Caribbean Immigrants and African-Americans in U.S Colleges

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Prior to the 1960’s educational opportunities for African-Americans were virtually nonexistent due to De Facto and De Jure segregation. After the Civil Rights Act of 1964 banned discrimination in education, educational opportunities for Blacks in the United States transcended. To ensure change, President Lyndon B. Johnson initiated various “Affirmative Actions” to increase black enrollment into the education system. President Johnson reasoning for this initiative was restitution for Nation’s past failures to accommodate for African-American’s needs and desires (Waters 1999).  However, data over the years has shown that immigrants, especially Caribbean immigrants, are disproportionately more represented than native blacks in the most selective U.S Colleges and Universities. Below is a pie chart of the origins of black immigrants enrolled in selective U.S colleges and universities,

Taken from 2007 American Journal of Education article Black Immigrants in U.S Colleges and Universities

Are African-Americans still benefiting from Affirmative Action? Was this really the intent of the Civil Rights Act? Maybe not, but current statistics have proven it to be the current trend across the Nation. Over the past few decades many theories have been proposed to provide an explanation for this phenomenon. Mary C. waters, John Ogbu, and Debra Viadero explanation for this phenomenon in the 90’s focused on more indirect rudimentary reasons, such as residential location and internal motivation. Articles that have been published in more recent years by authors Pamela R. Bennett, Amy Lutz, Douglas Massey and his colleagues have a similar argument as authors in the 90’s, but their theories include more simpler reasons, such as Admissions officers favoring Caribbean Immigrants over African Americans because studies have shown they are easier to get along with.

Loosening of Immigration Laws

After the implementation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 many other policies were introduced that rectified the educational system. Amongst these policies was the loosening of immigrant restrictions after 1965. Due to this alteration the number of black immigrants more than doubled between the 1980’s to 1990’s. Specifically speaking Afro-Caribbean’s accounted for 70% of the foreign black population, consisting of 2.1 million (Massey et al., 2007). This leniency in immigration laws allowed more blacks to infiltrate into selective U.S colleges and universities. Douglas Massey along with his colleagues Margarita Mooney, Kimberly C. Torres, and Camille Charles conducted an analysis of the National Longitudinal Survey of Freshmen (NLSF) to observe the discrepancies between Black Immigrants and Black Natives attending selective colleges and universities in the United States. This study observed 1,028 blacks, 959 whites, 998 Asians, and 916 Latinos over a course of four years starting in the fall of their freshmen year in 1999 and ended with a post-graduation follow-up in the spring of 2004 (Massey et al. 2007). Through their research they were able to gather substantial data that allowed them to frame plausible explanations for why Caribbean Immigrants are represented more in U.S colleges and universities than African Americans. Of all their explanations these three were the most popular; admissions officers might target immigrants for recruitment because they understand that Caribbean Students are more motivated, driven, and likely to succeed, and/or because they possess objective characteristics such as higher grades or better test scores, and/or admission officers consider documented information about how whites generally feel more comfortable with black immigrants as opposed to black natives (Massey et al. 2007).

Mary C. Waters

Mary C. Waters is a professor of sociology at Harvard University who specializes in studying the different aspects of immigration. Her research specifically focuses on inter-group relations, the formation of racial and ethnic identity among the children of immigrants, and challenges of measuring race and ethnicity. She is also the author of a well written book titled Black Identities: West Indian Immigrants Dreams and American Realities. In this book she utilizes testimonies from West Indian teachers, American teachers and legislators, and West Indian Students to formulate her ideology that the location of where West Indian Immigrants decide to live once they arrive to the U.S influences their educational achievement. A thirty-seven year old Jamaican teacher, who has lived in the U.S for seven years, expressed that she would rather live in a neighborhood where the population was racially balanced between whites and minorities primarily because her child will be more comfortable and there would be more educational opportunities for them to explore (Waters 1999). Another major factor that Waters mentioned as contributing to this shift in enrollments of Caribbean immigrants is the change in importance of schooling amongst parents of West Indian children due to the change in the economy. The parents of West Indian children did not mind doing someone’s housework or being a nurse’s aide when they were adolescents (Waters 1999). Therefore, they were not particularly motivated to go to college and receive formal education.  On the contrary, West Indian children of this generation do not want jobs of that caliber. They are more interested in professional careers such as doctor, lawyer, or teacher. These are jobs that require a college education, so in order to fulfill their dreams they must enroll into a good college or university.

