Affirmative Action: Perspectives Worth Reading

Posted inCreative Voices

I wrote about preparing to send my daughter off to college in a recent essay. As I mentioned in my afterword, it is not lost on me that I am a white woman writing about sending my daughter to college, the very same week that the Supreme Court took an extremely radical position in overturning 50 years of affirmative action.

I think it’s important to talk about it, especially because I know my audience is majority white.

But whatever your race, color, background, we are collectively raising the most diverse, most educated, most open-minded generation America has ever seen. (h/t John Della Volpe) Our kids are going to have questions and concerns about this—I know mine already do—and we need be able to find some answers together.

I’ll be honest, affirmative action is wildly complex. It can be tough to understand, if not in its intent then in its execution. Especially because a lot of the arguments against it can actually sound pretty sensible.

It’s easy to nod your head when you hear terms like “merit-based” and “colorblind admissions” and “perpetuating racial stereotypes” and think, okay…well that seems fairly reasonable.

But then I read perspectives in support of affirmative action, the historic facts that lead to its creation, the legal arguments for the dissent from Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson, and in particular, personal stories from Black people who benefited from diversity recruitment when their otherwise wildly qualified applications might have gone ignored.

(Google “feeder high schools” sometime.)

That’s when it all becomes much more clear to me, if still complex.

Powerful personal reflections on affirmative action from those who have lived its benefits

I wanted to share just some of the personal perspectives and accounts that I’ve been reading this week from various Black voices, with the hope that you’ll find something new and compelling in them, too.

And yeah, sometimes what I read is uncomfortable. Very. There can be embarrassment or shame when we believe we should have known more, known it sooner, done more about it, or maybe feel we couldn’t have done anything at all. But at least for me, I’d rather push past the discomfort knowing I’ll be a little smarter, a little wiser, a little more understanding than I was yesterday.

As my friend Tina Roth-Eisenberg recently reminded me, we need to pay attention to the things that make us nervous because that’s when growth happens.

With gratitude to those who have been gracious enough to share their own experiences and uncomfortable truths, that we all might grow, and live to do better.

“So often we just accept that money, power, and privilege are perfectly acceptable forms of affirmative action while kids growing up like I did are expected to compete when the ground is anything but level.

So today, my heart breaks for any young person out there who’s wondering what their future holds — and what kind of chances will be open to them.”

Michelle Obama on Instagram

“As I opened the final letter, from Yale, I exhaled. Even if I didn’t yet know where, I would be going to college which was compulsory in my family.

Nearby, there was a young white man, also opening his letters…and when he heard me sharing my news with another classmate, his face rearranged itself with disgust and he told me I was only going to a good school because of affirmative action. He was wealthy, probably had a trust fund, would absolutely go to college somewhere, but because I had gotten into the schools he preferred, he was profoundly aggrieved. As an aside, isn’t it interesting who we consider fragile and who we don’t?”

Roxane Gay on The Audacity

“My Blackness is not a blemish to be ignored or erased; it is an integral part of who I am. I want you to see that I am Black, and in recognizing this fundamental aspect of my identity, I want you to acknowledge the implicit and explicit biases that Black people face every day. Recognizing my Blackness should not be an act of erasure but a call to confront the systemic racism that persistently undermines the supposed promise of this nation.

Advocating for colorblindness implies an acceptance of the world as it is, rather than what it can be.”

Frederick Joseph on In Retrospect

“In April of my senior year of high school, the father of one of my classmates walked into our 7th period math class to confront me on why I had gotten into Stanford ‘over’ his white son who had a higher standardized test score than me. The inference: I had stolen his son’s spot with my Blackness.”

Julie Lythcott-Haims on Julie’s Pod

History repeats sometimes without rhyming. ’Race neutral’ is the new ‘separate but equal.

Uma Mazyck Jayakumar and Ibram X. Kendi in The Atlantic

“[as an affirmative action recruit at Harvard], you’re going to school with people whose names are on the buildings…but that affirmative action is okay with this [SCOTUS] majority.”

-Joy Reid by video on @msnbc IG

“I’ve had white folks whom I could standardize-test into a goddamn coma tell me that I got into school only because of affirmative action. I once talked to a white guy—whose parents’ name was on one of the buildings on campus—who asked me how it felt to know I got ‘extra help’ to get in.”

-Elie Mystal in The Nation

“For any young person who feels defeated by what has happened with Affirmative Action, who has dreams people tell you are too audacious, “unnecessary,” or foreign… dreams no one in your own family may have touched but you can’t shake… please don’t give up.

There were so many turning points in my own story, where if someone hadn’t intervened or advocated, I may have been left behind or overlooked. But caring people ensured I didn’t miss small windows of opportunity that are hidden— which is the reality of this whole ‘merit’ debate. ‘Merit’ is often about who you know. And who believes in you. But it starts with you believing in yourself.”

-Natasha S Alford on Twitter (thread)

Liz Gumbinner is a Brooklyn-based writer, award-winning ad agency creative director, and OG mom blogger who was called “funny some of the time” by an enthusiastic anonymous commenter. This was originally posted on her Substack “I’m Walking Here!,” where she covers culture, media, politics, and parenting.

Photo by Andre Hunter on Unsplash