How much of Harvard’s black population is descended from slaves?

Aditi Balakrishna, in the Harvard Crimson, looks at the reasons why recent immigrants are overrepresented among black Harvard students:

“In practical terms, immigrants, no matter what color they are, are a highly selective group of people,” [said Camille Z Charles, who wrote the study on which the article is based].

“At some level, there will always be an immigrant-native difference because you only get the most motivated, best prepared, cream-of-the-crop set of immigrants,” since their families have had to leave their native countries and start anew in the United States, she said.

Greg Mankiw, however, picks up the story and puts a very different spin on it:

It has been widely noted that Senator Barack Obama, while black, is not a descendant of slaves. Instead, his father was a recent immigrant from Kenya. An article in today’s Harvard Crimson suggests Obama (Columbia undergrad, Harvard Law School) is representative of a common story.

It’s true that most African-Americans are descendants of slaves. But it’s not true that black immigrants are not descendants of slaves, as Mankiw implies. Many black immigrants come from the Caribbean, and Caribbean blacks are just as much descended from slaves as American blacks are. A good proportion of African immigrants are descended from slaves, too. Where else might black immigrants come from? If the UK, then they’re probably descended from slaves, since they’re likely of Caribbean heritage. You get the picture. It might well be the case that Obama is not a descendant of slaves — in fact, he’s a descendant of slave-owners. But you can’t extrapolate from his case to all the other black immigrants at Harvard.

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3 Responses to How much of Harvard’s black population is descended from slaves?

  1. Blair says:

    Slavery predates written history on every continent, and people of all races and nationalities are descendants of both slaves and slave owners. We limit discussion of slavery to the United States in order to focus blame on whites; otherwise, all races would be guilty. The truth is that many African Americans have black as white acestors who owned slaves in the United States. In the United States, thousands of free blacks owned slaves. One of the South’s largest slave owners was a free black man who was notorious for his harsh treatment of slaves. The precentage of free blacks who owned slaves was small, but so was the percentage of free whites who owned slaves. The orignal American colonies also had white slaves–not to be confused with identured servants–who were transported from Europe, but there were never very many.

  2. Barrack Obama’s Kenyan dad didn’t descend from slave owners as Felix alleges but from fishermen. Fishing is still the most popular economic activity among the Luo community in Kenya. There are many black immigrants in elite American and European universities because immigrants are generally hard-working and optimistic.

  3. Gerri says:

    I am also concerned about the lack of African-Americans (descendents of slaves) in America’s top universities. I am a student at the University of Chicago, a top 10 school, that greatly lacks the presence of Africans period (only 4%). This is particularly odd, as Chicago is one the largest African-American cities in the county (>1,000,000). If you examine our black student body, you’ll find many Africans are either (a) immigrants or are (b) also european. Within the people who are decendents of slaves, very few are male (est. 5:1 female/male). So, why are we faced with this problem? As stated above, most immigrants are generally derive from the educated classes of their country. You must have some money to travel from Africa, because as I’ve found, airfare is very expensive. But, we must not forget the legacy of slavery; hundreds of years of no pay and limited “education”. It will take a very long time for descendents of slaves to “catch up”, as we are a few hundred years behind.

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