In response to a racially charged attack on a black Cornell student in September, Cornell’s Black Students United issued a list of demands to the university’s president. These demands aimed to establish a more inclusive and supportive campus for students of color. But while most of the group’s requests offered a just vision of a more diverse campus, Cornell’s BSU sullied their proposal with a xenophobic demand centered on the school’s international or first generation African and Caribbean students. Their demand reads:
We demand that Cornell Admissions to come up with a plan to actively increase the presence of underrepresented Black students on this campus. We define underrepresented Black students as Black Americans who have several generations (more than two) in this country. The Black student population at Cornell disproportionately represents international or first-generation African or Caribbean students. While these students have a right to flourish at Cornell, there is a lack of investment in Black students whose families were affected directly by the African Holocaust in America. Cornell must work to actively support students whose families have been impacted for generations by white supremacy and American fascism.
Cornell BSU’s statement wrongly implies that African and Caribbean students have not been affected by American white supremacy. This particular demand shows that Cornell BSU is using the issue of underrepresentation as an excuse to succumb to a wider trend of xenophobia among black Americans. Despite their many contributions to the black community in the United States, black immigrants and African Americans from immigrant backgrounds have often been rejected by their black peers. Our African American peers from non-immigrant backgrounds make us feel unwelcome in the black community by calling us not “really black.” As the black son of Nigerian immigrants, I find this intolerance within my own community extremely frustrating. By disregarding the oppression and racism faced by African American and Caribbean students, Cornell BSU only widens divisions within the black community. If Cornell BSU desires a more proportional representation of different groups among all black students at their school, they must advocate for the admission of more low-income black students, both American and international.
The most glaring falsehood in Cornell BSU’s demand is the implication that only African Americans of non-immigrant backgrounds have “been impacted for generations by white supremacy.” Many African Americans of non-immigrant backgrounds forget that white supremacy did not only wreak havoc within U.S. borders. In fact, the vast majority of Africans who were trafficked in the Transalantic slave trade were sent to the Caribbean and Latin America. Many descendants of Transatlantic slaves even ended up back in Africa, specifically Liberia and Sierra Leone, due to misguided and often unethical resettlement efforts. The countries in these regions continue to feel the horrendous effects of slavery, as do the descendants of the individuals who had to endure the Middle Passage to these regions. Many of these descendants immigrated to the United States. Some now go to Cornell.
White supremacists also wrecked Africa itself through colonialism. Almost every African country that exists today was colonized by a white European nation, and these countries are all still reeling from the vast negative effects of colonialism. Some of the worst effects of colonialism included the apartheid regimes in Rhodesia and South Africa, the genocides and civil wars in Rwanda and Sudan, and the Biafran War and genocide in Nigeria. Both of my parents lived through the latter conflict.
Cornell BSU’s statement also incorrectly implies that African and Caribbean immigrants and first-gens do not feel the effects of racism or “American fascism” as much as their peers from non-immigrant backgrounds. Indeed, black immigrants and first gens have, on average, more money and higher levels of educational attainment than their non-immigrant black peers. Africans and Caribbeans do not have these advantages because they are viewed by the American system and American society as better than other blacks, however. Black immigrants to the United States represent roughly 0.5 percent of the total populations of their home countries, and are underrepresented in the overall immigrant population. Many members of this lucky 0.5 percent come to this country with academic degrees and professional skills that allow them to prosper in spite of America’s racism. But just like the minority of non-immigrant blacks who manage to beat the odds and attain professional degrees, jobs skills, and wealth, black immigrants and their children remain at the bottom of America’s racial caste system. Just like their non-immigrant black peers, American society often views high achieving black immigrants and first-gens as mistakes to be crushed at the first opportunity.
A closer look at the condition of black immigrants and first-gens shows that the American system attacks them in many ways. For instance, even though black immigrants have higher average incomes than non-immigrant blacks, they still have lower household incomes than the American median despite having similar levels of education to Americans overall. Also, many black immigrants are undocumented, and are detained and deported at disproportionate rates. Black immigrants and first-gens also face the threat of police brutality. These often fatal brushes with the system have ranged from the assault and sodomization of Haitian Abner Louima and the fatal shooting of Guinean Amadou Diallo in the ’90s to the more recent killings of Ugandan Alfred Olango and Jamaican-American teen Ramarley Graham. When racist police officers brutalized these men, they did not see Caribbean or African. They saw black.
Simply wanting to change the proportions of different groups represented within the black community on college campuses is not wrong. After all, international and first-generation African and Caribbean students are overrepresented among black students on college campuses. However, this can be attributed to the overrepresentation of middle and upper class black students among black students on college campuses, and the fact that black immigrants and first-gens make up a higher percentage of the black middle and upper classes than of the black community as a whole.
To achieve a more accurate proportional representation of different groups within the Black community, colleges must do more to recruit low-income Black students. If Cornell’s BSU pressured their administration to recruit more low-income Black students, most of whom come from non-immigrant backgrounds, then they would achieve the more proportional representation of black students that they supposedly desire without alienating Caribbean and African students.
Cornell BSU’s ignorant surrender to xenophobic impulses has only divided the black community. Their demand related to African and Caribbean students came as a slap in the face in complete disregard of the negative effects of white supremacy on the families of these students. Such foolishness insults black immigrants and first-gens, and only serves to weaken the entire black community in its fight against the forces that oppress all its members.
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons / Eustress