On June 29, the Supreme Court issued a majority ruling that effectively put an end to the consideration of race as a factor in college admissions. That day, many Black students read over the news in disappointment as we began to question our place in this highly inequitable system of education and wonder what the decision meant for the future generations of people who look like us. Would this mean the end of social uplift for our respective communities?
I felt the same way at first, but an anxious phone call with a faculty mentor helped me find my footing. I remember telling him that I was scared — that I didn’t know how this decision would affect my graduate school options and my future career prospects. I worried about what the loss of affirmative action meant for my little cousins: Would they be able to make it to elite higher education without it? My professor responded in kind — noting, of course, that I’ll likely be fine, and that the people I should really be worried about are those who never stood a chance at getting into a school like Amherst in the first place.
Critical reflection after that conversation yielded the realization that my primary concern was not that of some abstract notion of racial uplift, but of the very real fact of how this decision would affect the class status of myself and my peers going forward. To put it more plainly, I was concerned because the system was responding less and less to the interests of people like me, and in doing so, I had failed to acknowledge how those very same interests made me qualitatively different than the average student.
Data from The Washington Post shows that only 19 percent of Black people believe affirmative action affected them. Even more, only 11 percent of those respondents felt as though it affected them positively. In general, it was found that more black people supported the Supreme Court’s decision than did not.
This might lead one to ask why this issue got so much air time? Why, after all, did it appear as though the end of affirmative action deeply concerned the entire Black population? The fervor surrounding the end of affirmative action appears to me to be emblematic of a phenomenon that Georgetown philosopher Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò calls elite capture, which occurs when the elite members of a social group disproportionately gain access to and benefit from the resources allotted to the whole — and it continues to plague the struggle for access and equity in higher education.
The key to understanding the effectiveness of affirmative action as a tool for racial uplift in the Black community lies, then, in our understanding of the degree to which it catered to the needs of Black students on the ground. Was the policy able to protect and uplift the interests of those who’ve been disproportionately victimized by the legacies of slavery and Jim Crow?
Unsurprisingly, it was not. Generational African American (GAA) students, defined as those who descend from enslaved people in America, have benefitted little. Data shows that affirmative action overwhelmingly benefitted middle and upper class GAA students, as well as students of African and Caribbean descent, while doing very little to help lower class GAA students who continue to bear the brunt of this country’s racial inequities. This is no coincidence.
In “Shut Up About Harvard,” author Ben Casselman argues that a focus on the nation’s most elite colleges leads us to ignore the issues that impact the majority of students. After all, less than 1 percent of us attend these schools. “Here’s the reality,” Casselman writes. “Most students never have to write a college entrance essay, pad a resume or sweet-talk a potential letter-writer.” To focus on the interests of the students that do, however, is to maximize the privilege of the few at the expense of genuine structural change — and the framing of the affirmative action debate appears to be rigged to do just that.
Ongoing debates surrounding the value of diversity and merit at prestigious colleges, while important, serve to obscure our current crisis of equity. They are effectively like fighting for the best rooms on a sinking ship. As critic Ginia Bellafonte writes, “Even if every spot in the Ivy League were filled by an exceptional student from a low-income family, a mere 60,000 or so American undergraduates would see their fortunes rise. Something like six million others would be left struggling in underfunded community colleges with typically poor rates of graduation.” Ensuring equity for the nation’s underrepresented minorities must entail more than focusing on the needs of the elite among them.
Additionally, I believe that affirmative action allowed the United States to cheapen out of its obligation to support genuine structural change in education — changes that would uplift the very same students affirmative action claimed to help the most. What’s worse is that the policy still allowed our government to reap the moral benefits of appearing to do so. They had, after all, opened the gates for Black students to gain entrance into the nation’s most prestigious schools. What more could they possibly have done? Or so the argument goes. But simply allowing access to the elite among us will never bring about a wholesale advancement for the entire group. For that, we must look to something more far-reaching and substantive.
The problem, then, is clear, but I’ll be honest here: I don’t have any concrete solutions to the issue moving forward. What I do know is that affirmative action was never the answer. It could only ever have been a band-aid fix for a much larger, more structural issue. If we are to ensure better access to higher education for all, we must work to rebuild the system from the bottom up—not from the top down. Working to center public conversation on the needs of the majority would be a good first step. Equity, if it means anything, means weighing the needs of the many against the tyranny of the privileged few.