As the affirmative action is in the hands of the Supreme Court, alumni weigh in
For nearly 60 years, institutions of higher learning have been able to give limited preference to people of color and women with admissions.
Advocates say the practice has given marginalized people a fair chance to attend colleges and universities that have otherwise overlooked them. It was also a means of preventing discrimination at institutions, many of which historically only admitted white students.
Now the fate of affirmative action rests in the hands of a conservative majority Supreme Court. There will be judges on Monday to hear the evidence of both cases at Harvard and the University of North Carolina.
Edwin Bloom, the conservative activist who filed the lawsuit, is leading the charge. 2014.
Harvard’s challenge cites Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits schools that receive federal funds from discriminating on the basis of race. UNC’s lawsuit also alleges violations of Title VI grounds as well as the 14th Amendment’s guarantee of equal protection of the law covering public institutions.
The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights is among the groups defending the constitutionality of acquittals before the Supreme Court.
Genevieve Bonadies Torres, associate director of the committee’s Educational Opportunity Project, said affirmative action has led to more diverse college campuses. In turn, black and brown students can achieve “deeper economic mobility” and uplift their communities, Torres said.
“What we know from both experience and research is that when colleges stop considering race, the number of black and Hispanic students who have access drops dramatically,” Torres said. “Students of color are less likely to apply once they stop considering race because they see them as less inclusive and less welcoming.”
Torres said that in 2015, Harvard and UNC students participated in the cases by sending letters and testifying about their experiences on each campus and the importance of diversity.
CNN spoke with three college graduates about why they believe affirmative action should be supported.
Cecilia Polanco grew up in a working-class family of parents who immigrated to the United States from El Salvador. Polanco said his father worked in construction and his mother was a seamstress who also cleaned houses to support the family.
She says her parents let her focus on school because they wanted her to have a good life. Neither of them had the opportunity to finish school in El Salvador.
Polanco said she worked twice as hard and took AP courses in high school. She learned that as a Latina child of immigrants, she did not have the same resources as her white counterparts.
In 2011, Polanco was selected as a Morehead-Kane Scholar at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, which offered him a full travel scholarship.
Polanco said she believes affirmative action has helped “level the playing field” so that students of color like herself can receive such prestigious scholarships.
“If we had a fair and just society, we wouldn’t need something like affirmative action,” Polanco said. “But we do it because our society is unfair.”
Polanco said she was one of the students of color in some of her college classes and read hurtful comments online from people who said she only got into UNC because the school had to meet a diversity quota.
But he didn’t let that stop him. Ultimately, he became a staunch defender of affirmative action and was willing to contribute to the litigation.
Polanco now works as a community organizer in Durham, North Carolina, where she focuses on philanthropy, racial equity, and youth organizing.
“I think affirmative action helps me see that I don’t have the same opportunities as my white counterparts,” Polanco said. “I have many valuable life experiences that have made me a valuable asset to UNC.”
Polanco plans to be in Washington today as the Supreme Court hears arguments in the case. According to him, the high court will finally uphold this practice.
“I feel optimistic,” Polanco said. “I guess I’d be surprised if it went the other way.”
Andrew Brennen said he was constantly reminded that he was black.
Asked by her high school peers why she didn’t fit the stereotypical black teenager, and being one of the only black students in her classes at UNC, Brennen never felt fully accepted.
He recounted a class discussion about affirmative action at UNC, when a white student questioned whether some black students were fully qualified to be at the university. Brennen also witnessed protests on the UNC campus Confederate statue of “Silent Sam”. knocked down.
With college campuses still grappling with racism, Brennen fears that dismantling affirmative action could make things worse.
“The evidence is that diversity on campus will suffer if admissions officers fail to account for race,” Brennen said. “Efforts to hold people accountable for racism in history and today are led by students of color. And the reality is that our schools need to be as diverse as the workplaces and communities we are preparing to move into.”
Brennen said when the North Carolina Justice Center asked him to write a letter in support of affirmative action on the case, he was ready to offer his perspective.
Brennen, the son of two attorneys, credited affirmative action for his family’s success. According to him, both parents grew up poor but was able to enter law school and pursue a legal career.
Brennen said her parents instilled in her the importance of education and taught her how affirmative action has helped many black families thrive.
Brennen graduated from UNC in 2019 with a degree in political science. He currently works for a social change company.
“There are people out there who want to use that to mean your white child is going to suffer,” Brennen said. “I think that mischaracterizes what affirmative action is doing.”
Affirmative action, he said, would ensure access to quality education and success for all, regardless of race.
Brennen said he was worried the conservative majority would disagree with the Supreme Court.
“While I am confident that our attorneys will make strong, constitutional, precedent-based arguments in support of the evidence, I am concerned that this court will not care,” Brennen said.
Thang Diep experienced confusion about his identity as a child.
Diep said he moved from Vietnam to the United States (Los Angeles) with his family when he was 8 years old and did not speak much English. As he gradually learned the language, he still had a thick accent and was teased throughout the class by his classmates. Some called him Chinese when he was actually Vietnamese. As Diep settled into American life, he watched his father make repeated trips to Vietnam for work so he could still provide for his family. Diep’s mother did not work and stayed at home.
When it came time to go to college, Harvard wasn’t on Diep’s radar.
“It seemed impossible,” Deep said.
But three days before the deadline to apply for admission, his mother took a chance and invited him to apply. In her admissions essay, Diep said she wrote about her struggle with racial identity and identity during school.
Diep was eventually accepted and studied neuroscience at Harvard.
When Deep was asked to write a letter in support of his affirmative action while visiting Harvard, Deep jumped at the chance. He believed that Asian Americans, especially Southeast Asian Americans, had been left out of the conversation and wanted the world to know that they too supported affirmative action. Asian Americans, he says, are not a monolith. On the contrary “The model minoritySome Asian Americans come from working-class families like hers, Deep said.
“I think we live in a society where race plays an important role in our experiences and access to resources,” Deep said. “One way to improve the education system is to recognize and consider these barriers.”
Diep now works for a non-profit organization that fights domestic violence.
Diep said he will rally with other college alumni and students in Washington for affirmative action. He said he stands in solidarity with all communities of color fighting to preserve affirmative action.
“I feel like there’s a sense of optimism,” Deep said. “Hopefully this will be an educational opportunity to raise awareness of the impact.”
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