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I Saw the Importance of Affirmative Action at My Ivy League University Firsthand

Student activists led the fight for affirmative action decades ago. Let’s continue their struggle for racial equity.

Harvard University students hug during a protest outside of the Supreme Court on June 29, 2023.

On the day that the Supreme Court announced its ruling to ban affirmative action’s race-conscious admissions, I had an appointment to stop by my alma mater. I walked into Columbia University for the first time since I graduated just a few weeks ago. I took in the stunning view of perfectly manicured lawns and the grandeur of the buildings that I called home over the last five years. I reflected on the amazing ways affirmative action has transformed this college campus over the past 60 years, and I fear that this progress may all be lost in the years to come. I fear that the Columbia I’ve come to know and love is gone with this ruling.

Affirmative action has played an important role in transforming the U.S. university in many ways. It is a policy to effectively combat centuries of discrimination against various marginalized groups. These communities have included underrepresented racial and ethnic minorities, women, lower-income people, people from underrepresented geographic regions, and many others.

The policy we know today has its roots in the 1960s responding to the demands of the civil rights movement. The concept of affirmative action is often linked to the administrations of President Kennedy and President Johnson, through executive orders. However, activists and students connected to the Black Freedom Struggle played an important role in its implementation. After years of protest demanding access to higher education, Black student activists successfully demanded many public universities admit and provide financial aid to more students of color. The death of Martin Luther King Jr. also spurred action from many prestigious institutions. Ivy League institutions like Harvard made strong commitments to admit more students of color within the weeks following his murder

This transformation in college campuses is readily seen in the student body. Since the 1970s, Black student populations in colleges have increased by 33 percent and Latinx students by 455 percent. Women have effectively reversed the gender education gap in the last few decades, with 55 percent of college graduates being women. I’ve witnessed this diversity at my Ivy League college campus, as I met students from almost every corner of the U.S. and around the world. It was humbling to learn about the world well beyond my hometown of Miami, from the firsthand account of my classmates. They also learned from me, as I shared my experiences growing up as a Black immigrant. These exchanges were an important part of my education, as I expanded what I thought I knew, and challenged my own perspective all the time.

Beyond the student body, this transformation of college campuses through affirmative action has also shifted the very culture of the American university. Students of diverse backgrounds have worked tirelessly to challenge systemic issues that exist in many colleges through decades of advocacy and policy change. They remind us that it is not enough to admit a diversity of students, but the culture of the campus must be inclusive and tolerant for us all to thrive. Some of my favorite campus traditions were brought about by students who demanded that the university create spaces for them.

I had the privilege to continue this tradition when I established the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Committee of Columbia’s student council. The committee would defend the interest of marginalized students through policy advocacy, funding opportunities and programming. As we confront the end of race-conscious affirmative action, this committee — and many other student groups that support marginalized people — will have their work cut out for them. Like student activists before them, they must find innovative ways to defend their right to an inclusive and diverse college.

In the wake of this ruling, I sit with a heavy heart. Affirmative action not only helped me in my admission to Columbia, but a diverse and inclusive campus helped me thrive there. I’m grateful for the generations of marginalized students that came before me that challenged discriminatory policies, advocated for community space, pioneered academic fields and created a vibrant alumni network. My time at Columbia was far from perfect, and not free of racial discrimination, but I didn’t feel alone. I stood on the shoulders of giants, as I had the privilege to further their legacy as a queer, Black, low-income student.

I also refuse to be ashamed of that fact. Oftentimes opponents of affirmative action claim that the policy negatively impacts Black and Brown students’ confidence, and makes them “less deserving.” But I am grateful that Columbia evaluated me within the context of the resources and opportunities that I had available as a Black, low-income, immigrant woman. For me this is what affirmative action is about, the chance to be judged fairly, considering the cards you’ve been dealt. And race is only one factor in that holistic evaluation. I can’t help but be skeptical of this claim that I am less deserving. Somehow this statement isn’t ever imposed on white women who disproportionately benefit from affirmative action. Nor does the student from rural Oklahoma have their achievements minimized even if they benefited from geographic consideration. Beyond affirmative action, I rarely hear legacy students come forward with a need to prove their worth. Children of faculty members and big donors are very confident in their place at the university. So why should I be burdened with any shame? I know that I’m deserving of these opportunities and that I’ve deeply contributed to the campus community. My contributions are no less impactful or important than any of my peers’.

It is devastating to see an important pillar of affirmative action get gutted. The victories of Black civil rights activists that challenged U.S. segregation decades ago are being chipped away by our Supreme Court. Some states have already done away with race-conscious affirmative action before this ruling, and the effects were shrinking Black and Brown student populations at top universities. California banned race-conscious admission in the 1990s, and an immediate effect was a 40 percent decrease in Black and Latinx student enrollment in the top state universities. California state schools like UCLA and UC Berkeley have had to invest in programs and recruiting efforts to address these issues and ensure talented students of all backgrounds knew that they were worthy and had a shot. These schools now use holistic reviews to account for what resources students had available to them when evaluating admissions.

I fear that a worst-case scenario is that for some top colleges, their admission rates for Black and Latinx students may return to their pre-civil rights movement rates.

Many top colleges have affirmed their commitment to a diverse student body since the ruling has been rolled out. However, this dedication to diversity is dependent on individual institutions’ orientations and leadership, and won’t be implemented across the board. This will leave millions of students vulnerable to regressive admission policies.

The strength, creativity and tenacity of the activists that brought us affirmative action is far from gone. Students across the country are tapping into this spirit of justice, as they continue the legacy of advocacy on campuses. As we confront the end of affirmative action, we must refuse to let the courts erase this progress. I hope Black and Brown students know that they’re worthy of a quality higher education, and that these institutions are lucky to have them.

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