John Ogbu

John Ogbu was a Nigerian-American anthropologist and professor best known for his creation of the concept “Involuntary and Voluntary Minorities”. Although he died in 2003, his legacy has persevered.  His findings have been utilized by many educationalists to interpret the relationship between immigrant minority students and native born minorities in the education system.  “Involuntary minorities are less economically successful than voluntary minorities, usually experience greater and more persistent cultural and language difficulties, and do less well in school” (Ogbu 1998). According to Ogbu children of immigrant minorities are also classified as voluntary minorities, although they were born in the U.S and had no say in whether or not they live in the U.S (Ogbu 1998). Through his research Ogbu was able to identify that many Africans and Caribbean’s have assimilated with nonimmigrant minorities and adapted their sense of peoplehood. Role models within the voluntary minority communities are usually people who have fully acculturated, attained a higher education, and achieved economic success. In the following quote Ogbu provides a contrast between the two ethnic groups:

“They are hard workers who have played by the rules of the system and succeeded. Voluntary minorities are less conflicted about accommodating to white society, so their role models include people who fully adopt white ways and language….Involuntary minorities’ role models include conventional categories-entertainer, athletes, professionals, and the wealthy–as well as nonconventional types–rebels against white society and people of exceptional courage. Unlike voluntary minorities who admire conventional role models (e.g., minority doctors, engineers, executives, lawyers) for working their way up from the inside and playing by the rules, involuntary minorities tend to criticize minority professionals as ‘unconventional’ (from a minority perspective), rule-breakers, people who achieved success because they worked twice as hard, were twice as smart, twice as strong, and sometimes were just lucky” (Ogbu 1998).

Ogbu’s conclusion can be used to formulate another reason for why Caribbean students have become more represented in U.S colleges and Universities than Native African Americans in the last few decades. Since Caribbean students are more likely to perceive minorities in the corporate field as role models, they hypothetically should want to acquire jobs of that similar caliber once of age. Therefore, they are more internally motivated to go to college and obtain a quality education.

Debra Viadero

Debra Viadero is an assistant managing editor for the national newspaper Education Week. Through her research she discovered similar findings as John Ogbu to explain why there is a discrepancy in the representation of African Americans and Caribbean immigrants in U.S colleges and universities. Her explanation is founded off the ideology that Caribbean immigrants are more internally motivated to pursue an education than African Americans. She uses a quote from a professor at Michigan State University, Ruben G. Rumbaut, to support her belief; “‘They take what they’re doing more seriously, and they generally appreciate the fact that, for them, education is the ticket to social mobility’” (Viadero 1998). To further validate her theory, Viadero also mentioned that a study conducted in 1992 stated that a higher percentage of immigrant students in comparison to American students, including African Americans and whites, desired a college degree or higher. Another fact that she included was that over a four year span from 1992 there was a percentage increase in the number of immigrants who preferred speaking English instead of their native languages. These children have an understanding that in order to achieve their goal of academic success they must perfect the English language.

