In a 6-3 vote, the Supreme Court ruled race-conscious admissions programs at institutions for higher education invalid. Race-conscious admissions programs, more commonly referred to as measures of ‘affirmative action’ have long functioned as a tool to promote diversity and equity for students seeking to attend college or university. According to History: “Since the 1960s, affirmative action has been an important part of federal and state governments in the United States and other countries to mitigate previous generations of discrimination and segregation.” 

Although it has always been a subject of controversy, the Supreme Court’s latest decision to repeal affirmative action programs in favor of colorblind college admissions decisions has prospective college applicants angry and fearful for their academic futures. But this topic is layered with important social and historical context, with the public deeply divided on whether affirmative action is beneficial or harmful for marginalized peoples. 

As I see it, affirmative action is yet another inadequate bandage, unable to heal the bleeding gash left behind by the U.S.’s violent and unjust past of racial discrimination and inequality. But despite its flaws, it is a necessary measure to ensure that education is more equitable and accessible to all.

Though affirmative action’s roots had begun to take shape as early as 1941, it took some bolstering from important social organizations led by minority groups of the 1950s and 1960s, such as the Civil Rights and Women’s Liberation movements for the measure’s actions to sprout its first leaves. From its inception, affirmative action was a response to social inequity and racial discrimination, placing protections on workers who were often targeted for their skin color, religious beliefs, nationality or race. 

After receiving strong support from the Kennedy administration, affirmative action became an important legislative leap towards racial justice. With the policy’s initial focus on workers’ rights, it seemed a natural step for affirmative action to expand into education. “The Assassination of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968 was a turning point, with students pushing colleges to redouble their efforts to be more representative of American society,” states Anemona Hartocollis in a New York Times article

Nearly half a century after the height of its impact, affirmative action has become more difficult to define and explain – becoming an increasingly contentious topic of debate. The policy’s many definitions, as well as its varying interpretations, are thoroughly explained in a New Yorker article by Louis Menand: “Although the poverty rate for [Black and Hispanic individuals] has dropped some since 1970, it is still more than double the rate for [white individuals]. Americans of color are starting from much farther behind. Millions never get on board a train that most [white Americans] were born on.” 

Here, Menand uses a clever metaphor to succinctly explain affirmative action’s goal of, in layman’s terms, evening out the playing field between racial and ethnic groups. 

As an APIDA UCLA student, the unevenness of the undergraduate population’s racial diversity is clearly visible, not only on the university’s public facts and figures page, but also when I look around me in the campus library or in a lecture hall. UCLA’s undergraduate population is 35% Asian American and Pacific Islander, making this the largest ethnoracial group of the university’s students. The APIDA population has a particularly intricate relationship with affirmative action measures, especially when it comes to college admissions. 

In an article exploring the responses of Asian American students to the Supreme Court’s most recent decision to ban affirmative action, opinions range from support and relief to worry and opposition.

High school student, Jeff Hou, supports the Supreme Court’s decision, adding that, “…if I don’t get in, it’s because I could have just worked harder. It’s because I should have studied more, not because of something that I can’t change, which is my race.” 

This bootstrap mentality, a value associated with meritocracy, is the great American promise that if you work hard enough, you will eventually be granted all of your dreams and desires. Under this context, if you fail to achieve and succeed in your aspirations, then you simply did not work hard enough. 

College student, Wena Teng, explains that she once bought into the bootstrap mentality herself. She continues, “…But, as I’m now going through the reality of this country and navigating all these systems and spaces, I’m starting to realize that meritocracy is only an illusion, and that there are just so many, again, factors, that make meritocracy incredibly hard.” 

In these students’ interview quotes, a pattern forms in the contrasting opinions between those in high school and those in college. High schoolers, like Hou, were mostly in favor of the repeal of affirmative action – asserting that their worth as a student should not be determined by the color of their skin. College students, like Teng, however, had considerably more complicated feelings about the ban.

This contrast can serve as a reflection of the increased levels of critical thought that college students are exposed to in university compared to the myth of meritocracy that students in K-12 are taught throughout their early learning years. Ultimately, this signifies that higher education holds a larger capacity for encouraging young scholars to consider historical context and to think critically about systems of power – an act that is the most fruitful seed for systemic change.

