Students demonstrate outside the Federal Courthouse, Wednesday, March 7, 2012, in Cincinnati, where the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals was hearing oral arguments in their review of their ruling last summer that Proposal 2, the ban on affirmative action in Michigan, is unconstitutional. (AP Photo/Al Behrman)

By Eghosa Asemota

Edited by Paulina Lucio Maymon


On September 20, 2017, Cornell University’s Black Students United, along with 300 marchers standing in solidarity, handed the University’s president a six-page list of twelve demands. Though the majority of the demands pivoted around the redress of systemic exclusion and the safety of black students on campus in the wake of a recent hate crime, Demand #9 read as follows:


We demand that Cornell Admissions comes 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 group goes on to explain that although international and first-generation African and Caribbean 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.” Fittingly, “Cornell must work to actively support students whose families have been impacted for generations by white supremacy and American fascism.”


Though this demand has been subject to intense scrutiny both on and off campus since its publication, its inclusion rightfully calls into question the implementation of affirmative action at Ivy League universities and its effectiveness as a tool of compensatory justice for students who come from families that have endured continual oppression in the United States.


The history of affirmative action dates back to the Reconstruction Era in the mid-19th century, as a concerted effort to mitigate the ills of slavery after its 250-year operation in the United States as a legally-enforced labor system. Recognizing the legacy of exclusion after the abolition of slavery in 1865, politicians made attempts to move America’s socio-economic landscape towards equity. Endeavors such as the ‘forty acres and a mule’ policy, a government promise to confiscate 400,000 acres of land owned by Confederate plantation owners and then to methodically redistribute it to former slaves, failed to garner congressional and public support. Unsurprisingly, the Goliath of white supremacy continued to manifest in the socioeconomic exclusion of African-Americans from property ownership, the civilian labor force, and public institutions.


As an outgrowth of slavery, the end of the Reconstruction era ushered in the Jim Crow era, a period marred by interracial tension largely due to the implementation and enforcement of state and local laws premised on racial segregation. This legal system was maintained until President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act into law in 1964. Title VII of the Act contains the explicit prohibition of discrimination in private employment. As summarized by Wendy Parker in The Story of Grutter V. Bollinger: Affirmative Action Wins (2006):


The first federal policy of race-conscious affirmative action was the Revised Philadelphia Plan, which required government contractors to set “goals and timetables” for integrating and diversifying their workforce. Similar policies began to emerge through a mix of voluntary practices and federal and state policies in employment and education. Affirmative action as a practice was partially upheld by the Supreme Court in Grutter v. Bollinger (2003), which held that a race-conscious admissions process can favor “underrepresented minority groups” while also taking into account many other factors evaluated on an individual basis for every applicant on the grounds that this approach will compensate for past, societal injustices to the groups and to foster institutional diversity.


Despite the original intent of race-based affirmative action to promote inclusive learning environments, the policy has generated a perverse effect on college campuses, where affirmative action hangs on the fraying threads of diversity and twists away from its historical rationale. Rather than disrupting legacies of exclusion, specifically the historical marginalization of African-Americans, the implementation of the policy is often solely based on the superficial factor of race. In this vein, Ivy League institutions do not make the distinction between Black international students and African-American students, nor do they consider the economic privilege of the Black students that are admitted to the university. These factors thus hinder the fulfillment of the primary objective of affirmative action.


Defining ‘Black’: Acknowledging the Monolithic View


At the core of the absent distinction between Black and international students at Ivy League institutions are the data collection systems that provide rigid, inexact avenues for the self-identification of potential and current students. For example, on the Common Application, a platform used by all eight Ivy League schools for submitting an application for admission, applicants are prompted to self-identify by first answering if they are Hispanic or of Latin American descent, then instructed to check one of five races: American Indian or Alaska Native, Asian, Black or African-American (including Africa and Caribbean). Although the final option acknowledges ethnicity, there is no demarcation differentiating between Black international students and African-American students. As a result, many from both groups resort to choosing the same identifier.


The number of Black international undergraduate students at some of the nation’s top Ivy League schools compared to their African-American counterparts is a testament to the impact of a monolithic view of Blackness. For example, in 2016, Cornell University accepted 99 undergraduate students from African countries, with the largest numbers coming from Kenya, Nigeria, Ghana, and Ethiopia, and 36 undergraduate students from Caribbean islands, totaling 135 Black international students. According to the Class of 2020 profile published by the University, 6.8 percent of the total undergraduate class (3,342 students) are Black/African-American. This total of 228 students is an aggregate number containing both African-American and Black international students. Calculated, this means that for this particular class, roughly 41 percent of Black students were African-American while 59 percent were international. Likewise, in the same year, Princeton University accepted 1,308 undergraduate freshmen, 8 percent of which were Black/African-American. Of these 105 students, 56, or 53 percent, come from African countries and the Caribbean.


If affirmative action on college campuses is intended to act as a race-conscious policy to counteract the still evident relics of slavery and the successive exploitation of its descendants, then this monolithic view of Blackness perpetuated by Ivy League institutions’ data collection strategies hampers its effectiveness. Also, as seen in the examples above, the lack of consideration of ethnicity can lead Ivy League institutions to overstate their progress in adhering to this objective.


On Economic Privilege


Pivotal to alignment with the original intent of affirmative action is the acknowledgment of contextual factors that bespeak the economic privilege of Black international students.


According to data compiled by the Institute of International Education, as of the 2015-2016 school year, the United States hosts 1,043,839 international students from foreign countries at its institutions. Of this total, 35,564 students come from sub-Saharan African countries, with almost a third coming from Nigeria (10,674). A total of 11,042 students come from Caribbean islands, with 2,027 hailing from the Bahamas and 1,381 coming from Trinidad and Tobago. Unsurprisingly, the African and Caribbean countries that send the highest amount of students to matriculate and study at American institutions are the countries with the highest GDP per capita at purchasing power parity (PPP) in their respective regions.


Also worth noting is the rarity of low-income African-American students at Ivy League institutions. According to 2014 data, at all eight Ivy League institutions, recipients of the Pell Grant, a grant distributed to low-income students by the federal government without the need for repayment, accounted on average for just 16 percent of undergraduates. As substantiated by studies conducted by the Equality of Opportunity Project, America’s most competitive colleges and universities have accepted more students from the top 1 percent of families than from the bottom 50 percent of all income-earners. Ultimately, the African-American students who should receive maximal benefit from affirmative action policies remain underrepresented at Ivy League institutions.


Given the proven ineffectiveness of affirmative action as a tool of redressing (historical oppression/structural inequality/the lingering effects of racism past and present, etc.), top colleges and universities must acknowledge the archaic systems they have used to exclude low-income African-American students. College admission offices must recognize their historical reliance on a monolithic view of Blackness that takes race into account but ignores nationality (country of origin) and economic status.


To align admission and recruitment strategies with the original rationale for race-based affirmative action, colleges and universities must adopt a class-based framework that assesses the relative socioeconomic status of prospective students. Coupled with modifications to college applications that take self-identification beyond race and recruitment strategies aimed at African-American students from low-income communities, this framework would allow institutions to maintain minority representation while increasing low-income admissions.



[1] “Black Students United at Cornell Demands, September 2017.” Scribd. Accessed October 19, 2017.

[2] Gates, Henry Louis, Jr. “The Truth Behind ’40 Acres and a Mule’.” The Root, January 7, 2013. Accessed October 26, 2017.


[2] West, Martha S. “The Historical Roots of Affirmative Action.” Berkeley La Raza Law Journal 10, no. 2 (1998).

Accessed October 14, 2017. DOI: 10.15779/Z38JW8Q.


[3] Parker, Wendy. “The Story of Grutter V. Bollinger: Affirmative Action Wins.”

SSRN Electronic Journal, September 1, 2006. Accessed October 10, 2017. DOI: 10.2139/ssrn.929706.


[4] “The Common Application.” The Common Application. June 16, 2017. Accessed October 19, 2017.


[5] 2016-2017 Annual Statistics. Report. International Students and Scholars Office, Cornell University. Accessed

October 13, 2017.


[6] Cornell Class of 2020: A Brief Summary. Report. Cornell University Undergraduate Admissions Office, Cornell University. Accessed October 9, 2017.


[7] “Princeton offers admission to 6.46 percent of Class of 2020 applicants.” Princeton University. March 31, 2016. Accessed October 14, 2017.


[8] International Students 2016-17 By Country and Level Of Study. Report. Davis International Center, Princeton University.


[9] All Places of Origin.” International Student Totals by Place of Origin, 2014/15- 2015/16. 2016. Accessed October 19, 2017.


Eghosa Asemota

Eghosa Asemota

Eghosa Asemota

Written by Eghosa Asemota

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