In recent weeks, extraordinary stories of Black male academic achievement have flooded the media.
First, there was Chad Thomas, the Florida teen who received 150 scholarship offers due to his prowess on the gridiron and his mastery of music. Next the media glare was trained on D.C.’s Avery Coffey, who was accepted to five Ivy League schools— Harvard, Princeton, Yale, the University of Pennsylvania, and Brown—while also playing baseball, basketball, tennis and soccer.
Receiving the most intense interest is the story of Kwasi Enin, a Ghanaian-American student from New York who applied and was accepted to eight Ivy League schools—Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Brown, University of Pennsylvania, Columbia, Dartmouth and Cornell.
As inundated as Black Americans are with painful images of violence, poverty, incarceration and illiteracy, there is an understandable exuberance when these stories of individual achievement are recognized. Lost in that thrill, however, some of us fall into the trap of conflating excellence with exceptionalism.
The “respectable” among us will both figuratively and literally trample over hoodie-wearing teens with valid dreams of their own in their haste to lift more socially acceptable Black boys and girls onto flimsy pedestals of White validation. These pedestals are handed down from generation to generation, collecting dust in our collective imagination until the next exceptional one arrives. Then we allow ourselves, if only for a moment, to forget that institutionalized racism is embedded everywhere from San Quentin to Stanford. And that just as our Black boys and girls can become trapped in a penal system designed to replicate slavery, they can also become trapped in an education system designed to miseducate and reshape them into the likeness of white supremacy.
In Kwasi’s case, college admissions expert Katherine Cohen, CEO and founder of IvyWise, weighed in on his achievement by stating that the fact that he’s a first generation American helped him stand out from “typical” African American kids.
Though USA Today has quietly scrubbed Cohen’s inherently racist and stereotypical statement from the article (probably with her White tears), the stench remains. One could argue that she simply revealed an inconvenient truth about the racism that contaminates the Ivy League.
According to a 2007 study published by the American Journal of Education:
Immigrants, who make up 13 percent of the nation’s college-age black population, account for more than a quarter of black students at Ivy League and other selective universities, according to the study, produced by Princeton University and the University of Pennsylvania.
The large representation of black immigrants developed as schools’ focus shifted from restitution for decades of excluding black Americans from campuses to embracing wider diversity, the study’s authors said. The more elite the school, the more black immigrants are enrolled.
Black American scholars such as Henry Louis Gates and Lani Guinier, two Harvard University professors, have said that white educators are skirting long-held missions to resolve historic wrongs against native black Americans by enrolling immigrants who look like them.
One could say that Cohen’s statement isn’t an indictment of Black American youth, rather an objective assessment of the state of Ivy League admissions.
And one would be wrong.
Because to definitively say what isn’t typical one must have a clear, preconceived notion of what is typical. And in the United States, we know how typical White folks view Black youth, don’t we?
With one word, Cohen downplayed Kwasi’s achievement—his acceptance across the board is outstanding for a young person of any race or ethnicity, not just African or Black American, perpetuated the mythology that Africans are superior to Black Americans and threw Black American students away as unremarkable, unworthy, academically risky.
This is typical White supremacist logic. A willfully flawed logic that persists because it fits the narrative that anyone with drive and determination can attain the American Dream while purposely ignoring systemic racism. This is the great Black lie that this country—and by extension, beneficiaries of White privilege—continues to tell itself.
As Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote in his insightful piece, Black Pathology and the Closing of the Progressive Mind:
There is no evidence that black people are less responsible, less moral, or less upstanding in their dealings with America nor with themselves. But there is overwhelming evidence that America is irresponsible, immoral, and unconscionable in its dealings with black people and with itself. Urging African-Americans to become superhuman is great advice if you are concerned with creating extraordinary individuals. It is terrible advice if you are concerned with creating an equitable society.
We live in a nation where Harvard Professor Henry Louis “Skip” Gates was arrested for “breaking and entering” into his own home. We live in a nation where a group of Black Harvard and Yale alums were profiled as “gangbangers” in front of a Boston venue. This is a nation that tells us, that shows us, at every single opportunity that being respectable will not save us nor our children; yet we still seek White validation as if it comes with freedom papers. Cultural emancipation becomes collateral damage on the road to individual exceptionalism.
As I’ve previously written, individual achievement is not collective uplift. Our celebration of it must always be tempered with an awareness of whom and what societal and political constructs it stands to benefit. When White students are excellent, by default, it will be used for the perpetuation of White supremacy. People of color in this country do not possess that privilege. When we are deemed exceptional and atypical, there are blatant attempts to wield us as weapons against our own communities.
Kwasi’s excellence was a fact long before he was given the stamp of approval by the Ivy League. He is not excellent-adjacent. He is not excellent by association. Black excellence in America has always been and will always be typical. That would still be a fact whether Kwasi attended Yale University or Clark Atlanta University.
Perhaps most importantly, as we celebrate him and all the other Black youth striving toward their goals, we must not be reactionary in our expectations of what greatness looks like or measure it by standards not of our own making.
If you ever find yourself somewhere lost and surrounded by enemies/who won’t let you speak in your own language/who destroy your statues and instruments/who ban your omm bomm ba boom/then you are in trouble/deep trouble/they ban your own boom ba boom/you in deep deep trouble/humph/probably take you several hundred years to get out. – Amiri Baraka
Follow Kirsten West Savali on Twitter at @KWestSavali.