October 3, 2017

THE ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM | Combating White Supremacy Should Not Entail Throwing Other Black Students Under the Bus

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On September 29, The Daily Caller claimed that Black Students United (BSU) at Cornell had insinuated in their list of demands to President Pollack on September 20 that Cornell “is letting in too many African students.” Upon seeing this headline, I dismissed the article as the click bait material straight out of a troll handbook. But because college has taught me to question everything and dismiss nothing, I took another careful look at BSU’s demands.

Although the sensationalist article made it seem like BSU had called for Cornell Admissions to ask for birth certificates on the Common App as Trump did during the Obama presidency, to be clear, BSU did not explicitly say that Cornell should stop admitting African, first generation, and Caribbean students. The organization said “the Black student population at Cornell disproportionately represents international or first-generation African or Caribbean students” and that “there is a lack of investment in Black students whose families were affected directly by the African Holocaust in America.” Thus, “Cornell must work actively to support students whose families have been impacted for generations by white supremacy and American fascism.”

While advocating for increases in admissions of African American students is pertinent and should be a priority for all universities, insinuating that Cornell is overrun with foreign and first generation black students and that they are taking away the spots of American black students suggests that there are only a set number of spots for folks with melanin, a quota that should only be filled by a certain kind of black person. The kind of black students who should be here, as per BSU’s definition, are “Black Americans who have several generations (more than two) in this country.” Limiting the definition of “black” to only American students is treading xenophobic waters and unwittingly bolsters the misconception that black students are only admitted into Cornell because they are black. It implies that those not “black enough” have no right to be here, even if they have the qualifications to earn their admission.

Moreover, claiming that there are a disproportionate amount of Africans at Cornell is simply inaccurate. In data published by the International Students and Scholars Office Annual Statistics for 2016-2017, African students were reported to make up less than 3.1% of the student body. This means that approximately 155 African students attend Cornell in a given year (99 undergraduate and 43 graduate, out of a total of 14,315 undergraduate and 5,265 graduate students). If someone put all the African students admitted in a given year in one room, they would not come close to reaching the carrying capacity of Baker Lab. In fact, African students are among the least represented groups at Cornell.

The prevailing narrative in America right now surrounding non-American citizens is that they are “taking all the jobs.” Has this extended to the idea that foreigners are “taking all the university spots”? While I applaud BSU for being a cornerstone of social justice efforts on campus and taking quick, strong action against racism, especially during this trying semester, BSU should not be exempt from constructive criticism.

Some students I’ve talked to argue that there are some African, Caribbean, and first generation students on BSU’s executive board, so BSU could not possibly be biased against foreign and first generation students. This seems to have the same tone as a white person claiming that they could not possibly have any racial bias because they have a black friend. Instead of alienating black students who aren’t American, or are first generation American, and seeing them as competition, I urge BSU to rethink the ways it appears to view other black students and to re-word its divisive demands, because we are all in this struggle for equality together.