Questioning the “net black advantage”
December 2, 2009 |  by Elizabeth Evitts Dickinson

Spend time with Johns Hopkins assistant professor of sociology Pamela Bennett and you begin to realize how much of life is premised on assumptions. Take post-secondary education in America. In 2004, when Bennett joined the Hopkins Sociology Department, she remembers reading a New York Times article about Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. (This was well before he made headlines for police profiling and presidential beer summits.) Gates, along with Harvard professor Lani Guinier, had found that of the black students attending Harvard, the lion’s share was immigrants versus native-born African Americans. The story about their findings ran under the headline “Top Colleges Take More Blacks, but Which Ones?”

Gates and Guinier were working in an area that Bennett, whose research focuses on education and segregation, knew well: a sociological finding called the “net black advantage.” Research dating back to the 1960s reveals that while a smaller proportion of black high school graduates enroll in college than whites, blacks are more likely than whites actually to attend college, hence the net advantage. Gates and Guinier challenged the value of that advantage by questioning where, exactly, those black students were coming from: If more blacks were going to college, but few of them had been born in the United States, what did that say about African Americans and higher education?

The article sparked a debate around the country about why a black kid from West India is more likely to go to a prestigious American school than a third-generation black kid from the west side of Detroit, and that debate revolved around long-held notions about race, culture, and education, including the assumption that native blacks devalue education because they don’t want to “act white.” Some previous studies had argued that immigrants had an advantage because they came from predominantly black cultures without the racial tensions implicit in America. Others contended that once an immigrant’s family became more assimilated in the United States, they, too, would lose the desire to achieve higher education. In other words, race and American cultural realities kept African Americans from attending college.

Bennett wasn’t buying it. “People were going off of a lot of observations and impressions. Those kinds of initial observations are fine. They get you thinking. But in terms of getting a solid answer to this question, you need to bring accurate data,” she says. “I wanted to know why. I never accepted these things as a given.”

This summer, she and Syracuse University professor Amy Lutz released findings from their new study in the journal Sociology of Education. Called “How African American Is the Net Black Advantage? Differences in College Attendance Among Immigrant Blacks, Native Blacks, and Whites,” the report dissects a number of prior studies and statistics and puts them into context. The duo concluded that the real issue is socioeconomics—the disparity is more about resources than racial ethos.

Bennett and Lutz studied the proportion of immigrant black high school graduates attending prestigious colleges and universities in America as compared to native black or white students. They analyzed data from the National Education Longitudinal Study, a study of students who were in the eighth grade in 1988 and were tracked for 12 years, and confirmed what Gates and Guinier had noted, that among immigrant children (those new to the country or born to first-generation immigrant parents), 9.2 percent enrolled in elite colleges compared with 2.4 percent of native black students and 7.3 percent of white students. But Bennett argues that the common explanation for those disparities—that immigrant blacks’ cultural values propelled them while native blacks shunned higher education—overlooked that these immigrants were not the poor, huddled masses we assume them to be. Instead they were ambitious, educated families who had enjoyed middle and upper-middle class status in their countries of origin. Their success in America was being measured against performance in poor African-American communities—it wasn’t an apples-to-apples comparison. “If the cultural explanation really held water, you would see fewer middle class blacks going to college. In fact, the exact opposite is true,” Bennett says.

Bennett and Lutz found no significant differences in college enrollment between immigrant blacks and African Americans when they come from similar socioeconomic backgrounds. “There’s this idea that because a group displays higher rates of post-secondary enrollment, it’s a reflection of their values, rather than, say, the fact that both parents went to college and they have the resources and knowledge to help their child do the same,” she says.

The study could be a game-changer in how educational policies are structured. Bennett points to President Barack Obama’s goal of leading the world in college graduates by 2020. To achieve that, she says, the country must focus on the real hurdles to higher education. “Why does going to a private school improve your chances of going to college? Why do certain parents know what math class their child needs to take in order to get into college, but others do not? My hope is that we get beyond this question of culture and start to question the true structural obstacles that explain the different outcomes.”