Skip to content Skip to footer

Why Must I Be Exceptional to Have a Fair Shot at Life?

Affirmative action alone isn’t a panacea to inequity — we need substantive systemic change.

Affirmative action supporters and and counterprotesters rally outside of the Supreme Court of the United States on June 29, 2023, in Washington, D.C.

As the dust settles after this summer’s landmark case ending racial consideration for affirmative action in college admissions, the right-wing forces that fought so hard for this outcome are now ramping up their attacks. Most notably, in Georgia, the misleadingly named American Alliance for Equal Rights, an organization founded by an anti-affirmative action activist, found a new target: a grant program that hopes to uplift Black women entrepreneurs.

The Atlanta-based Fearless Fund administers the Strivers Grant Contest, which awards up to $20,000 to businesses. One requirement for this grant (among others) is that the company must be at least 51 percent owned by a Black woman. As the Fearless Fund prepares for legal battle, its current grant application cycle for the Strivers Grant was blocked by federal judges. The Fearless Fund is confident that it will prevail in court, but the blocking of the application cycle is devastating.

Such attacks reveal very vulnerable aspects of affirmative action because institutions have relied firmly on the policy alone to bridge gaps of diversity.

Affirmative action as a policy practice emerged in the 1960s as the U.S. struggled to imagine its future post-segregation. It was an attempt to remedy systemic exclusion of people of color. Discrimination against Black and Brown people is also reinforced by poverty and lower-quality education. Affirmative action is a valuable policy when supported by other policies that address root issues of inequity. Unfortunately, absent substantive systemic change, affirmative action alone is a superficial attempt to address inequity. It is this vulnerability that allowed conservatives to undo affirmative action and undermine missions for diversifying institutions.

Disparities in income distribution and quality education access are deeply linked to a legacy of racial discrimination in the U.S. for underrepresented communities of color. Growing up in South Florida, my middle school was the former segregated Black high school in my area. Yet schools throughout the U.S. are still heavily segregated, from big cities to rural areas. This was apparent to me as a student: There were clear gaps in the school’s funding, course availability and resources for students in my predominantly Black school, as teachers remained underpaid and struggled to meet students’ needs.

Beyond the schoolyard, poverty only further cemented these inequities as families struggled to remain afloat. Many of my talented peers had a hard time focusing on school while facing poverty. In hindsight, it felt like the inequities I experienced growing up ensured that only a few students could be cherry-picked for college through pipeline programs. Pipeline programs support a few “exceptional” students from underprivileged backgrounds and prepare them for competitive college applications. It felt like a rat race to go to college despite our backgrounds, but why must I be exceptional to have a fair shot at life?

In a post-affirmative action world, pipeline programs such as Questbridge, CollegePoint, and many other local efforts are certainly a starting point, but we should also be looking at solutions that will make pipeline programs obsolete.

Programs that address poverty and how they particularly affect people of color are necessary to close this gap. Both are necessary because racial inequity reinforces poverty, and poverty has a particular effect on those affected by racism. Combating this requires systemic changes that address past racial injustices through reparative efforts, along with increasing access to education, health care, child care and affordable quality food in low-income communities. In a world where all people, including Black and Brown people, have their basic needs met and are given opportunities to thrive with a quality education, pipeline programs are much more effective in diversifying institutions.

Higher education institutions themselves must also investigate how they uplift exclusionary standards. Universities’ cost, culture, curriculum, recruiting practices and admission standards help reinforce the admittance of only a few exceptional low-income Black and Brown students. Colleges that are affordable and provide quality education to diverse student bodies must be the future of higher education. It’s also important to ensure that these institutions truly reflect the background and needs of students with diverse school curricula that foster reflective and critical thinking.

In the wake of the end of race-conscious admissions through affirmative action, governments and higher education institutions must work to address diversity in a much more substantial way. Affirmative action is a useful tool, but without systemic changes, it is not enough. It only leads to students who are praised for being exceptions to the rule but don’t challenge “the rule” itself. As universities, employers, and our government reimagine methods of increasing diversity, any solutions they put forward must be substantive and focus on addressing systemic inequities.

Today is our last chance to raise $21,000 — we’re counting on your support!

For those who care about justice, liberation and even the very survival of our species, we must remember our power to take action.

We won’t pretend it’s the only thing you can or should do, but one small step is to pitch in to support Truthout — as one of the last remaining truly independent, nonprofit, reader-funded news platforms, your gift will help keep the facts flowing freely.