A Black student's thoughts on affirmative action

My grandmother was born two years before Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, which declared racial segregation in public schools illegal. Then there’s me, an undergraduate student at the prestigious Duke University, and my sister, who is Ivy bound. With the Supreme Court currently hearing a case that could mean the end of affirmative action, it’s important that people hear from the mouths of students who will be impacted most, students like me.

The college admissions process has never been fair. Black students were barred from attending segregated and predominately white institutions (PWIs) and were forced to establish Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) just so that they could pursue higher education. These PWIs eventually opened their doors to students of color, but some schools (like Duke) took longer than others. In fact, Duke didn’t admit its first African American students until 1963, and even then there were only five. Imagine spending four years at a university where you are only welcomed and accepted by four peers, a Black professor, and cleaning/dining staff. That is not diversity. Even today, when only 7% of students on campus are Black and another 7% are Hispanic or Latino, Duke can still do much better. Affirmative Action aside, Duke’s Latinx community outlined ways that the university could increase Latinx representation — and none of these actions have been taken. The Black community also hosts BSAI which is a program that helped me find community before moving in.

Those fighting against affirmative action argue that it gives some students unfair advantages. However, these advantages have always existed, they just benefited others. Legacy students, wealthy students, private school students, and students with powerful and influential parents have always had unfair advantages, and nine times out of ten, these students do not look like me. Historically, Black and Latino students do not come from the type of wealth that can guarantee us a spot at the college of our choice. Many Black and Brown students don’t have money to hire college coaches or the connections to meet alum before they go off to school. Most of us don’t come from private schools where our counselors had the time and resources to work with each student individually and encourage us to apply to selective institutions. Many of us don’t have parents, older siblings, cousins, or other relatives who went to schools like Duke. Some students like me are the older sibling who passes the knowledge down to others. When we are asked about our race and check that we are Black or Latino, that’s not an advantage, it’s a part of who we are. Duke Professor Eduardo Bonilla Silva said it best during his “The Sweet Enchantment of Color-Blindness in Contemporary America” talk as a part of the UNIV 101 class on September 7, 2021, when he said, “being colorblind is racist." Black and Latino students are complex, and we deserve a college admissions system that recognizes the work we have put into this process. We deserve a process that acknowledges the barriers we face when applying to college and allows us to share how our race has shaped our life experiences. 

There is a caveat here, though. One must remember that Black and Brown people are not a monolith. Some do come from privileged backgrounds, but that will never make us not Black or Latino. This doesn’t mean that we are somehow less than our peers when we make it to prestigious institutions. We don’t get these spots solely because of our race but in spite of a process that was not created for us to succeed. Race is a part of who we all are and affirmative action policies force colleges to acknowledge that. As much as I would like for everyone to be on a level playing field, we will never be completely equal, and eliminating race will not move us any closer to equality.

As a freshman, I spoke to peers and learned about how different students make it to Duke. But even before then, I saw how my college journey was different. While some students start their own nonprofits or, as I have recently learned, are next in line in the nonprofit leadership pipeline, I was watching social justice documentaries and working weekly at multiple organizations in my community. Some students were able to prepare for the SAT and ACT, while I took a free class at the Emily K Center and took advantage of test-optional policies at the schools I applied to. Even after the acceptances, some students choose a school based on where they want to go, whereas I had to eliminate some schools as soon as I saw the financial aid package. When thinking about affirmative action arguments and my own experiences applying to schools, I have come to realize that my race does not give me a leg up and my family’s socioeconomic status does not put me behind my peers. Every student has things that help and hurt their applications and there is no magic formula for success. Some things are truly just out of our hands and fighting to end a policy that strives to even the playing field is not the way to regain control. It’s cruel, and those actions really do speak much louder than words.

Sonia Green is a Trinity second-year. Her column typically runs on alternate Tuesdays.


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