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Shanks '12: African-American matriculation is a Brown issue, not a Black issue

As we return to Brown this year, we have the pleasure of welcoming the class of 2015 to our campus. These undergraduates will come to love the place that we call home. It is my special pleasure also to congratulate what has been called "the most racially, socio-economically and geographically diverse class in Brown's history." Props to the Admission Office for prioritizing diversity and educational access in an increasingly unequal society. It is therefore in the interest of maintaining forward momentum that I address diversity and matriculation so early in the year. It is my hope that, in the future, Brown is even more sensitive to intersections between race and class. Matriculation affects all of us, regardless of identity or background. It is in this broader vein that I would like to address the issue of African-American matriculation.

In a recent article in GOOD Magazine, Senior Editor Cord Jefferson calls attention to "the dirty little secret" of the Ivy League — that on many campuses, the make-up of black students is not representative of black communities outside of the academy. Rather, there are higher percentages of black immigrants ­— and upper-class African-Americans — than one would suspect. The article illuminates one fact: Admissions strategies that ignore the intersections of race and class are bound to fail at addressing racial inequality. Furthermore, these strategies allow Brown and other colleges to provide window-dressings of racial diversity without addressing the material inequalities that make diversity a specific goal at all. The histories of U.S. racism and class inequality create a complex structure where considerations of race cannot be separated from class.

Though first-generation blacks constitute only 8 percent of the U.S. black population, they form fully 41 percent of black students in the Ivy League. I have spoken to many black students at Brown who would put the latter figure higher at our own school. I have sat with others and tried counting the African-Americans we know at Brown, and have rarely been able to exhaust our fingers. In 2000, Harvard professors Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Lani Guinier also noted that out of 530 black undergraduates at Harvard, only 180 "could claim a completely Black American ancestry."

In the 2009 study cited by Jefferson, Dr. Pamela Bennett and Dr. Amy Lutz reported that not only are black immigrants four times more likely than African-Americans to attend four-year institutions, they are more likely than white students of comparable socioeconomic backgrounds to attend college. Clearly, there is something more than race at play here. Even more unsettling, black immigrants are not outperforming African-Americans — they do not even "value education more," a common refrain about immigrants. Bennett stated that the distinguishing factor in college attendance for black immigrants was "differences in family resources," not quality of performance. Data has shown that African immigrants, specifically, are on average wealthier and more educated than their African-American counterparts. While the African-American median household income in 2000 was $30,000, the median African immigrant household income was $45,000.

The fundamental problem here is not that the wrong kinds of black people are in the Ivy League. Intellectual achievement should be celebrated everywhere. These findings reveal the continued disadvantage of African-Americans, the figuring of black immigrants as the solution to a "black problem" and the effective relegation of African-Americans to the category of damaged goods. Educational access and the American color line are especially relevant for Brown, whose prestige and influence were originally financed by the transatlantic slave trade. Furthermore, the academy has long been the center of privilege and of legitimating the status quo, including — historically — that of the dehumanization of an entire race and their brutal centuries-long captivity. The institution holds just as much as responsibility for the violence of slavery and its aftermath as the flows of capital which made the institution possible.

In 2003, President Simmons created the Brown University Steering Committee on Slavery and Justice, in order to explore the history of Brown and the slave trade. This courageous step towards historical honesty has yet to be replicated by comparable institutions — a wonderful example for all of us undergraduates. The committee recommended that, given "Brown's history of racial exclusion," the University should focus "in particular on increasing the representation of African-American students at both the undergraduate and the graduate levels." It begs the question of whether the commitments of the report are being honored by the University.

Black identity is not monolithic. I'm just one point of view in the diverse black community at Brown. This is not about drumming up xenophobia toward other people of African descent. The "you took my spot" argument is counter-productive, as it implies that applicants determine the structural realities they're born into. But it is our duty to hold accountable even the institutions we trust. Lewis Gordon recently wrote on affirmative action, "in a society committed to injustice, it is very easy to create unjust practices of exclusion." America is now the third-most economically unequal country in terms of income in the G-20, behind only South Africa and Brazil. I have faith that, having done so well, Brown can reach higher and achieve better.



Malcolm Shanks '12 is a gender and sexuality studies and Middle Eastern studies concentrator.


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