My grandmother was born two years before Brown v. Topeka Board of Education, which outlawed racial segregation in public schools. Then there’s me, an undergraduate at prestigious Duke University, and my sister, who is related to Ivy. With the Supreme Court currently hearing a case that could spell the end of affirmative action, it’s important that people hear from the mouths of the students who will be most affected, students like me.
The college admissions process has never been fair. Black students were barred from attending segregated and predominantly white (PWI) institutions and were forced to establish historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) just so 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 met and accepted by four colleagues, a black professor, and cleaning/cafeteria staff. This 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 has outlined ways the university could increase Latinx representation, and none of these actions have been taken. The black community is also home to BSAI, a program that helped me find community before moving.
Those who argue against affirmative action argue that it gives some students unfair advantages. However, these advantages have always existed, they have only 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 look nothing like me. Historically, Black and Latino students don’t come from the kind of wealth that can secure us a place in the college of our choice. Many black and brown students don’t have the money to hire college coaches or the connections to meet the alum before going to school. Most of us don’t come from private schools where our counselors have had the time and resources to work with each student individually and encourage us to apply to selective institutions. Most of us don’t have parents, older siblings, cousins, or other relatives who went to schools like Duke. Some students like me are the big brother passing on knowledge to others. When we are asked about our race and check that we are Black or Latino, it is not an advantage, it is part of who we are. Duke professor Eduardo Bonilla Silva said it best during his talk “The Sweet Charm of Color Blindness in Contemporary America” as part of the UNIV 101 class on Sept. 7, 2021, when he said that “being colorblind is racist.” Latino students are complex, and we deserve a college admissions system that recognizes the work we’ve done in this process. We deserve a process that recognizes the barriers we face when entering college and allows us to share how our race has shaped our life experiences.
There’s a caveat here, though. It must be remembered that blacks and browns are not a monolith. Some come from privileged backgrounds, but that will never make us non-Black or Latino. This does not mean that we are somehow inferior to our peers when we get to prestigious institutions. We don’t get these places just 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 this. As much as I wish everyone was on an equal footing, we will never be completely equal, and eliminating race will get us no closer to equality.
As a freshman, I talked to colleagues and learned how different students make it to Duke. But even before that, I saw how my college path was different. While some students start their own nonprofits or, as I recently learned, are next in the line of nonprofit leadership, I was watching social justice documentaries and working at multiple organizations weekly 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 optional testing policies at the schools I applied to. Even after acceptances, some students choose a school based on where they want to go, while I had to eliminate some schools as soon as I saw the financial aid package. When I think about affirmative action arguments and my own experiences that apply to schools, I’ve realized that my race doesn’t give me an edge, and my family’s socioeconomic status doesn’t 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 out of our control, and fighting to end a policy that strives to level the playing field is no way to regain control. It’s cruel and those actions truly speak much louder than words.
Sonia Green is a second year Trinity. The lei column typically runs on alternate Tuesdays.