The Affirmative Action Ruling Isn’t About Meritocracy – Rolling Stone

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The Supreme Court’s jarring decision to strike down race from college admissions wasn’t just infuriating, but also an uncomfortable trip back to memory lane.

I wasn’t too surprised by the super-conservative majority decision, but disgusted by the weaponizing of Asian-American students against Black students. Throughout my academic life, I, a Black queer Ivy League graduate, has always been compared to other students of color. The bad-faith pitting of Black students getting “unfair advantages” against “model minority” Asian students has been folklore for decades.

It wasn’t Justice Clarence Thomas’s hypocritical argument that “rudderless, race-based preferences designed to ensure a particular racial mix in the entering classes,” that stung the hardest. It was reading Rep. Michelle Steel, an Asian elected official from California, tweet that she was “living my American Dream because, in this country, your actions determine your success – not your race and ethnicity” that hurt the most.

Steel said the silent part out loud in her tweet. She allowed herself to be a pawn in a racist narrative that undermines Black people like me daily – that somehow my access to the “American Dream” was granted solely by my race and ethnicity – not my actions. Whereas many Asian-Americans are actually in favor of affirmative action.

“We want Black students to succeed. We want every student to succeed. Low-income students to succeed,” said Kenny Xu in a recent CNN interview. Xu, an Asian-American, was an on-air guest speaking as a board member of Students for Fair Admissions, the organization that was the plaintiff in the SCOTUS case.

“But you have to put them in scenarios in places where they’re likely to succeed,” he added. “And lowering your standard to admit somebody of a socioeconomic status or race would not help them do that. In fact it would harm their graduation rate and excellence.”

My journey to college as a Black American from a working-class background is the farthest from anyone “lowering” their standard to admit me.

Growing up, I attended public school my entire life. In high school, I was senior class president and valedictorian of a graduating class of roughly 1,000 students. I got accepted to several Ivy League institutions and chose the University of Pennsylvania, where I attended tuition-free. At Penn, I would eventually meet my husband, who is also Black, who had a similar journey to college.

While attending Penn, I was instantly met with questions from mostly white and Asian students about how I got there. I was bombarded with queries about what grade schools I attended, what my SAT score was, and what my family did for a living. None of them heard of Alief Elsik High School in Houston, Texas, and many of them didn’t care about my extracurricular activities. What initially felt like a plain curiosity, shortly evolved into an interrogation of whether or not I truly deserved to be at Penn.

At first, these microaggressions made me question my purpose in college. The gaslighting initially made me wonder how much of a role race played into my admission. These harmful encounters put me in defense-mode, making me boast about my accomplishments as a way to shut-down any suspicion of having an unfair advantage. In many ways, I saw myself becoming the pretentious Ivy League asshole that I used to cringe seeing on television shows. This is one of the unintended and insidious consequences afflicting Black Americans in predominantly racist spaces – that we can become the very problem we strive to avoid as a means of survival.

It wasn’t until my sophomore year that I began to notice the perceived privileges of other students on campus and my mind was blown. At Penn, there’s a wide swath of “legacy” students who get admitted every year. “Legacy” students are those who are the relatives of alumni, faculty, and staff at the university. Then I began to observe how so many of my peers also attended Penn through “feeder schools” – expensive, more-than-$50,000-a-year private school institutions and/or programs that served as a pipeline for their students to be admitted to the university annually.

I was the first of my family to graduate from college, no one from my public high school had recently attended Penn before me. It was at this moment that it became clear to me that the obsession with my Blackness in this predominantly white institution was a guilty conscience of the most privileged people in the room. While so much of the suspicion was focused on “unfair advantages” being given to Black and brown students – wealthier, white, and/or more connected students were given a pass.

Translation: Affirmative action was only a problem to everyone when Black people benefited – nepotism and classism elsewhere be damned.

In November 2011, when I was a sophomore columnist for the Daily Pennsylvanian, Penn’s independent college newspaper, I wrote an op-ed about how I got in because of affirmative action — and so did everyone else.

“If you are a poor girl from a small town, Penn took note of it,” I wrote at the time. “If you are a legacy from the prestigious Horace Mann School in New York, Penn remembered it. If you went to public school in a middle-class neighborhood, Penn did not forget you. And if you applied all the way from Hong Kong, Penn wanted you. At the end of the day, all of us come from diverse backgrounds and trying to fathom an ideal formula for admission would be impossible.”

That truth is still as relevant today as it was over a decade ago.


The recent Supreme Court decision didn’t do anything to promote meritocracy because being fixated on race alone actually undermines it. It’s been known for years that white women have benefited from affirmative action more than any other group. So until there is a real conversation about confronting the role of white supremacy, wealth, and power in the college admissions process – there will forever be a need for race to be factored into affirmative action to ensure diversity, equity, and inclusion in higher education.

Anyone who says otherwise is simply pushing the very racism that warranted affirmative action in the first place.

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