Standing On The Shoulders of Giants: Affirmative Action and Its Impact on Me, My Family, and America

All of my grandmother’s children are bankers. That, at least, is what she tells the other ladies at church. And while her not-so-humble brag isn’t entirely accurate, it isn’t exactly a lie either. All four of her children, from the oldest, my uncle Ted the bank executive, to the youngest, my mother Patrice the accountant, spent years studying finance, management, business, economics, and accounting in order to achieve the lifestyles they lead now. It’s abundantly clear to anyone paying attention that their hard work directly led to their present success. And they did it on their own. No acres. No mules. Just Black Americans proving that they don’t need help to be excellent in their respective fields.

That, at least, is how it would appear from the outside. And for the longest time, it appeared that way to me, too. 

But the truth of the matter is that my family’s success can largely be attributed to affirmative action. And the same can be said for other Black families across the United States. Affirmative action, particularly with regard to college admissions, has had a generational impact on communities that might otherwise not have had the opportunity to learn. 

The Supreme Court’s decision in Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard this past June puts in jeopardy the ability of Black families to continue to guide future generations toward success.

A Brief History of Affirmative Action in American Universities

The assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968 sparked a movement of Black students urging institutions of higher learning to strengthen their efforts to be more representative of American society.

Universities across the country responded by creating special admissions criteria designed to increase the number of Black students attending their institutions. The dean of admissions at Harvard University stated, less than four weeks after Dr. King’s death, that students who had “survived the hazards of poverty,” were “intellectually thirsty” and “had room for growth,” would be given preference in admissions.

Since then, affirmative action in college admissions has taken many different forms and has expanded beyond race to include measures to increase the number of women enrolled in college.

However, not all of the efforts put out by these universities have held up in court. The decision in Grutter v. Bollinger, while upholding the use of race-based admissions, established the Court’s desire for race-based admissions to not become a permanent aspect of college admissions. Regents of the University of California v. Bakke ended the use of racial quotas, or reserving a specific number or percentage of seats for minority students, in college admissions altogether.

Though these and many other cases (most notably Fisher v. University of Texas, or Fisher II, in 2016) were brought before the Court, affirmative action and the use of race-based admissions were continually upheld until the June 2023 decision in Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard where it was ultimately struck down.

The Way Forward

When I was submitting college applications in the fall of 2012, only three of the seven Virginia colleges that I applied to used race as a considering factor for admission when evaluating prospective students. The school that I ultimately chose, George Mason University, did not consider race in my admission at all.

But the fact that I felt confident enough to apply to, and ultimately be accepted to, so many of these institutions is a direct result of affirmative action serving to push my parents, aunts, uncles, and all four of my grandparents (how’s that for a not-so-humble brag?) into positions where they can teach their children the value of education.

When I was applying to colleges, I was far less concerned about my race coming into play than I was about potentially losing out on an acceptance letter to a legacy student. Virginia colleges are notorious for encouraging (mostly white) legacies to apply with seemingly much easier admissions criteria.

Wealth also plays a large role in college admissions across the nation. Recent studies found that at Ivy League schools, one in six students has parents in the top 1 percent.

Graph courtesy of the New York Times

However, since race-based admissions were struck down this past June, several universities have pledged to take steps to make admissions more equitable. Virginia Tech has pledged to end legacy admissions altogether while the University of Virginia, one of the most competitive schools in the state, has pledged to “limit” the legacy factor in admitting students.

I’m encouraged to see a growing focus on the legacy admissions practice, too. The timing seems right. When it comes to building political power on America’s college campus, it’s so important that there is a diverse student body. Ultimately IGNITE’s work reaching young women from diverse backgrounds on college campuses is helped by policies and practices that help them to get there in the first place. 

Ultimately, while merit should be the main factor when admitting students to college, it can’t be denied that affirmative action has played a major role in Black families’ success. I personally am more aware than ever that I stand on the shoulders of giants who have made it possible for me to succeed.

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