Here's Why The End Of Affirmative Action Will Be Devastating For People Like Me

"I hoped that affirmative action could create a pathway for someone who looks like my son to gain access to the elite college campuses that have traditionally excluded us."
"My fear now is that if diversity is no longer mandatory in higher education, then it won’t be valued anywhere," the author writes.
"My fear now is that if diversity is no longer mandatory in higher education, then it won’t be valued anywhere," the author writes.
Cavan Images via Getty Images

The news alert consisted of just six words, but they made my stomach sink: “Supreme Court Strikes Down Affirmative Action.”

Please don’t let it be true.

I clicked through to find that the court had ruled the affirmative action programs at the University of North Carolina and Harvard violate the equal protection clause of the Constitution and are therefore unlawful.

I never attended college. But I was 6 years old when I first walked through the doors of the Friends School, a Quaker-based private school in Cambridge, Massachusetts. I remember how cold the monkey bars on the playground were, even with mittens. I remember having my first scones when my teacher brought lemon ones in for snack one day. And I remember how the other girls wore their long, glossy hair loose down their backs, while my coarse curls, tamed into two fat braids, barely touched my shoulders.

My mother removed me from that school before the year was over because I was the only Black child there. I would go on to be removed from two more schools for the same reason. Wanting me to have the best education, she had carefully selected schools with excellent reputations. But she was unwilling to accept a school that didn’t make diversity a priority. These schools would have to do better than offering me scholarships. They would need to ensure that I saw myself reflected back in their classrooms.

As I understand it, one of the early references to affirmative action in the U.S. was made by President John F. Kennedy in 1961 in an executive order directing government contractors to take “affirmative action to ensure that applicants are employed, and that employees are treated during employment, without regard to their race, creed, color, or national origin.”

President Lyndon B. Johnson spoke about the idea of affirmative action in a 1965 speech shortly before issuing executive order 11246 to establish enforcement guidelines and documentation procedures for federal contractors.

In an America where, from its inception, discrimination was not only “best practices” but the law, affirmative action was viewed as our nation’s effort to make good on harms done and level a distinctly unlevel playing field.

By 2017, when my youngest was applying to colleges, two of the five schools to which he was applying still had dismally low percentages of diversity. I encouraged him to include the Black American experience in his college essay, not because I wanted him to be only one, or one of a few, as has been my experience for my entire life, but because I hoped that affirmative action could create a pathway for someone who looks like my son to gain access to the elite college campuses that have traditionally excluded us.

During his junior year, there was a backlash (or as some of us called it, a “Blacklash”) against his school regarding its nationally ranked basketball team, of which my son was a member. Rumors swirled around about how Black players were “recruited” and financial aid dollars were unfairly distributed to certain members of the team. Despite the fact that affirmative action is intended to guarantee equal opportunity for all qualified persons, my son knew there would always be people who believed he got in “just because he was Black.”

No matter how qualified you are or what you are able to achieve, if you are Black, you are not safe from this insinuation. I was reminded of this on Thursday when I saw former first lady Michelle Obama’s Instagram post in response to the Supreme Court decision.

“Back in college, I was one of the few Black students on my campus, and I was proud of getting into such a respected school. I knew I’d worked hard for it. But still, I sometimes wondered if people thought I got there because of affirmative action,” she wrote.

This assumption, that an accomplishment by a person of color must be due to receiving an unfair advantage, is par for the course, despite the fact that the group that has actually benefited most from affirmative action is white women. With affirmative action helping to level the playing field for decades, white women today are more educated and make up a bigger slice of the workforce. And yet, no other group has done more to challenge these policies.

This ruling is sure to have a ripple effect beyond college campuses. In 2003, when I enrolled my two sons in a Los Angeles independent school, I was dismayed to find that decades after my own private school experience, some things hadn’t changed. When we found out one of our sons was the only Black student in his class, their father and I considered pulling them out and placing them in a school where they would have other classmates of color. But instead, I joined the school’s board of trustees in an effort to affect change from the inside — not just for my kids, but for all the kids to come.

At the beginning of my tenure, I created what is now a nationally recognized committee on diversity, equity, inclusion and justice. At first, it was just me, the lone Black board member, asking the 19 white (and one Asian) board members to put themselves in my children’s shoes.

“Envision that as you gather for snack time or soccer, there are no other students at the table or on the field who look like you. Can you imagine what it’s like to be the only Black child in a classroom while slavery or the civil rights movement is being discussed? Can we say that we are providing an equitable learning experience for all of our students when we still have singletons in almost every classroom? Not to mention the exceptional Black and brown children whose parents don’t even know that our school exists, let alone that we would welcome their applications. Why aren’t we doing more to reach these families?”

But it soon became clear to me that the emotional appeal simply wouldn’t suffice for my fellow board members. It was a Black woman who joined the board four years after me, later becoming my dear friend, who clued me in on how to accomplish our goal.

“The board can’t respond to whether or not a single child might be struggling in their classroom because of their differences. The board responds to statistics. They need numbers,” she said.

We board members were charged with ensuring that our school was among the top independent schools in the country. And the way to best accomplish this was to make sure that our graduates had the most options when it came to institutions of higher learning. The Ivy League universities were particularly interested in schools that offered a diverse pool of graduates, so we gathered some figures to present to the board.

“We can offer better options to our graduates if we provide them with a diverse learning environment. Our target schools are looking for kids who have been raised in and are comfortable in a global environment. For instance, Princeton literally put their diversity and inclusion building in the center of their campus in order to showcase their commitment to diversity.”

Our case hinged on the fact that in order to give our graduates the best options, schools like ours had to provide a diverse academic environment. It wasn’t long before our metric for successful admission periods included increasingly higher percentages of Black and brown students. And although it will take years before our campus is more reflective of the world around us, we were getting there.

My fear now is that if diversity is no longer mandatory in higher education, then it won’t be valued anywhere.

The hope of affirmative action was that by integrating colleges and universities, we could eventually integrate our nation’s C-suites and public offices, so that the group making the decisions that affect us all is reflective of our population.

But this is not our reality, far from it. Only 5.9% of chief executives in the U.S. are Black. There are currently just three Black U.S. senators, and out of the 435 members of the U.S. House (which has one vacancy right now), about 13% are Black. As Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson said so eloquently in her dissent, “But deeming race irrelevant in law does not make it so in life.”

In another Supreme Court decision last week, Justice Neil Gorsuch wrote the majority opinion, joined by the court’s five other conservatives, in favor of a Christian web designer in Colorado who refuses to create websites to celebrate same-sex weddings based on religious objections. On Friday, after the same court struck down Joe Biden’s student loan forgiveness program, the president said, “This court has done more to unravel basic rights than any other court in history.”

I was born in the Negro ward at the Illinois Research Hospital. I was encouraged by the progress I saw being made in the ’60s and ’70s, and I had real hope for change when Barack Obama was elected president of the United States. But now that this court seems to be systematically repealing the rights that women, Black Americans and the LGBTQ+ community have fought for decades to gain, we are bracing ourselves for the burn of this new reality. And I, for one, am terrified.

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