What affirmative action means for BIPOC scholars in the 21st century

by Melissa Paz-Flores (’22) | February 14th, 2022

“She only got into Saint Francis because she was Latina” were the hurtful words I heard from a white classmate during my middle school graduation. It didn’t hit me until years later that in the spheres of education, work, and beyond, some people brush past accomplishments or passion– simply nitpicking at what race/ethnicity an individual comes from. To think that a student is entitled to an achievement or admission to an institution on the basis of race is appalling. But in discussions about affirmative action, the term is often thrown around without much background as to what it truly means. 

Affirmative action (AA) policies are those implemented by institutions or organizations to improve opportunities for historically marginalized and underrepresented groups in American society (think women in STEM). In this article, I approach affirmative action from an academic standpoint, but the principle applies to the workforce, society, and beyond. It is not as simple as a “points” system or racial quotas based on population. Affirmative action policies date back to the civil rights movement; President John F. Kennedy coined this term when creating the Committee on Equal Employment Opportunity, while President Lyndon B. Johnson passed an executive order to ensure equal employment opportunities without regard to race, gender or ethnicity. Colleges began to create policies of their own in the late 1960s, causing minority student enrollment rates to climb. Columbia University’s Black student population doubled in 1969.

Harvard University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s recent Supreme Court cases, Students for Fair Admissions v. President & Fellows of Harvard College and Students for Fair Admissions v. University of North Carolina, sheds more light on this issue and urges university officials to be transparent with the college admissions process. The case was brought to the higher court by Students for Fair Admissions, an organization representing Asian American and Pacific Islander students who have been rejected by selective universities accused of discrimination. Both Harvard and UNC-Chapel Hill were cited with “racially gerrymandering” their incoming classes in order to reach prescribed racial benchmarks. 

This case is only the tip of the iceberg, and it’s hurting both sides: underrepresented and “over-represented” minorities. If AA is removed in the college admissions process, Latinx or Black students who once had higher “priority” among other applicants will be less inclined to apply to institutions, reducing the amount of racial representation on campus. In 1996, the California State University and University of California systems ended their affirmative action programs through the approval of Proposition 209, which consequently led to a sharp drop in Black and Indigenous student enrollment. A follow-up study released in August 2020 by the Center for the Study of Higher Education at UC Berkeley highlighted that “The measure deterred more than 1,000 underrepresented minority students per year from applying to any UC campus”. These students were still qualified to be admitted to many UC campuses. 

If AA is kept, the diversity of Asian American and Pacific Islander scholars on campuses may continue to be stifled in order to reach the “caps” of other backgrounds/ethnicities. The New York Times reports that Harvard consistently “rated” AAPI applicants lower than others on traits including kindness, being respected, and likability, according to an analysis of more than 160,000 student records.

Keep in mind that the goal of AA is to “take into account the factors, background, and context” of an applicant, considering how that might compare to those of another ethnicity/background. For example, if applicant A comes from an affluent area and receives personalized college counseling and test prep while applicant B comes from an underrepresented area with historically low graduation rates, admissions committees may factor this disparity into account. They then may consider how each student utilizes the resources at their disposal. Color-blind admissions do not equal fair meritocracy; by incorporating color-blind policies, institutions are ignoring the notion that race will play a role in one’s success. A “holistic” application review cannot be holistic without realizing the implications of race. 

Alternatively, legacy or donations play a part in the admissions process. Applicants whose parents are part of the full-time faculty or large donors to a university may receive an unfair extra boost during application reviews. Stanford University’s Office of the Provost explicitly mentions that 16.2% of the class of 2023 were children of graduates and an additional 1.5% had a “noted history of philanthropy.” It is time to eliminate this aspect from the admissions process altogether. Legacy applicants set up FGLI (first-gen, low income) students to be automatically one step behind in the world of college admissions. 

The Supreme Court will not issue a ruling on the Harvard AA case until the end of 2023. In the meantime, we can reflect on support systems found within our communities. There are countless organizations in the Bay Area committed to putting high schoolers on the path to higher education, such as College Track, Peninsula Bridge, and Questbridge, to name a few, and it is up to us, as students, to take advantage of every resource available. 

On the same note, it is important to evaluate the unequal distribution of resources across schools in the nation. As Lancers, we need to acknowledge the immense amount of privilege we hold in terms of support systems and education. Affirmative action is not a perfect system. Until students from every background are provided with the support systems they need, AA is simply a bandage on the deep wound of institutionalized racism. 

Categories: Opinions

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