, one from the American South, the other from the Caribbean, the black American may have come a lot further than the Caribbean student." Waters says, "If it’s only skin color, that’s a very narrow definition of diversity. I would hate to see Harvard not reaching out to those African Americans who have been in the United States for generations. Are we not looking as hard as we should in Mississippi or Alabama for kids who would do well if they were recruited?"

Dean of admissions and financial aid William R. Fitzsimmons notes that "the African-American community here has always been very diverse." He says the University has recently committed to spending an additional $300,000 to $400,000 annually on recruiting, and is building a "pipeline" to reach out to and encourage applicants, including minority and underprivileged recruits (see "Class-conscious Financial Aid," May-June, page 62). The College has eliminated family contributions from students whose families earn less than $40,000 per year, and this year the yield rate for students receiving financial aid was actually several percentage points higher than the 78 percent rate of the class of 2008 as a whole. New recruiting initiatives are now underway, like the Crimson Summer Academy, which brings up to 30 students from urban public and parochial schools in Boston and Cambridge to Harvard for three consecutive summers. Furthermore, Fitzsimmons emphasizes that Harvard continues its longstanding policy of "taking into account how far people have come, given the resources they had growing up."