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Thursday, June 20, 2024
The Observer

Black asterisks

“I hate to say it, but if you weren’t Black, you probably wouldn’t have gotten into those schools.”

Someone at my high school said that to me a few weeks after I got all of my regular decision results back. A Black friend of mine at Yale also had a similar experience during this time. Few people were bold enough to broach the subject in front of our faces, but we knew it was the subject of conversation every time we left a room. We knew that to some kids, there was a dark black asterisknext to our letters of admission. All my life I’ve regularly sat in Gifted and Talented (GT) and Advanced Placement (AP) classes of 20 or 30 people as the only Black kid and, on my shoulders, I carried the weight of all the ones that weren’t there. Representing an entire group of people was a burden, but one I was happy to carry. Maybe it was in my head, but I always took it upon myself to be that much more engaged in what was going on and to be that much more eloquent in how I expressed my ideas. But now that I was receiving the blessing of some great college options, it didn’t matter. Kids at my school didn’t see the fact that I spent junior year in a constant state of frenzy, wondering how I would have time to train for my sport, work on service initiatives, maintain perfect grades and perform at my job. They didn’t see how obsessively I prepared for the SAT or the night that I broke down and poured my heart out to my parents about how terrified I was to fail. All they saw was the color of my skin and, by extension, admissions results to selective schools that I couldn’t possibly have merited. That’s when I first started to wonder whether race-conscious admissions do more harm than good.

Whether my friend and I would’ve had the options we did if we were white or Asian, we’ll never know. Honestly, the thought doesn’t really cross my mind. I knew we were capable. It’s hard to say anyone “deserves” admission to a school, but I knew that we were at least qualified to get into the places that we did. But, I wasn’t questioning affirmative action because I had to wrestle with my own doubts. I was questioning it because I feared having to constantly refute other people’s.

So admittedly, coming to Notre Dame I wondered whether people would give me the benefit of the doubt or whether they’d just see another black asterisk. But after being here for a few months, and after reflecting on the recent class action lawsuit against Harvard and the Supreme Court’s continual review of the issue, I think I understand the purpose of affirmative action.

The mistake that a lot of people make is believing that race-conscious admissions are meant to level the playing field and make the admissions process more of a meritocracy by correcting for assumed intangible disadvantages people face racially. They argue that it’s an ineffective way to make things “fair” because many people suffer from intangible disadvantages that have (at least seemingly) nothing to do with their race, such as their home life, family income or health. Should an upper-class Black applicant who went to a well-resourced private high school receive admission over a white applicant who scored a 1350 on the SAT even though their high school only offered two AP classes? Then there’s also the fact that affirmative action has a disproportionately negative effect on qualified Asian applicants. With all this in mind, it’s easy to understand how affirmative action falls short of “rebalancing” the college admissions process. The important thing to understand is that that was never its intention in the first place. Hopefully, this next thought experiment elucidates the goal of affirmative action.

Imagine walking down South Quad right now at around 9:20 a.m. It’s a cold, overcast day, but you don’t really notice that because the weather’s always like that. It’s a busy day too. You see people hustling to O’Shaughnessy, DeBartolo and Mendoza for their 9:25 and 9:30 classes. In fact, you’re doing the same. As you’re making your way, you say “hi” to some friends and smile at that person you don’t know but always see around this time on this particular day of the week. Now stop. Of the many faces you imagined seeing on South Quad, how many were racial or ethnic minorities? How many of them were Black?

The goal of affirmative action isn’t to give minorities a needed advantage in the college admissions process. It’s so that the faces you see on South Quad are more representative of all the different threads woven into the cultural tapestry that we call America. It’s cliche but being forced to encounter people who don’t look or think like you on a daily basis is transformative. It’s the first step in the process of eradicating the biases and prejudices we all have. More specifically, in America, the most common path to the middle and upper middle class is still a college education (especially at a top university). The reason why admission to top universities is so coveted in the first place is that they are highways to building generational wealth and familial stability. Part of affirmative action’s purpose is to give minority students the chance to pursue affluence and to become great thinkers and Nobel Prize winners in their own right.

Like I touched on earlier though, there are obvious negative consequences to affirmative action. In fact, these consequences are so weighty that opponents of affirmative action may well be justified in advocating its removal from the college process. Research seems to suggest that race-conscious admissions discriminate against Asian American applicants and, even though it’s not affirmative action’s goal, we could definitely make the admissions process more meritocratic by adjusting for background and socioeconomic status instead of race.

As you can tell, I’m very conflicted about race-conscious admissions. There’s so much about it that I don’t like, and yet I still fear that if the Supreme Court terminates it, college communities across America will be worse off as a result. The dark side of it is having to prove to a small (but tangible) number of people that my presence on campus isn’t some form of reparations-based charity on the part of the admissions office. But the light side is no longer being the only Black kid in the classroom. 

Oluwatoni (Toni) is a freshman majoring in Business Analytics at the University of Notre Dame. He can be reached at oakintol@nd.edu.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.