One day, in my junior year of high school, I decided to sacrifice my lunch period to work on my Advanced Placement U.S. History assignment. When I sat down to work on a computer in the library, a classmate of mine — whom I barely knew at the time — looked up at me and said that affirmative action shouldn’t exist.
On a surface, this claim may seem benign. Not true. When many of my black classmates were admitted to elite schools in my senior year, many of our predominantly white and Asian peers asserted that our admission was inevitable because we were black. Together with my black classmates, I spent time defending our admittances to places like Yale, Harvard, Princeton and Columbia.
Fast forward to last week. On Tuesday, the Yale Political Union debated the motion, “Resolved: Reject Affirmative Action” with Brown economics professor Glenn Loury. After the Supreme Court narrowly upheld affirmative action in Fisher v The University of Texas this summer, it seems that affirmative action is on its last legs. Many people of color — including Glen Loury — criticize affirmative action because they say it disproportionately helps the middle class and does not address structural issues of racism.
However, it is apparent that black and brown families often bear the brunt of poverty. According to the Pew Research Center, the net wealth of black families is 13 times lower than that of white families. For Hispanic families, the average net wealth is still 10 times lower than that of white families. By sheer numbers alone, it is a myth that rich black families are the main beneficiaries of affirmative action.
As much as I would like to believe that we can improve opportunities for poor, black students prior to the college admissions process, this is nothing but wishful thinking. The right decries affirmative action in favor of improving schools, but given its rhetoric of austerity, it seems like a long shot to ask the right to pour more money into schools. According to Pedro Noguera, an education professor at New York University, affirmative action has been one of the most effective policies for advancing equality of opportunity for both white women — its largest beneficiary — and people of color.
Even with policies like affirmative action — which at least attempts to mitigate structural obstacles — black students are still underrepresented at top institutions. According to Hayley Munguia of Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight, black students are underrepresented by more than 20 percent at 79 percent of the country’s research universities. Without affirmative action, structural barriers only worsen: a 2013 study found that minority students have a harder time getting admitted to state schools which have banned affirmative action.
Lately, students of color have increasingly had to defend their presence at Yale. The Next Yale protests last year and the Unidad Latina en Acción actions have only confirmed that students of color face obstacles that are both systemic and stifling. These barriers are real. They are not just statistics about the plight of black youth. The harms we face are more than liberal rants in the Atlantic or politically correct ramblings. Ron Tricoche’s ’18 piece in the News, “Why am I so unhappy?” (Sept. 24, 2016) captures this sentiment when he asks, “ How am I supposed to be happy when I’m scared for the one life I got?”
Every day, I feel like I have to preform respectability in some way at Yale: To speak eloquently, to code switch, to speak with some level of grammatical correctness. Although there is no written rule mandating this, it is an expectation and a norm. In an environment that is so overwhelmingly upper-middle class — according to the News slightly less than one third of the Class of 2020 came from families with an annual income of $250,000 or greater — and culturally white, it is difficult not to feel this pressure of respectability.
Stripping us of affirmative action — one of the only tools we have left to increase racial equality — only makes us work harder to prove our existence. How are we — as students of color — supposed to feel at home here if people are constantly questioning our position here?
Even at Yale, it seems like many things have not changed since I was sitting in the library. And yet, Yale is far more diverse than my specialized New York City high school, where three percent of students were black and seven percent were Hispanic. Doing away with affirmative action might well mean a throwback to those demographics.
Isis Davis-Marks is a sophomore in Jonathan Edwards College. Her column runs on alternate Wednesdays. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .