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This Is What Racial Inequality Looks Like

Recently two black male high-school students made news when they each earned impressive numbers of acceptances to Ivy League Universities. Kwasi Enin is a first-generation American from Long Island, whose parents, who are nurses, emigrated from Ghana. He was accepted into all eight Ivy League colleges: Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Brown, Columbia, Cornell, Dartmouth, and Penn.

The other student, Avery Coffey, from Benjamin Banneker Academic High School, grew up in the impoverished 8th Ward of Washington. He was raised by his mother, a medical technician, and was accepted into Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Brown, and Penn.

Given the sheer weight of negative stories and cautionary tales about black men and boys, this news should seemingly have resulted in feel-good stories about hard work overcoming adversity. There was some of that, but, more tellingly, there was also a surprising amount of negativity and grumbling from some whites and Asian-Americans about the ways that race gave those young men an unfair advantage in the admissions process.

A columnist in The Washington Post dismissed the achievements, saying far too much was being made of the story and choosing to use the occasion to write an article about “how we need to stop talking about the Ivy Leagues” so much, because they are overvalued. An article in USA Today announcing Enin’s accomplishments ignited a firestorm when some readers took offense to a passage that the newspaper has now edited out: A college-admissions expert from New York City was quoted as saying that because Enin was a first-generation American of Ghanaian descent, he wasn’t a “typical African-American kid.”

And when the USA Today story was submitted to Reddit, the 2,000 comments devolved into self-pitying complaints against affirmative action and claims of reverse discrimination written by white and Asian-American students. We so often see black men struggle and fail, but what those who responded negatively to these achievements refuse to see and acknowledge are the structural impediments that far too frequently ensure that failure. As a result, they were unable to fully understand (and celebrate) the achievement.

These achievements deserve more than dismissal, qualification, and complaint, particularly given given the low numbers of black students who even attend four-year colleges, much less those that are elite. Consider this: Almost 70 percent of blacks in the United States who receive college degrees do so from for-profit institutions or community colleges, not B.A.-granting four-year colleges and universities, much less those in the Ivy League.

Moreover, as a recent report from the Annie E. Casey Foundation has found, the structural inequality affecting black academic achievement begins at birth and continues through high school. This inequality appears in the form, for example, of consistently lower standardized-test scores and lower high-school graduation rates. Only 66 percent of black students graduate from high school in four years (compared with more than 90% of Asian-Americans). In terms of college-graduation rates, a dismal 33 percent of black male students graduate from college, compared with 57 percent of all students. This means that black men will continue to have less earning power than their white counterparts and be underrepresented across a broad range of high-paying professions. The Casey report makes clear that it is more than individual failure that explains these numbers. The playing field is simply not level.

The report is just one such study helping to explain that, despite all the complaints, there are race-based, structural odds that students and their families have to beat to achieve what Enin and Coffey did. Professor Shaun R. Harper, of the University of Pennsylvania, found that black men accounted for only 4.3 percent of all students enrolled at institutions of higher education in 2002, and that from 1994 to 2008, an increase of one black male undergraduate was accompanied by an increase of five white male students.

Harper says that numerous socioeconomic factors help explain the low rates at which black male students enroll at highly selective colleges. Fewer black families can afford to live in neighborhoods with high property values and well-financed neighborhood schools. The continuation of residential segregation in the United States concentrates black students in public schools that have fewer resources, lower per-student expenditures, fewer AP courses, and teachers who are less experienced than those in suburban schools. That leads to measurable differences in the quality of black students’ educational experiences, ensuring that few are sufficiently prepared to win the race that is the competitive college-admissions processes.

That is what structured racial inequality looks like. That is how it works. It is hard to overcome. When anyone does, it should be acknowledged and praised. However, as the poet and scholar Fred Moten has said, “White supremacy is not just a belief in white superiority and black inferiority, but it structures belief itself.” Those young men and all the rest who have come before and will follow may or may not have understood this but nonetheless chose to believe in themselves. It is time more of us believed in them as well.

Noliwe M. Rooks is an associate professor of Africana studies at Cornell University. Among her books is White Money/Black Power: The Surprising History of African-American Studies and the Crisis of Race in Higher Education (Beacon Press, 2006).

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