NEW YORK -- Something in the crowd made Shirley Wilcher wonder. As a college graduate in the early 1970s, her black classmates were like herself -- born in the United States, to American parents. But at an alumni reunion at Mount Holyoke College last year, she saw something different and asked for admissions data to prove it.
"My suspicions were confirmed," said Wilcher, now the executive director of the American Association for Affirmative Action. She found a rise in the number of black students from Africa and the Caribbean, and a downturn in admissions of native blacks like her.
A study released this year put numbers on the trend. Among students at 28 top U.S. universities, the representation of black students of first- and second-generation immigrant origin (27 percent) was about twice their representation in the national population of blacks their age (13 percent). Within the Ivy League, immigrant-origin students made up 41 percent of black freshmen.
Wilcher would like to know why. She asks if her cause has lost its way on U.S. campuses, with the goal of correcting American racial injustices replaced by a softer ideal of diversity -- as if any black student will do.
The study, published in the American Journal of Education, found no definitive answer as to why the change is happening. However, "folks I know personally who have worked in admissions have told me that they weren't surprised," said Camille Charles, a University of Pennsylvania professor who wrote the study with three Princeton University professors.
The researchers looked at data from a national survey of 1,028 freshmen at 28 top colleges and universities in 1999. The eight-year-old material was used because it was specially designed to help find reasons for underachievement by minorities at colleges and universities.
In terms of student background, it found few differences, noting only that far more black immigrant students had fathers with college or advanced degrees than did other black students.
But the authors suggested that the reason for high proportion of immigrant students may lie in how the students are perceived.
"To white observers, black immigrants seem more polite, less hostile, more solicitous, and 'easier to get along with,'" the study said. "Native blacks are perceived in precisely the opposite fashion."
That idea immediately found detractors.
"I can't speak for white people, but that's crazy," said Adoma Adjei-Brenyah, a Columbia University student with college-educated parents from Ghana.
The director of public policy for the National Association for College Admission Counseling agreed. "I reject the notion that admissions officers are somehow deliberately doing this," David Hawkins said.
One legal expert explained the bump in black immigrants by saying that now, decades since the civil rights movement's peak, college diversity is aimed less at correcting American racial injustices and more at creating a variety of perspectives on campus.
Besides, "how many colleges and universities are looking to stand up and say, 'I'm continuing not to cure the problems of the past?'" said Arthur Coleman, a lawyer who co-wrote "Admissions and Diversity After Michigan: The Next Generation of Legal and Policy Issues."
Students agreed the subject of native vs. immigrant background remains sensitive.
Last month, a Harvard Black Students Association message board asked, "When we use the term 'black community,' who is included in this description?" A lively debate ensued, with some posters complaining that African students were getting an admissions boost without having faced the historical suffering of U.S. blacks.
Jason Lee, the Harvard group's president, echoed another thought in the discussion. "There's a historical sense that black Americans are disrespected by immigrants," he said. "Parents don't want their kids to play with them, don't want bad habits rubbing off on them. There's a bit of tension there."
But Adjei-Brenyah, the president of the African Students Association at Columbia, argued that drawing an admissions distinction based on suffering under slavery is false. "If you're going to make a slavery case, people from the Caribbean were also displaced and enslaved. How do you begin to differentiate?" he said.
The issue of native vs. immigrant blacks took hold at Harvard in 2004, when professors Henry Louis Gates and Lani Guinier pointed out at a black alumni reunion that a majority of attendees were of African or Caribbean origin. Gates and Guinier cited demographic information in the "Black Guide to Life at Harvard," a survey of 70 percent of black undergraduates published by the BSA.
In part because of the issue, native black alumni have distanced themselves from Harvard, Lee said. That means fewer are conducting admissions interviews with prospective American-born black students, Lee said, so interviewers from other backgrounds, including immigrant backgrounds, step in.
"I think in that situation, perceptions could come into play," Lee said.
The Harvard admissions office declined comment.
The second edition of the "Black Guide" is being prepared now, and Lee expects another angry response -- if the university releases the updated information.
So far, he said, Lee said, it has not.