'Affirmative Action Seemed to Tarnish My Achievements,' Cont'd

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

The African American reader at an Ivy League university who expressed some discomfort with affirmative action responds to the older Black reader who scoffed at her email:

I would start by saying that there is no way I can confirm my identity without disclosing my name, the college I went to, and a picture of my face. Since I happen to be applying to graduate schools, I’d rather not have my name attached to anything too controversial.

Instead of that, I would rather address some of the points made. Before I state anything, I’d like to give a nod to how much work was done to fight for the rights of black students to attend elite schools and have the opportunity to succeed. It is a legacy I am aware of and that I carry with me everyday.

One of the points the other reader made was that I was “shamed by AA.” I hope I didn’t come off that way. Affirmative action could not erase my achievements, and I believe “shame” is best used for when the person in question is actually guilty of wrongdoing. What I was trying to get across was that because my acceptance into an Ivy was seen as “being due to AA,” I felt that all my hard work had been overlooked or erased by my classmates. That also put extra pressure on me in college because I felt like I needed to prove that I belonged to be there, both to others and to myself.

I don’t think my sentiments are strange in the black community; but what does concern me is that whenever I or others voice our questions or struggles with AA, we are seen as “not real black people,” or like “Clarence Thomas.” I would hope that I could express my reservations about AA without being seen as some kind of Uncle Tom or boogeyman.

And as I said, I am not in favor of ending AA, because our college system is deeply unfair. I am certainly not happy that political will is being spent on AA—which will at best only lead to a marginal change in the lives of most minorities—instead of on massive spending on the awful, segregated K-12 system that ensures that so few black students make it to the top.

Also problematic is that there aren’t necessarily the systems in place in Ivy League schools to help students from disadvantaged neighborhoods (black or white) succeed. In my intro calculus class, I sat with students who had taken Calc BC or AP Calc in their own schools like me. And yet, some of my fellow classmates were just learning calc for the first time. How could they ever keep up? Or reach the A on our curved math and science tests? They couldn’t. By the time I had reached the end of my sophomore year, most of my best friends, who often came from underprivileged backgrounds, had dropped out of science all together.

I also felt that some of my college advisers discouraged me from achieving because they felt that I “didn’t need to work as hard because I had AA.” In one meeting, my adviser pulled out two different lists of applicants to graduate schools from my Ivy, one for white students and one for blacks. Needless to say, I no longer use her services.

AA definitively does have insidious effects, and I do think we need to discuss that. We can appreciate the struggles it took to give us AA, AA’s successes, such as the increase in enrollment of black students at colleges, but also talk intelligently about the ways in which AA falls short. Hopefully by doing both, we can successfully help uplift our community.