The recent academic results are sobering, if not familiar: 2011 national testing data show that the gap between white and black students in
Washington is the worst of any urban city in America. In Maryland, this gap between eighth-graders is second-worst of any state.
Despite it all, there is hope. There is a subgroup of black Americans in this country who continue to achieve at high levels, results that might provide some clues to solving one of our most persistent educational problems. First- and second-generation immigrants from Africa and the Caribbean, though only 13 percent of the nation’s blacks as a whole, represent 41 percent of all those of African descent at 28 selective universities and 23 percent of the black population at all public universities.
Meanwhile, census data show that the children of these immigrants were more likely to be college-educated than any other immigrant or U.S.-born ethnic group, including white Americans.
The success of these first- and second-generation immigrant blacks can be attributed to several factors, including where many of them choose to live as they raise families in America. In his seminal study, “Voluntary and Involuntary Minorities: A Cultural-Ecological Theory of School Performance with Some Implications for Education,” John Ogbu, then a professor of anthropology at the University of California at Berkeley, contended that immigrant black Americans live in more racially diverse communities and aren’t burdened by perceived black underachievement on standardized tests.
This is largely because they lack a connection to predominantly U.S.-born black communities and they trust white institutions more than non-immigrant blacks. This leads them them to make housing choices based on the potential for greatest opportunity in education and employment, which tend to be in more diverse communities.
In his study, Ogbu outlines the factors that created this environment where first- and second-generation blacks are succeeding. There are three we can learn from. First, first- and second-generation immigrant blacks rarely internalize the “oppositional culture” that rejects characteristics deemed “white.” Research has shown that internalizing oppositional culture affects U.S.-born African Americans already at high educational levels because it reduces motivation to surpass their peers.
Also, first- and second-generation immigrant blacks have high academic standards because of a belief in the relationship between education and the American Dream but from a recognition of sacrifices by family in their home country. Last, African and Caribbean blacks have a strong belief in their ability to succeed because they had firsthand examples of black professionals in their native lands. Although the presidential election of Barack Obama may have inspired a generation of African Americans to enter public service, the impact of seeing everyday black professionals such as dentists, nurses and schoolteachers can be even more powerful.
But those factors don’t explain the disparity among African American sub-groups. In a 2004 Boston Globe op-ed, Harvard Law professor Lani Guinier said, “Like their wealthier white counterparts, many first- and second-generation immigrants of color test well because they retain a national identity free of America’s racial caste system and enjoy material and cultural advantages.” Regardless of how you attribute the success of first- and second-generation and African and West Indians, their success is one to be examined.
But immigrant black Americans do have advantages that give them a leg up. In her study “The Admission of Legacy Blacks,” Angela Onwuachi-Willig, a professor at the University of Iowa College of Law, underscores that first- and second-generation immigrant black Americans were beneficiaries of favorable immigration laws, societal integration and cultural identity that helped to create higher achievement levels. For instance, while the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 led to an increase in African and West Indian immigration, it also limited visas to “exceptional professionals.”
The impact? First- and second-generation West Indian and Africans are more likely to have a parent with a high school or college degree than their U.S.-born counterparts. Though the affect of college-educated parents is significant, it does not reflect the countless stories of first-generation college graduates like myself who succeeded in homes with no history of postsecondary education.
If the image of ambitious immigrant black American with strong role models and an appreciation for familial sacrifice is familiar, it’s because this is not the first time America has seen a subgroup like this. This group is often compared to blacks who migrated North from the American South in the early 20th century. The question remains whether this generation will reclaim the spirit of their forebears, appreciate the success of recent immigrants and recognize their potential.
Closing the black-white achievement gap will take overwhelming support for bold education reforms. Closing the achievement gap will also take the support of parents, guardians, uncles, aunts, church leaders and community activists with a renewed sense of what is possible for our children. The answers to our generation’s greatest problems are within reach if we are willing to learn from one another. We can close this gap if we recognize that those who came before us left a plan for success that is being executed by both U.S.-born and first- and second-generational blacks every day.
Curtis Valentine is the executive director of the education advocacy organization MarylandCAN: Maryland Campaign for Achievement Now. He is a former international humanitarian aid professional, community organizer and political consultant.
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