There is no doubt that the APIDA community statistically possesses high levels of success and achievement when it comes to college admissions and academic performance, rivaling only that of the white population. Because of this, the APIDA community is typically lumped together with white people in most discussions regarding affirmative action. 

Although the model minority myth has undoubtedly secured a certain level of privilege for the APIDA community when it comes to education and post-grad employment prospects, it also diminishes the diversity of our community’s experiences, reinforcing yet another American-made tall tale of APIDAs as a monolith of model minorities. 

Amy Lum, another Asian-American college student interviewee, elaborates upon this matter: “We have all sorts of different cultures. And so affirmative action is one of those things that ensures that our culture is represented and that we all have a voice.” 

NBC News reports that, “…White students are six times more likely than South Asian students to have legacy status… and three times more likely than East and Southeast Asian students.” Legacy status, despite its impact as a factor in college applications being difficult to measure, becomes more of an implicit aspect of privilege when it comes to college admissions. 

Having a parent that went to one’s college of choice, or even went to college at all, is a major advantage and useful resource for the child looking to apply. Unsurprisingly, white students are the major possessors of legacy status. 

Furthermore, this report from NBC News highlights the differences that exist within the APIDA community itself. These nuances become nearly impossible to discern when East Asian, Southeast Asian and South Asian individuals all technically fall under the same statistical category. 

An article by the Century Foundation expands upon this point, explaining the academic plight of Southeast Asian students. Southeast Asian students face alarmingly less successful educational outcomes than their East Asian peers, such as lower admission and graduation rates.

These are students whose parents may be working-class immigrants or war refugees, many of whom suffer from economic disadvantages and a lack of knowledge on how to navigate American systems or institutions, such as education or employment. The truth behind some subgroups of the APIDA community’s socioeconomic realities gets buried underneath aggregated statistical data, simplifying our varying levels of success and our differing forms of struggle.

It is important to remember that if the members of our communities who are supposedly the highest achievers in the educational system continue to face these sorts of obstacles, other marginalized communities contend with them, too. Black, Hispanic/Latino and Indigenous peoples are extremely underrepresented in the university system and the repeal of affirmative action is likely to worsen their situations. 

In terms of UCLA undergraduates, Hispanic students make up 26% while African American students are at a meager 6% and American Indian/Alaska Native students make up less than 1% of the population. These disparities reflect an extensive and convoluted history of racial inequity within education, as well as the nation’s history itself. 

Affirmative action will never be the absolute solution to creating revolutionary systemic change within institutions of education. However, the Supreme Court’s decision to ban it points to an agenda bent on the erasure of race and ethnicity as a crucial aspect of our nation’s reality. Educational equity starts with seriously addressing the needs of each historically-disadvantaged community that requires additional assistance. 

The bottom line is, nine extremely powerful people should not be allowed to decide that a nation with a history of a genocide of indigenous peoples, the enslavement of Black people and the exploitation of immigrant workers should no longer consider factors such as race, ethnic background or nationality in educational processes. Opposing the efforts made toward a progressive future means conserving the ideals of a destructive past, something that could only cause further ruin moving forward. 

Despite coming from a low-income, immigrant family from the Philippines, I have had the privilege of having access to high-quality education my entire life. Now, during my final quarter at UCLA, I know that I have made it here because I was gifted with an ideal starting point – that many people with a similar identity to me and who come from the same place that I did, may not have that same opportunity to seize. 

This gift of a high-quality education should not be a privilege, but a fundamental right for all. With affirmative action bans cropping up across the country, the fight for a more equitable educational future for this generation of students falls into our hands. We must fight, not for measures that might simply bandage over the nation’s painful past, but by calling for widespread, comprehensive educational reform.

We must demand adequate educational funding for K-12 schools in low-income areas as well as in Black and brown communities. An increase in early education curricula that introduces students to critical thought and unabridged histories is imperative. Prospective college applicants must be provided with resources to guide them through the college application process. Colleges and universities must review admissions applications through a more holistic lens that considers the intersections of a student’s identity and specific circumstances while always keeping their wellbeing and humanity in mind. 

Visual Credit: Pixabay

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