July 6, 2016
By Angelica Walker

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The author celebrates graduation with her friends, Teniola Odumosu, Malasia Hawthorne, and Raven Saunders. Photo credit: Angelica Walker

When I first realized that I had earned a full scholarship to my first-choice college, I wanted to tell everybody. As a black woman who grew up on welfare, a free education felt like a miracle; the countless hours I’d spent searching for scholarships and filling out applications had finally paid off.

It didn’t take me long to realize that, to many people, my success was based on one reason and one reason only. It wasn’t about grades, or essays, or SAT scores, or AP exams, or volunteering, or marching band. It was about the one box that only I was lucky enough to check: the one that said “black.”

Every graduation season I see articles about black students achieving their dreams, and comments explaining why those students didn’t deserve their accomplishments. When Malia Obama announced her acceptance to Harvard, Fox News commenters and viewers spewed everything from “sounds like black privilege to me” to “little ape should go to college in Africa.” When Nigerian immigrant Augusta Uwamanzu-Nna was accepted into all eight Ivy League schools, a commenter said, “she did quite well, but female and black were her keys to admission.”

Since they were created, affirmative action and race-aware scholarship programs have been considered prime examples of “reverse racism.” A 2013 Gallup Poll found that 75% of white Americans wished universities didn’t take race into account for admissions at all. “We should base college admissions on effort and ability,” they say, “not race!” All they want is equality.

Here’s what those people don’t understand: there can’t be equality when minorities continue to be systematically shut out of the professions that run this country.

We need black journalists to tell our stories. But while blacks make up 13% of the population, they make up less than 5% of newsroom journalists. We need black politicians to fight for us in government, but they make up less than 9% of Congress.

We need black lawyers to represent us, but they make up less than 5% of the Bar. We need minority judges to give us fair trials, but despite studies showing that white judges show unconscious bias against minority defendants, blacks and hispanics continue to make up 30% of the population and less than 13% of judges.

We need black doctors to give us the care we need, but they make up less than 4% of US physicians. White doctors have been observed to spend less time on black patients, and black patients are more likely to attend appointments and follow doctor’s orders when they have a black doctor, but black doctors remain in huge demand. Hospitals in urban communities are shunned by white doctors because they are considered too dangerous or because they don’t pay as well; since there are no black doctors, the hospitals remain understaffed.

We need black teachers to inspire our children, but in New York City, where 85% of students are racial minorities, less than 40% of teachers identify the same way. Students are surrounded by teachers they can’t relate to, and read textbooks full of faces that look nothing like them. They see the media smearing their friends, the politicians de-funding their schools, the judges locking up their parents, and the doctors brushing off their health concerns. Is it that hard to see why they might need a little extra boost to make it into college?

Now, does affirmative action  allow schools to admit black students who otherwise wouldn’t be admitted? Yes, of course it does – that’s the point!

A huge portion of the black professionals I mentioned, including myself, would not be where we are today if colleges were race-blind. Without minority scholarships I would still be working a minimum wage job, depending on food stamps to survive. The fact that programs were available to help us achieve our dreams and give back to society when we otherwise wouldn’t have been able to is a good thing, not a bad thing.

Maybe someday we won’t need affirmative action; maybe someday we’ll all magically be equal. Believe me, I can’t wait for that day. But it’s not today.

Angelica Walker is an intern for The New People covering LGBTQ rights and criminal justice reform. She is a junior at the University of Pittsburgh studying social work, legal studies, writing, and political science.