The Friendly Cold War Between ‘Regular Blacks’ and ‘Ethnic Blacks’ at the Nation’s Elite Colleges

First-generation black Americans are deep at selective schools, and so native black Americans are finding that they have to clarify their blackness for the first time in their lives. 

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I’ll never forget the expression on my friend’s face during one of our African-American-studies classes at Duke University, when she was asked to clarify her response—for what seemed like the umpteenth time—to the question, “Where are you from?” after having answered, “America.”

“Look, I’m just regular black,” she said, with an air of frustration plainly woven into her response.

Regular black. It’s become a sort of declaration used by some native black Americans to distinguish themselves from first-generation black Americans—those whose parents migrated to the United States from Africa or the Caribbean. A friend of a colleague said that the term “JB,” or “just black,” was regularly used at her alma mater, Yale.

And these terms have gained popularity as a convenient shorthand, particularly at top-tier universities and Ivy League schools, where a 2007 study found that approximately 40 percent of black students had at least one parent born in a foreign land—nearly half of the black-student population. Meanwhile, only 20 percent of black college students across the nation have at least one immigrant parent, which means that ethnic black students are overrepresented—and have a large market share—at the very best colleges in America.

I suspect that this imbalance is part of what was behind my friend’s snippy response. On several occasions, I’ve seen black American friends who attended Ivies mistaken for Ethiopian, Ghanaian, Jamaican or Nigerian. Like my friend, they were disappointed that their initial response of “American”—which, perhaps, sounded bland and generic compared with everyone else’s—didn’t seem to please or make sense to the people inquiring. It almost implied that black America couldn’t produce high-achieving students who could gain admission to top-flight schools.

Or, as Shahida Muhammad described for Clutch magazine, the similar frustration of how being just “American” simply wasn’t sexy enough for the black population at her school. During college parties and cultural events, the ethnic black students proudly represented where they were from by waving flags and doing all the new dances to reggae music. I recall how some students went on vacations to visit relatives in London, Barbados and West Africa and sometimes spoke to one another with unique English accents that were indigenous to their parents’ native countries. They had a strong sense of nationalism and cultural pride that evaded “regular blacks,” as Twitter attests.

These are some of the tensions that exist from a social perspective. There’s also the age-old affirmative action debate about whether ethnic black students are taking up admission slots that were intended for “regular” black students. If affirmative action policies were created to curb the discrimination that black Americans faced as a result of slavery and Jim Crow, the argument goes, why should colleges count black immigrants—or their children—toward their affirmative action goals? 

The argument further suggests that while these first-generation students are, no doubt, black and American, some of their parents actually had certain economic advantages when they came to the United States, such as student visas, and certainly ideological advantages, such as having been reared and exposed to majority-black governments and societies, which no doubt does wonders for one’s sense of self-determination. There’s the idea that they didn’t carry a lot of the scars that American blacks bear, as a result of slavery and institutional racism—so why were they reaping the same social benefits?