The Volokh Conspiracy
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Whites from Africa Claiming African-American Status
One hears many anecdotes about white Africans claiming African-American status to benefit from affirmative action; does it ever actually happen?
In the course of telling various acquaintances about my book on racial classifications, I have heard in response a lot of anecdotes about people of African descent who are not "black" successfully claiming African American status when applying to college or graduate school to benefit from affirmative action. Sometimes, the purported beneficiary is North African–North Africans, such as Egyptians and Morroccans, are officially classified as white. Sometimes the purported beneficiary is a white South African.
Such stories are entirely plausible. The Department of Education, like all federal agencies, defines the African American/Black category as involving descent from "one of the black races of Africa." Colleges are required to use that definition in reporting statistics to the DOE.
However, the Common Application for college, though implicitly adopting the standard definition, does not provide that definition to applicants. Rather, it asks whether the applicant identifies as "Black or African American (including Africa and Caribbean)." It's entirely possible that a naive or willful non-black applicant could conclude that since his ancestors recently lived in Africa, he can justifiably claim African-American status.
Nevertheless, despite all the anecdotes I have heard, and despite their plausibility, in the course of my voluminous research I came across only one documented example of a non-black applicant claiming African American status, described in the Chronicle of Higher Education in 1994. It involved an applicant to Georgetown University Law Center named Raymond Tittmann, who checked off the Black/African American box and was admitted:
Mr. Tittmann who is white, later wrote Georgetown to explain that he considered himself African American because several generations of his father's family had lived in Tanzania. Not so fast, said Georgetown, which told Mr. Tittmann in May that it would not allow him to enroll until the case was investigated.
Georgetown sent his case to the Law School Admissions Council, which unsurprisingly decreed that it would be improper for Georgetown to classify him as an African American applicant. Mr. Tittmann ultimately withdrew his Georgetown application and decided to attend Notre Dame Law School, where he was on the Dean's List. It's not clear from the story whether he was admitted to Notre Dame, where he had also attended college, as an African American.