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

BSU

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.  

10 comments

  • This is true, however if you look at the Cornell enrollment factbook for undergrads, we see that there are 917 African American students at Cornell and 105 Afro-Carribean/African/black students at Cornell. I think the questions here are not about numbers, but rather to what extent are the international students more privileged and wealthy than the domestic students? Did the international students go to international schools and have private drivers/maids/cooks? How do these students compare to the struggling African American student often discussed in our narratives of public school funding inequality etc in America?

    • Please note I am just being devil’s advocate.

    • Lousie — note here that your question contains the assumptions that Yvette is addressing. You question the status/privilege of the African students vs. AA students.

      Such a question only matters if we assume that there is a fixed number of spots for black students at Cornell, i.e. a quota. Racial quotas are illegal, but if a black quota was used at Cornell, then only then only then does the privilege of Africans vs. AA come into play. Your instinct there is correct that in such a situation the student backgrounds would have to be assessed.

      Now, also notice how your question doesn’t consider that any of those 105 Afro/Carribean students who may “have private drivers/maids/cooks” got in on pure merit. Your question implies that every African kid who is there is taking a place from an AA kid.

      Nobody asks about the foreign white students (Canada/Europe) that blend in though, of which there are almost 900.

  • “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.”

    I applaud your confidence.
    It looks like your jumping through hoops to justify your interpretation of the demand. That entire paragraph astounds me cause I don’t know how you got there. As an international student, straight from a country in Africa like you appear to be, I don’t understand how you fail to see the nuance of the demand.
    The issue of acceptance of african students is a big one, however talking about it in response to this particular demand isn’t really apt. Now if we could channel that energy into calling for BSU to include upping the percentage of African internationals in a whole new BSU demand, I’ll be here for it.
    Also as a response to you and to BSU, let’s not forget that this entire thing was in response to a black boy getting beat up for being black! How we even digressed to these demands, i don’t know.

    It takes very little to look around the black community and see that the representation of Black American students is poor. No one can deny that the black community and the African (from Africa, not hyphenates) community are two different spheres on campus with some (little) overlap. Nevertheless, I have zero affiliation with BSU but I am affiliated with a number of African orgs and I can see the impetus for that demand.
    There’s a special privilege in being non-American and African. Essentially you have direct claim to your history, culture and community. You have not experienced the structural racism that Black Americans face, not descendants of Afro-Carribean immigrants, black Americans. These barriers systematically put this community down from the typical opportunities of learning and economic mobility of internationals and a good number of immigrant families. If you can’t see that then I’m sorry you might be black and a minority on campus but check your privilege. As someone else said, Blackness is Intersectional! The fact that we’re all black does not mean we all faced the same barriers to get here.

    There’s a wonderfully written Facebook comment below your post on the Sun page that you should grab a cup of tea and read soonish (Although that genrealization about wealth is a bit meh, however I get his point if you think relatively to our home countries).
    My first impulse was for BSU to issue a statement to clarify that demand but no. If you lack the empathy and critical reflection skills to understand the rationale then please try and find it because the outrage is out of pocket. More and more people, unfortunately, seem to be up in arms for no good reason.
    Also the more black americans = less Africans is just no. That’s not how the university works. If it was then we’d have every right to be up in arms.

    Also, please don’t provide links to trash like the daily caller on your article. Ew don’t give them clicks or ad money.

    • Maybe the reason for the low enrollment of American born black survivors of the African Holocaust is that they did not meet entrance requirements? This author’s opinion piece was thoughtful and well written. BSU would do well to be more thoughtful and stop evoking Huey Newton.

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  • Obviously students from South Africa who may be Caucasian are African. Egyptians come from Africa too. Or are you biased and really mean just darkly pigmented Africans when tallying up your numbers?

  • Great article.

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  • Thanks for the clear thinking, unbiased commentary and data about Africans at Cornell. BSU’s ridiculous statement about the African Holocaust only perpetuates the suspicion that they were “only admitted into Cornell because they are black.” And as the WSJ (10/18, Naomi Riley) states, successful African-American students don’t use race as an excuse for failure. Who is racist now, BSU?

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