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Monday, April 15, 2024
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OP-ED: My testimony on affirmative action

The Supreme Court and American University would have crushed my 17-year-old self’s dreams

When I was 17 years old and applying to colleges, I could not wait for what my future held. 

At my predominately white school in North Carolina, I was the first Black student body president and homecoming queen — the only person to ever hold both positions. I played basketball, taught piano and developed a curriculum about multicultural awareness, which eventually won me the Princeton Prize in Race Relations. I was proud of what I accomplished at 17 years old, and excited to see how my hard work would pay off in my college admissions process.  

On the other end were my white classmates who were not as enthused about their admissions prospects. Some blamed their GPA, test scores and resumes, but all of their concerns had one common theme: their race.  

To them, their most significant advantage was now their disadvantage. Many even wished not to list that they were white because they felt their whiteness would hurt their acceptance chances.  

To see my peers run from their privilege to reap the benefits of systemic discrimination was incomprehensible. As a teenager, I didn’t have the words to articulate my thoughts and questions, but I am now prepared to ask and answer: How did they come to this conclusion?   

Those white students were afraid of affirmative action. In their eyes, affirmative action let Black kids who were less qualified than them take their spot solely because of race.  

As one of the only Black students in my class, this made me an extremely vulnerable target. Were the people I had grown up with, from birthday parties to prom resenting me for my college admissions success? Was it possible that they couldn’t rejoice with me because they were hyper-fixated on my race?  

In February 2020, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill released their admissions decisions. Another accomplished Black student and I were accepted into their highly selective honors program. I was also preparing to interview for their prestigious Pogue and Robertson Scholarships. My family and I could not have been prouder, until racism killed our pride.  

My friend who was also accepted into the honors program approached me with what was clearly going to be bad news.  

“Alex, do you hear what everyone has been saying about us? Everyone thinks that we only got into the honors program because we’re Black,” they said.

I will never forget this conversation. I will never forget the pain in his voice as we had to hold the burden of how our peers truly felt about us.  

And it did not stop there. My classmates were suddenly questioning me about everything. They couldn’t remember that my grades were stellar. They couldn’t remember any of the extracurriculars I was involved in or the awards I held. They constantly asked me what my test scores and GPA were as if they were trying to justify my acceptance. 

But they certainly remembered that I was Black. And to them, that was everything. My accomplishments, my character and my intellectual capabilities were suddenly nonexistent. 

They believed Blackness and achievement were mutually exclusive. A sense of superiority naturally powers whiteness, which in turn links inferiority to Blackness. This notion left them unable to comprehend Black success. Affirmative action opponents need to find it within themselves to answer why they believe Blackness and intelligence cannot coexist.  

I chose not to attend UNC, and instead I chose the school of my dreams, on the scholarship of my dreams. I committed to American University as one of five students selected to be a Frederick Douglass Distinguished Scholar, a program that provides a full-ride scholarship.  

AU’s cost would have caused a significant financial burden without this scholarship. My father made this clear when we were sitting in an admissions session. He saw my face, beaming with excitement at the thought of coming to this school.  

“Alex, do you want to go here?” I smiled and nodded. “Then you better get this scholarship,” my father said.  

Flash forward four years later. I became a Frederick Douglass Distinguished Scholar, making my 17-year-old self’s dream a reality.  

But if I were 17 today, my dream could not become a reality.  

Two months ago, the FDDS program held a call with scholars to inform us of significant changes to our program, two of them being that full rides were now eliminated and that the program was no longer geared towards students of color. 

I often wonder what my 17-year-old self would have done when hearing this news. Would I still be here today?  

This was a huge blow to all of us. Tears were shed. We were left in the dark.  

We are not the only ones with these feelings, as the Supreme Court just overturned years of precedent and overturned affirmative action in universities on June 29.  

The Frederick Douglass Distinguished Scholarship gave me the opportunity of a lifetime. 

Affirmative action has given the same to millions of others. That’s what this is about — opportunity.  

I am the daughter of a man who lived through desegregation in the South. I attend a top institution on a full ride. I earned a plethora of amazing opportunities, from leadership positions to internships. I proved time and time again that I deserve to be here, but that is still a question to many.  

But what cannot be questioned is the positive impact that affirmative action has had on my life and many others. So many students worked so hard and deserved the opportunities their grandparents and parents were denied. While I am grateful for the opportunity I had, my heart breaks for the kids who will not have it. My heart breaks for the students whose optimism was crushed and whose spirits were broken. My heart breaks for what could have easily been my 17-year-old self.

While American continues to send out emails claiming an unwavering commitment to “inclusive excellence,” I wonder how this will still truly live on without the core elements of this institution’s most inclusive program. What is the message that they are sending the Scholars that are now and the ones that are to come? 

Regardless of their message, my message is this: For 13 years, The Frederick Douglass Distinguished Scholars brought the brightest students to American University. In return, we achieved the unimaginable and delivered great pride to the AU community. Douglass scholars bring AU forward. Affirmative action brings our country forward. In the midst of great uncertainty, one remains firm— we will not go back. 

Alexandra Drakeford is a senior in the School of Public Affairs. 

This article was edited by Jelinda Montes, Alexis Bernstein and Abigail Pritchard. Copy editing done by Isabelle Kravis. 

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