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In anticipation of the forthcoming Supreme Court ruling on Affirmative Action, the court must exercise caution to avert detrimental impacts on the educational aspirations of Latino and Black students.

I was just four years old when affirmative action was banned in California over 25 years ago. As a Latino, I have observed and experienced these consequences firsthand.

The ban effectively funneled many Latino and Black students to less-selective schools across the state, including community colleges, for-profit institutions and the California State University campuses.

Living in a state that banned the consideration of race in college admissions and employment fostered in me a deep-rooted adherence to meritocracy — a belief that personal dedication and diligence dictate one’s educational and occupational achievements. Despite experiencing racial discrimination as a visibly brown Latino in my secondary schooling, for a long time, I believed race had no discernible impact on my opportunities and the trajectory of my life.

Racial penalties socialize Latino and Black students into believing that selective institutions (public or private) and prestigious jobs may not be for them, even when they are qualified.

Unbeknownst to me at the time, the intersectionality of race and education underscored my personal journey. Like many other Latino and Black students in the state, I found myself steered toward remedial coursework throughout my secondary education and eventually funneled into community college (also called racialized tracking). As a result of this, my aspirations were low.

It was not until I took my first race and ethnicity course at community college that I realized the possibility of chasing something higher than an associate degree and, of paramount significance, that race had played a profound role in shaping my educational experiences to that point. That course was taught by a Black professor, marking my significant first encounter with a Black faculty member with a doctorate.

As a Latino, I saw myself both in the curriculum and the professor who critically and charismatically gave my racial experiences meaning and purpose.

With newfound motivation and support, and a better understanding of my racial experiences in K-12, I decided to transfer to a more selective, four-year university.

Yet, I questioned every step of the process.

Related: Many flagship universities don’t reflect their state’s Black or Latino high school graduates

The schools that felt familiar and attainable to me were community colleges and California State University (CSU) campuses, not top-tier public or private institutions.

I had become socialized to feel that I belonged to lower-tier colleges and universities, a direct effect of my racial background and an indirect effect from seeing an overrepresentation of historically marginalized students at less-selective institutions.

Now, as the Supreme Court considers banning the use of race in college admissions, there remains considerable tension and outrage about what could happen next.

Even though it is well documented that race shapes educational opportunities for historically marginalized students like me, many people equate affirmative action with racial quotas and oppose it on that basis alone without really unpacking what considering race in admissions and employment can actually do: transcend applicants’ individual transcripts to include the social and environmental factors that shaped their academic achievements.

The underlying ideology of opposing affirmative action is based on the common belief that success is the result of individual merit and comes to those who work hard. However, at this point in history, that is not the case for Black and Latino students, even for those who demonstrate exceptionally high educational ability. For example, race functions as a quadruple penalty in the college-to-labor market process:

  1. Black and Latino/a students are usually tracked to remedial courses at less-selective universities, which are
  2. continuously underfunded and struggle to provide adequate resources to students.
  3. As a result, after graduating, these students wind up in less prestigious occupations. And,
  4. surprisingly, even when graduating from selective universities, Black graduates receive callbacks and offers for jobs with lower-based salaries and prestige than their white counterparts.

These racial penalties socialize Latino and Black students into believing that selective institutions (public or private) and prestigious jobs may not be for them, even when they are qualified, like in the case of my own educational journey.

Related: STUDENT VOICE: As an Asian student leader, I support affirmative action in college admissions

Opponents of affirmative action argue that considering race in the admissions process will significantly damage white and Asian students who “earned” a spot at an elite institution and further marginalize all students. Yet, affirmative action does precisely the opposite by contextualizing students’ racial backgrounds, experiences and historical marginalization. In doing so, it opens avenues for highly qualified Black and Latino students to be better represented in prestigious institutions and occupations.

As a third-year Ph.D. student, I am still immensely amazed at the support I receive from (the few) Latino and Black faculty as well as from white allies who believe in me and have been willing to nurture my learning at UC San Diego.

Yet, my undergraduate and graduate experiences are rare, as most Latino and Black students find it challenging to find community at colleges that lack student and faculty racial diversity.

If affirmative action is banned nationally, we will decrease the chances of finding Latino and Black mentors in prestigious colleges and occupations. 

Across the nation, Black and Latino students will begin believing, as I did, that they belong in lower-tiered educational institutions and occupations. 

If we genuinely want to provide transformative change and move forward to producing critical and diverse leaders, we must allow affirmative action to give historically marginalized students an opportunity to no longer be historically marginalized.

Erick Ramirez Manriquez is a sociology Ph.D. student at UC San Diego, studying the impact of race on students’ identity construction and educational attainment. 

This story about affirmative action and meritocracy was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for Hechinger’s newsletter.

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