Douglas Massey

Douglas Massey is an American sociologist who is currently a professor of Sociology at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University as well as a professor of Sociology at the University of Pennsylvania (“Douglas”). Massey is specifically interested in the sociology of immigration. In 2007 Massey wrote an article analyzing the data obtained from the National Longitudinal Survey of Freshmen. The explanations that Massey and his colleagues have postulated to account for the phenomenon between Caribbean immigrants and African Americans resemble that of John Ogbu and Debra Viadero. Massey et al. use ideas from researchers in 1997 to 2003 to form a conclusion that stressing the importance of respecting authority and family solidarity characteristics of immigrant families as well as their status as voluntary minorities fosters a positive perception of education and social of mobility (Massey et al. 2007). Massey also notes that prior to arriving in the U.S, Jamaican immigrants are usually members of the skilled middle class and have exhausted all their occupational opportunities (Massey et al. 1998). This is the case for many other immigrants who migrate to the U.S as well. The reputation of U.S colleges and the countless opportunities offered in the United States attracts the most prestigious immigrants, which can account for their high motivation level. Statistical data has shown that some admission officers deliberately choose to admit black immigrants over descendants of American slaves. “This scenario represents an example of ‘statistical discrimination,’ in which admissions officers have nothing against native blacks per se but nonetheless use foreign origin as a proxy for other characteristics they find attractive” (Blank et al. 2004). This is directly linked to the stereotype that researchers have discovered over the years that whites feel more comfortable with black immigrants in comparison to black natives. Whites see black immigrants as “more polite, less hostile, more solicitous, and ‘easier to get along with’” than black natives (Massey et al. 2007).

Amy Lutz and Pamela Bennett

Amy Lutz is an associate professor of sociology at Maxwell School of Syracuse University. Her colleague Pamela Bennett is an assistant professor of the sociology department. Lutz and Bennett teamed up to investigate blacks in U.S colleges. Their interest in this subject was sparked from a comment made from Harvard professors Lani Guinier and Henry Gates, Jr. who observed at a 2004 reunion that more than half the black students at Harvard were West Indian and African immigrants. These two authors use data from the 1988 National Education Longitudinal Study to conduct an analysis of Black students who attend college in the United States. Their research led them to discover that 56.9% of immigrant black freshmen come from two-parent families opposed to 51.4% natives blacks. They also were able to find that 70% of immigrant blacks’ fathers have a college degree, when only 55.2% of native blacks’ fathers have a college degree (Bennett and Lutz 2009). Lutz and Bennett used these statistics to suggest that black immigrants have a relatively significant advantage to succeed academically than native blacks. This is the basis of their argument to support why Caribbean immigrants are represented more in colleges than native blacks.


Should this topic even be up for debate? If Caribbean immigrants meet the criteria to attend a prestigious college in the U.S, then why does it matter that they weren’t born in the United States. Colleges are competitive institutions and should not lower their standards to accommodate for individuals who do not meet their qualifications, whether they were born in the United States or not. This does not mean, however, that admissions officers are allowed to use discriminatory tactics to select individuals based off of their own preferences rather than off the student’s merits. The similarity in answers from authors over the last two decades to the question of why Caribbean immigrants are more represented in U.S colleges than native blacks, has demonstrated that native blacks have the opportunity to obtain a college degree, but they lack the internal motivation that most Caribbean immigrants possess.


Waters, Mary. Black Identities: West Indian Immigrant Dream and American Realities. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999.

Massey, Douglas, Margarita Mooney, Kimberly Torres, and Camille Charles.  “Black Immigrants and Black Natives Attending Selective College and Universities in the United States.” American Journal of Education 113, no. 0195–6744 (February 2007).

Ogbu, J. U. and Simons, H. D. (1998), “Voluntary and Involuntary Minorities: A Cultural-Ecological Theory of School Performance with Some Implications for Education.” Anthropology & Education Quarterly, 29: 155–188. doi: 10.1525/aeq.1998.29.2.155

Viadero, Debra. “Immigrant Children Succeed Despite Barriers, Report Says.” Education Week, April 1, 1998.

Bennett, Pamela R., and Amy Lutz. “How African American Is the Net Black Advantage? Differences in College Attendance Among Immigrant Blacks, Native Blacks, and Whites.” Sociology of Education 82, no. 1 (January 1, 2009): 70–100.

“Douglas Massey.” Facebook, n.d.

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Shantel Hanniford

My name is Shantel Hanniford and I am currently a Junior at Trinity College. I was born in Jamaica but grew up in Nantucket, Ma with my father and my step-mother. I am double majoring in Educational Studies and Psychology. I am also a member of the Women’s Basketball team and a social-chair for the Caribbean Student’s Association on campus.