Microaggressions, BIPOC solidarity, and Affirmative Action in College Admissions

Let me start by recounting a scenario I always see play out on social media. A Black student posts an ecstatic reaction to their admittance to a selective college. Alongside a flood of comments expressing support, one sticks out– “You only got in because of affirmative action.”

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No matter how high a Black applicant’s test scores or grades may be, the offensive misconception that Black students receive acceptance solely for “diversity reasons” is nearly inescapable.

It’s college admissions season for the class of 2021. As thousands of students vie for the limited spots available in the nation’s top universities, admissions counselors, students, and parents revisit the conversation on affirmative action. Some argue that affirmative action is a form of reverse racism, while others say it’s integral to ensuring campus diversity. 

Affirmative action in college admissions was created as a way to expand educational access to groups that have historically been left out of higher educational institutions. Though people put most of the attention today on Black, Latino and Indigenous students, affirmative action policies have also helped increase white female representation on college campuses and in the workforce.

Today, the debate over affirmative action can pit marginalized groups against each other. In my experience, solidarity among BIPOC is a myth– Anti-Blackness is prevalent in many non-Black communities, and Black communities can hold racist sentiments towards other minority groups as well. Though we all share the fact that we’re not white, we experience racism in America in distinct ways. 

During the college process, many Asian American students have highlighted that they felt stereotyped as applicants. The model minority myth– which generalizes Asian-Americans as perfect high-achieving minorities without taking into account the genuine racism they experience as non-white people in the United States– definitely plays a role in this treatment. 

The idea that all students who are part of underrepresented minority groups that make it to elite colleges are underqualified is racist. The idea that all Asian students are intelligent but indistinguishable is equally racist. These two ideas can coexist, and the discussion surrounding affirmative action needs to hear both perspectives. 

If the high-profile 2019 college admissions scandal taught us anything, it’s that the extremely wealthy– who can pay for an expensive private school, consulting, and extracurriculars– are the ones with the largest advantage. The celebrity parents of Olivia Jade Giannulli, a prominent YouTuber involved in the scandal, were accused of paying $500,000 to get Olivia into the University of Southern California as a rowing recruit.

To make the college process more equitable, we need to interrogate the advantages given to wealthy students instead of directing all the vitriol at Black and Latino students.  Instead of blaming, for example, the hardworking Black student with an ACT score 3 points behind the average for unfairly gaining admission, why not discuss the white, full-pay, two-generation legacy who bought his standardized test scores?  

Last year, New York Times cited a 2011 study revealing that legacy students were found to have a 45% higher probability of admission at 30 selective colleges when other factors were considered equal. The legacy advantage prioritizes students who already have inherent privilege, further tipping the scale in favor of wealthy students.

On a larger scale, fixing existing structural inequalities in lower-income communities of color– such as unemployment, over-policing, and underfunded school systems– could propel more students from underrepresented backgrounds into four-year universities. 

Lower performance on standardized tests can be attributed to a lack of educational resources. Redlining policies throughout the twentieth century, and continued housing discrimination today, left the suburbs segregated. When you live in a whiter, more affluent area, your school systems are better. EdBuild– a nonprofit that researches school funding issues– calculated that primarily non-white schools recieve $23 billion less in funding than white school districts that have the same amount of students. 

Students with diverse backgrounds who have overcome challenges deserve their places on college campuses just as much as white, wealthy students do. Diversity– not only in race but also in socio-economic status, ability, gender, religion, sexuality, and many more identifiers– on college campuses is important. First generation students are another population that needs more representation on college campuses.

To be clear, there is inherent diversity within populations of color as well. All Asian-Americans don’t share the same culture, and the same goes for all Latino or Black students as well. Students of color being on campus benefits all students by increasing their understanding of different cultures and identities.

In California, where lawmakers eradicated affirmative action in the 1990s, Black students made up an embarrassingly small percentage of the UC Berkeley student body in 2016. A 2013 East Bay Express article points out that the issue isn’t that Black students aren’t being accepted into Berkeley, it’s that Black students “don’t feel wanted at Berkeley at a time when a large number of other top universities are actively recruiting African Americans and welcoming them with open arms.” 

As I made my college list for this year, the presence of and resources for Black students was a deciding factor in where I chose to apply. Being a Black student in higher education is challenging enough, and schools that didn’t place value on diversity within their student bodies only sent me the message that I wouldn’t feel welcome in their academic and social environment. 

As a Black student, I will never allow people to make me feel as if I am not qualified to be wherever I end up in the college process. Telling BIPOC students that their accomplishments and acceptances aren’t valid is a microaggression. Constantly having to fight negative stereotypes as a Black woman– such as the assumption that I’m unintelligent or that by sharing my opinion I’m “angry”– is an obstacle that my white peers will never face. 

Affirmative action is a well-meaning attempt to fix a broken system that has traditionally been in favor of wealthy white students. It has its faults, but eradicating it will only limit the much needed diversity on college campuses.

The debate on whether affirmative action is fair will likely not end soon. Perhaps the changes sparked by the COVID-19 pandemic, in which admissions officers from Yale to UConn will have to evaluate students without test scores, will increase the representation of minority students on campuses and lessen the institutional need for affirmative action policies. Holistic admissions approaches, which take into account the resources the student had access to, can also even out the playing field. 

American institutions of higher education should focus on recruiting a student body– and teaching staff– that reflects the growing diversity of the country. That needs to happen with both a fair assessment of Asian-American applicants and better educational resources given to underrepresented communities from the start.

By the time I send my kids off to college, I hope that they will feel as though they’ve entered a community where their peers don’t underestimate their abilities due to the color of their skin.

Image credits: by @peterdevito of @sharahyacarter