Social media was on fire upon the news that Kwasi Enin, a first generation Ghanaian-American high school student from Long Island, had been accepted to all eight of the Ivy League institutions. The revelation was met with praise for the young man but surprisingly with more reverence and awe for these institutions, including from many Blacks who see this as the pinnacle of success. Sadly, the mythology of elite education continues to distract from the factual record of Black progress in America and confuses individual success with the expansion of group consciousness and advancement.
The Ivy League schools are beyond question fine institutions but they represent a sliver of our nation that is oppositional to real social mobility. They generally reinforce established and pernicious patterns of elite behavior responsible for the rampant inequality we confront on a daily basis in America. And the desperation to walk their hallowed halls only provides ammunition for these institutions to use the hype to reinforce the façade of exclusivity.
While Blacks have successfully navigated these institutions and we have witnessed individual Ivy League success stories, our experience on these campuses has not translated to the transformation of the larger community or the nation for that matter. Yes, we see the success of Black graduates of Princeton, Harvard, Brown and their ilk but what we lack is proof that our “acceptance” into these institutions has wielded larger societal benefits for African-Americans. There are certainly Blacks who have earned an Ivy League degree and made contributions through their professional careers, but since our admission to these colleges in larger numbers since the advent of affirmative action in the late 1960s and early 1970s there is little evidence to point to collective gains.
Contrast the latter generation of Black Ivy League alumni with that of graduates of historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) during the 1930s through the 1960s. It was that generation of young Black men and women who made Ivy League admission possible because they disproved generally accepted theories of Black inferiority that were prevalent in white society. The alumni of Black colleges from that era fundamentally changed this nation. It was their group consciousness, collective activism and commitment to social change that broke down barriers and gave meaning to the democratic rhetoric embedded in America’s founding documents. These students were successful as individuals but their education also parlayed into larger gains for Blacks in general. In my estimation, we have not witnessed anywhere near the progress as a people that occurred when Black college graduates in the mid-20th century made their mark. And that analysis certainly applies to the post-Jim Crow era generations of Black college alumni.
What I also find disturbing is that Ivy League admission for Blacks is often used as a demarcation of intellectual legitimacy. A sheepskin from these schools is often used to legitimate status and results in deepening class tensions. One of the biggest stumbling blocks to Black progress is entrenched class divisions and the manner in which Blacks on the bottom of the economic scale have virtually been abandoned by those who have fared better in life. This is not a uniquely Ivy League ‘better than thou’ proposition but the elitism these institutions breed plays out in our community in a way that frays group consciousness. Yes, Black college alumni can display elitist tendencies but the value placed on Ivy League schools often induces behavior counter to our historical progression.
There will be some who discount the importance of group consciousness or the obligation of an individual to expend their intellectual capital on larger social concerns. And many will defend individual accomplishment as sufficient. Perhaps because I am part of that odd-generation out, sandwiched between Baby Boomers and Generation X that caught a glimpse of social progress that I feel a sense of obligation to the larger community. It is probably why I detest a Clarence Thomas and revere the late Thurgood Marshall because I saw the genuine article but now see a shameful shell of a Black man serving on the nation’s highest court. Marshall represented the essence of our greatest HBCU generation – brilliant, unwavering and committed to the ideals of justice and equality to his grave. Thomas on the other hand is an elite mutation; a beneficiary of training at an Ivy League law school who behaves in a way that suggests he hates his own race and perhaps himself. It is the confusion that false consciousness breeds.
The irony of the wonderful story of Kwasi Enin’s success in gaining admission into all of the Ivy League colleges is that the “father” of his country, Kwame Nkrumah, was educated at a historically Black college, Lincoln University in Pennsylvania. So perhaps we should be celebrating the coming of age of a heightened white consciousness. Blacks have always been brilliant enough to attend the elite 8; it was just a matter of being afforded the opportunity. Just as we have been brilliant enough to attend Howard, Fisk, Hampton. Morgan State, Cheney and the dozens of other Black colleges that have changed this nation. I am proud of Kwasi Enin’s accomplishment but I am praying down the road it yields a Marshall and not a Thomas.
Walter Fields is Executive Editor of NorthStarNews.com. Follow him on Twitter @WFields.