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 firstname.lastname@example.org. Copyright © 2015 Cynthia Tucker
Screenshot: Kwasi Enin via Newsday