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Affirmative Action Overturned: What Comes Next for Black and Brown Students?

Affirmative Action Overturned: What Comes Next for Black and Brown Students?

In a decision that Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson calls “unmoored from critical real-life circumstances,” the United States Supreme Court has ruled that race can no longer be considered as a factor in university admissions. It overturns admissions plans at Harvard and the University of North Carolina (UNC), the nation’s oldest private and public colleges, respectively.

This decision, similar to last year’s abortion ruling that overturned Roe v. Wade, marks the realization of a long conservative goal, this time finding that race-conscious admissions plans violate the Constitution and another law that applies to colleges that receive federal funding, as most of them do. These schools will be forced to revamp their admissions practices, especially top schools that are more likely to consider the race of applicants.

What this means is that prospective students can discuss their race on the application, as part of their identity, experience, or personal journey, but it will no longer be considered as an actual factor for admission. This is confusing when you think about the actual process for admission.

I believe those who have always argued against affirmative action, as well as those making decisions about it, don’t really understand what it is. It’s not as if you begin with race and then form a separate branch where a student can then get in. A student is otherwise qualified and considered for a position in the school and has met all the required criteria. Then there are also other considerations such as being a veteran, or a legacy student, or an athlete, or playing an instrument, among other things.

The ruling is devastating, and yet, not surprising that this is what Republicans have wanted for a very long time. Instead of growth and change, we as a nation are unsurprisingly stuck with more of the same. The student population of elite campuses will become whiter, while Black and Brown students will diminish.

According to the National Bureau of Economic Research, the numbers tell an interesting story. At Harvard University, 34 percent of students are white; 43 percent of those students are either legacies, children of faculty members, kin of donors, or a recruited athlete. In order words, many of them would not have gotten in if not for special status. So, what are we really talking about?

In 1961, President John F. Kennedy created the Committee on Equal Employment Opportunity. A Black lawyer by the name of Hobart Taylor Jr. wrote the words “affirmative action” in the margin of a draft of Kennedy’s executive order. Initially, affirmative action encouraged employers to hire marginalized people. Presidents Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard Nixon both passed executive orders to end race discrimination in hiring.

Soon after these executive orders were set within the workplace, colleges voluntarily adopted similar policies to combat racial discrimination. In 1969, many elite universities admitted more than twice as many Black students as they had the year before. This change was directly linked to the civil rights movement.

Justice Clarence Thomas’ accused Justice Brown Jackson of having a “race-infused world view.” The truth is, Thomas is ignoring the facts, as usual.

Thomas is the longest-serving justice on the Supreme Court and strictly conservative. More than thirty years ago, he made his opposition of affirmative action known. It’s interesting that he’s such a critic of it, knowing that he benefited from it himself. For so long, Justice Thomas has been the only Black voice we’ve had on the Supreme Court that has been able to bring issues such as affirmative action, the 14th Amendment, and our constitutional rights as Black people in this country to the forefront. Well, it hasn’t been good. To be honest, he hasn’t been good since 1991.

Now, we have Justice Jackson who has brought competing views to the table, especially regarding the 14th Amendment. She has the ability to speak both about the history as well as the contemporary reality of race in this country. The majority of the Supreme Court, including Justice Thomas, plant themselves in these ideals of what they hope this country will one day be. What they have failed to do is actually see the work that has already been done or honor the fact that opportunity is supposed to be for all.

President Barack Obama said in a statement that affirmative action “allowed generations of students like Michelle and me to prove we belonged. Now it’s up to all of us to give young people the opportunities they deserve — and help students everywhere benefit from new perspectives.”

Affirmative action is essential so that students can understand what it means to be with other students who have different experiences, who are also qualified to make it in the same school, what’s different in the admissions process depending on skin color, and how much they have to learn that is not rolled into an SAT score.

In the attempt to create healthy diversity and equity on college campuses, this is not the first time a setback has happened. California banned affirmative action in 1996. University of California (UC) leaders said that decades of outreach programs to low-income students and revised admissions policies just couldn’t be sustained. California’s Proposition 209 was the nation’s first initiative to ban consideration of race and gender in public education, and it drastically reduced diversity at UC’s most competitive campuses. By 1998, the number of Black and Latino first-year students drastically declined by nearly half at both University of California Los Angeles and University of California Berkeley.

Affirmative action has always been a complicated policy for many situations because of the prejudices on which America has been built, as well as the effects it have on students of color in the college application process. Due to foundational racism and discriminatory laws targeting people of color in the past, many minority families have only recently been given the chance to send their kids to college. Affirmative action has offered these families a higher chance of being able to send their children to get the education they were deprived of.

The truth is, nothing can fully substitute for affirmative action policies that allow universities to have a diverse student body. If we, as a country, are going to start making needed changes that will allow students to not have to find loopholes in their admission applications to get into select colleges, we need to have honest conversations about our broken educational system and the people we aren’t seeing in the spaces around us.

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