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The decision to end affirmative action may affect Black Americans and Black immigrants to America differently. Credit: Jesse Zhang

As a Black student in the United States, the decision to end affirmative action stings. It feels like a slap in the face and a complete refusal to acknowledge the barriers that have inhibited the success of Black students for far too long. As the daughter of African immigrants, however, my experience is slightly nuanced. 

My parents, both with masters’ degrees, knew to prioritize education. Driven by political instability, limited economic opportunity, and the prospect of greater opportunity in the U.S., they had what some characterize as the immigrant mentality: an unrelenting motivation and determination in pursuit of opportunity. They came from educated households and families with the means to propel and support their endeavors. 

However, this level of privilege does not negate the fact that I am living out my parents’ wildest dreams in attending Penn — the product of their sacrifice, dedication, and prayers. My parents arrived in the U.S. separately, each pursuing degrees at whatever schools would take them while working fast food jobs to support themselves and, at some points, their families back home. Being cultural and linguistic outsiders posed challenges, amongst other barriers like securing citizenship and navigating a foreign land. Their plight serves as a testament that the many barriers to higher education are certainly not uniform. 

This background would inform my parents’ vision for my siblings' success and mine, with their sacrifice serving as an investment in our futures. In my household, academic excellence was not an option, but always an expectation. For many of my African American peers, however, systemic barriers make it so that academic excellence was never even an option. 

Caused by a history of housing and employment discrimination and the segregation of neighborhoods and schools, stark racial gaps in academic achievement continue to persist in the U.S. Black Americans experience more economic hardship, attend lower-performing schools, and live in neighborhoods with higher concentrations of disadvantage compared to their white counterparts. When economic, school and neighborhood disadvantages are accounted for, Black-white educational attainment gaps are not only eliminated, but a black net advantage is consistent for eighth grade math scores, rates of high school completion and college enrollment. This suggests that in the absence of these existing barriers, Black students would actually outperform their white counterparts. 

This reminds us that context is the most essential consideration in any admissions process. In a country founded upon values of racism and inequality, we do not have the luxury to operate race-blind when racism is so central to the context of an entire demographic. A legacy of slavery that informed Jim Crow, segregation, poverty, underfunded schools, voter disenfranchisement, mass incarceration — barriers put in place to restrict the mobility of an entire race — cannot simply be overlooked in the name of supposed fairness

Affirmative action — which was created with intentions of rectifying these historical injustices — was informed by the differential effect that results from being Black in the U.S. The decision to ban affirmative action could have harrowing effects on diversity in selective higher education. The University of Michigan, which halted the use of affirmative action in admissions following the passing of a 2006 Proposal 2 law, has seen a 90% reduction in the number of Native American students enrolled, while the percentage of Black students has decreased from 7% to 4%

In depriving students of the acknowledgement of race — of context — universities not only deprive deserving students of opportunity, but they also deprive themselves of a rich, diverse community. 

I will be the first to admit that I am not up against a system that was erected on my back and the backs of those who came before me. And I will be the first to admit that I benefited from affirmative action, although I was not the intended principal beneficiary. 

Black immigrants account for almost 41% of the Black population in the Ivy League. Universities — particularly selective ones like our own — cultivate students who become leaders and changemakers in industry and government and who go on to become high-income earners. I would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge the overrepresentation of African immigrants in higher education, with this discrepancy only increasing with the selectivity of a university. This is not at all to say that African immigrants are undeserving. This is to say that selective institutions must do more to ensure that the achievement gap is accounted for in the admissions process and that talented, high-achieving students don’t get lost amongst a sea of polished and privileged applicants. 

In order for an admissions process to be truly equitable, it must acknowledge the impact of racial inequity and account for this impact. Long before each admissions cycle, universities must prioritize the extension of opportunities — through exposure and pipeline programming, intentional recruiting, application accessibility, etc. — to those who may not otherwise have them. 

Being Black means something entirely different for people like my parents, who grew up somewhere where everyone is Black. Somewhere where their worth was never questioned or second-guessed on the basis of their race. Somewhere that imbued them with unrelenting confidence in who they are and what they are capable of, because they were never made to feel marginalized or less than. Although this has not been the reality for many African American students, we must do all that we can to make it so: to enable each deserving student to realize their remarkable potential and achieve their rightful success. 

AZZA ELRASHID is a rising College sophomore studying health and societies from Lansing, Mich. Her email is