What does it mean that the top universities seem to be more open to racial minorities yet native-born racial minorities (i.e. 3rd or more generation black Americans, Puerto Ricans, and Native Americans) are still underrepresented in these Historically White Colleges and Universities (HWCUs)?

It means that affirmative action education policies are not doing the job they set out to do. Officially, this set of policies came out of the civil rights movement and they were primarily meant to address the history of discrimination and exclusion from schools and workplaces that native-born racial minorities experienced. Along the way, schools have come to use affirmative action as a way to make their student populations more reflective of the racial diversity in the larger U.S. population.

To be more open to students from underrepresented racial backgrounds is not the same as to address the historical exclusion of native-born racial minorities. Why? Because affirmative action as a racial diversity tool ignores how race maps onto both class and ethnicity. This is why even the most racially diverse, elite HWCU has a student body that mainly comes from wealthier families and why their students of color are mostly 1st or 2nd generation immigrants.

To be clear, I’m not saying that immigrants of color should not be at selective colleges. Our contributions to the U.S.’ economic and social fabrics are crucial to the country’s vitality. Immigrants of color also suffer from discrimination based on race, class and ethnicity. Our immigrant background, however, interacts with our other social characteristics in a way that makes our handicaps look different from those of the native-born minority population. When universities use affirmative-action policies mainly as a racial diversity tool, they help to integrate immigrants, while at the same time using us as statistical stand-ins to tiptoe around the fact that they are still closed off to black Americans, Puerto Ricans, and Native Americans.


When schools offer a handful of us the opportunity to come up, “mainstream” (read: basic) Americans come to believe, falsely, that the U.S. is more open and no longer has a problem with race. This is just one way white supremacy has creatively remixed its anti-black racism to be more covert and therefore harder to change. Whether or not HWCUs are intentionally sidestepping some moral commitment to take responsibility for their part in oppressing marginalized groups, I don’t know. What is clear is that increasing racial diversity for only a few among us to use to come up while our most marginalized are being left behind and further subjugated to the margins of society is not going to get us racial justice. As Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. reminds us, no one is free until we are all free.

If we’re serious about dismantling white supremacy and getting free, we have to hold universities and education policymakers accountable for their ongoing exclusion of native-born racial minorities. Rather than exclude native-born racial minorities in favor of immigrants of color, affirmative action practices need to be more inclusive of both groups if they are to fulfill their original promise.

Dialika is a graduate student. When she’s not on the school grind, she can be found working with some kids and/or rapping her heart out to some J. Cole song.