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Friday, October 21, 2016

If you are a student of current events, you’re likely tempted toward pessimism about the prospects for young black men. A steady and depressing stream of news reports has focused on the deaths of young black men at the hands of police officials. And, earlier this week, a New York Times analysis offered grim statistics — not exactly new, but unsettling nevertheless — about the 1.5 million black men, between the ages of 25 and 54, missing from mainstream American life, either dead or in prison.

Still, there is other news about young black men, news that is a welcome antidote to the dreary accounts of early, violent deaths and run-ins with a bigoted law enforcement establishment. Let’s take a look at some news that provides a balm for battered dreams.

Last year, Kwasi Enin, a young black man, won the academic lottery: gaining acceptance into all eight Ivy League colleges. This year, a second young black man, Harold Ekeh, has joined that tiny and rarefied fraternity. Given the competition — Harvard University accepts only about 6 percent of its applicants — it’s a dazzling feat.

But even this unalloyed good news is not without its, well, complexities. It provides a window into the tangles and knots that run through the subject of race in America.

Here’s what the seasoned observer would immediately notice about both these remarkable young men: They were born to immigrant families, one from Nigeria and one from Ghana. What can we glean from their success? Does this tell us anything about the limits of the color line?

Ekeh, this year’s world-class scholar, is a senior at a public high school on Long Island. He scored 2270 out of a possible 2400 on the SAT, putting him in the 98th percentile among test takers, and he was also a semifinalist in the prestigious Intel Science Talent Search competition. His parents moved from Nigeria when he was 8.

Last year’s academic all-star, Kwasi Enin, also graduated from a public school on Long Island. Now attending Yale, Enin scored 2250 on the SAT and is also an accomplished musician who plays violin and bass — and sings, to boot. Enin is American-born; his parents moved from Ghana in the 1980s.

In some quarters of black America, the achievements of students such as Enin and Ekeh don’t bring the same measure of pride and celebration that would accrue if they did not have immigrant roots. In the minds of some black intellectuals, Enin and Ekeh haven’t suffered the racism that is a distinct legacy of slavery. Since their parents were born abroad, that thinking goes, they haven’t been exposed to the generational effects of inferior schools, rank poverty, and Jim Crow.

That may be true. But it’s also meaningless. There are plenty of American-born black children — think Malia and Sasha Obama — who haven’t suffered the legacy of poverty or Jim Crow, either.

On the other side of the debate, meanwhile, there are those who are too quick to point to young men such as Enin and Ekeh as symbols of a post-racial society, a nation that has laid racism to its eternal rest. Conservative commentator Thomas Sowell takes that view; he has written that the success of immigrants of color proves that color-based bigotry is a thing of the distant past.

He should talk to President Obama, son of a Kenyan father and a white American mother, who has spoken of the experience so many other black men have shared: having taxis pass him by a few years ago as he tried desperately to hail one. Because skin color is so easily used to discriminate, Enin and Ekeh could face brutal treatment from racist cops, too.

Still, there is something to be gleaned from Enin’s and Ekeh’s extraordinary success: Confidence and hard work can overcome the odds, and immigrants bring those traits by the truckload. By nature, those who choose to pull up, leaving country, kin and culture behind, are people with pluck, resilience and determination. Such parents likely pass those qualities on to their children.

Those traits are no silver bullet pointed at racism, but they certainly provide a useful shield against it.

Cynthia Tucker won a Pulitzer Prize for commentary in 2007. She can be reached at [email protected] Copyright © 2015 Cynthia Tucker

Screenshot: Kwasi Enin via Newsday

  • Dominick Vila

    There is a more powerful element than the stigma or effects of being a descendent of slaves, or a victim of discrimination. Cultural differences between African and Black Caribbean immigrants and African Americans is, for the latter, the result of a defeatist attitude, or the conviction, real or perceived, that no matter how hard they try their chances to succeed, or even the chances to be treated as an equal, are just a chimera.
    For an immigrant, regardless of ethnicity, culture, or gender, arriving at the promised land is a dream come true. For them, it means freedom, opportunity, and the fulfillment of their most cherished dreams. For young black men, such as those cited in this article, pursuing a college education to increase their chances to succeed, intellectually and financially, is a natural transition. For an African-American, it means that in addition to the challenges they are likely to face, even those who succeed know that the stigma that was part of their lives since the day they were born, will continue to be there throughout their lives. They know that for many white Americans, a successful African American is evidence of opportunism, a product of Affirmative Action or welfare, and a manifestation of everything that is evil to them. If in doubt, consider the attacks and claims directed at one of most successful African Americans in U.S. history: Barack Obama. He is not being maligned because of his policies or achievements, alas, if a white President had achieved half of what he has he would have been placed on a pedestal by now. He has been, and continues to be, maligned because of who he is, and what he represents to every single neo-Nazi and white supremacist.

    • 13observer

      Wow, what a mouthful of BS. Barry O is not qualified for the job! Chocolate, vanilla or twist, he like Jimmy Carter (vanilla) are two presidents with the most controversial policies ever. I do so love your “racebaiting” format to justify policy.

      • Dominick Vila

        It depends who you ask. For me, he is among the best Presidents we had in many decades. His foreign policy has earned him the respect of the world, a fact that is evident when we observe the enthusiastic crowds that welcome him whenever he travels abroad. His foreign policy saves the U.S. economy and helped millions of Americans who could not afford high insurance premiums get the medical coverage they need to stay healthy.

        • 13observer

          The enthusiastic crowds come to meet the chocolate Santa from America in hopes he will put them on his list for “free stuff”.

          • Dominick Vila

            The days when Western Europe and countries like Japan and China, begged from free stuff from the USA are long gone. The standard of living in Scandinavian countries, Germany, France, the UK and others is as high or higher than ours.

          • 13observer

            I was referring to third world countries.

  • johninPCFL

    The question from most of the GOP: how did the two black academic stars cheat on the SAT?

  • Doyin

    The facts contained in the write-up is very interesting and true. However one important fact that is not mentioned is the difference in the family structure of the Immigrants and the African-Americans. In most cases the black immigrants are still very much attached to the solid family set up through good family discipline and guidance. In contrast, what we witness here is the breakdown of families where parents are long separated from each other and the children are left to the mercy of the decadent society and the evil of “single parenthood”. Here it is a pride for most of the African American women to refer to themselves as “Single mother” whereas in other culture it is an abomination. Children are meant to be brought up by both parents. Parents are not only to train and discipline their children when they are still fresh and not like “dried fish” that can no longer be bent. This is an African Proverb that is very much true. At this stage, children should be taught that they can achieve anything they want to achieve through had work and determination. Also at this stage they should be made to know that they are not inferior to other race even though the society has tried and is doing everything to subject them to inferiority complex. There is never going to be a time when racial discrimination will be eradicated on the basis of color, but there is going to be a time when being white or black will make no difference because of the enviable position and power Blacks will find themselves in all enviable and influential positions in the blessed country. All it needs is mental reorientation, hard work, determination and solid family structure.