Three years ago I was accepted to Princeton under affirmative action. In high school I was told that my Jewishness would set me back in the college admissions process, but (not to worry) my Blackness would ultimately persevere and push me to victory. My best friend, white and Japanese, lamented the cakewalk that would be my college applications journey.
And it was a cakewalk. As it turns out, after you’ve finished your classes and taken your tests, actually getting into college is out of your hands. In the language of admissions officers everywhere, all your numbers and papers and hopes and dreams swirl together into a gloriously “holistic” shadow-version of yourself, and then colleges decide if they want anything to do with you.
In June of 2023, the Supreme Court decreed that the college admissions in the United States would henceforth be “colorblind.” From now on, this shadow version of ourselves will be officially raceless, unless of course you leave a Hansel and Gretel trail of racial breadcrumbs behind that might lead an admissions officer to the truth. A first name, a last name, participation in a certain affinity group, a cleverly woven anecdote in a personal essay. Race is still a factor in college admissions, it’s just that it can no longer be a fact.
I went to private school in California, a state where affirmative action has been illegal for some time now. At private liberal institutions like these, students are primed to soul search for ways our identities have traumatized us. It’s helpful that everybody at California private school has a therapist, so these nuggets are meticulously mined, ready to be polished and presented reverently at the feet of top universities. How could I, at seventeen, understand what Blackness was to me, and how my life would be different because of it? I only knew how Blackness affected me within the limited scope of my community—white kids rapping the n-word (the rapping an affront in itself), a volleyball coach calling me ghetto, and the way other students envied my alleged silver bullet to success—affirmative action at out of state universities.
Now that affirmative action has been put to death, many of us—students of color, wealthy students, even legacy admits—are being asked to justify our places at Princeton and similar schools. We are being shown graphs of our averaged GPAs and maybe resenting the underachievers dragging us down, making us look bad in front of everyone, and perhaps glowing at the thought of being the exception, an asset to our kind. This is the very same logic that anti-affirmative action conservatives use to recruit non-Black minorities to their cause, the very logic that relegates people to model minority status. We are all chasing the same precarious validation, and worse, we do it without question.
The same is true of wealthy students and legacy admits. Part of me is certain that, if I were a legacy admit with the same pedigree I currently have (two highly educated parents, private school since birth, forced to read the dictionary in exchange for TV time), I might direct a little more energy towards being an academic powerhouse. When discussing legacy admits, we are often forced to concede that, on paper, they do belong. They test well, score high, and strive for shimmering GPAs, in some part due to a generational emphasis on education, and maybe in some part due to a desire to discredit all the naysayers. A Daily Princetonian article, “How do Princeton’s legacy students stack up to their peers? We looked at the numbers.” takes a holistic approach to evaluating legacies at Princeton. It examines not just scores and grades, but future ambitions, ultimately finding that high volumes of legacies aspired to be public servants and professors, two arguably noble professions. It’s a generous article, one that humanizes legacy students and makes an argument for their place at Princeton beyond the admissions office logic of garnering hefty donations and building miniature academic dynasties. It posits that legacy students are truly “in the service of the nation,” as our school claims to be. There is a notable double standard, however, in how we justify the place of legacy students on campus versus that of students of color.
Articles that attempt to discredit race-based affirmative action often attack GPA first, citing a certain point difference between the average accepted GPA of the institution in question versus that of Black, Hispanic, and Indigenous applicants. Pro-affirmative action articles are not much better, attempting to quell white anxieties by telling students that diversity is worth the deficit, that the presence of students of color is enriching enough to make up for that pesky achievement gap. These broad arguments tie the worthiness of Black and brown applicants to the comfort and enrichment of their white peers, rather than the personal assets or strengths of the applicants themself. In my personal belief, this worthiness in itself is a sham, and everyone is “worth” a quality education, but such a belief transcends the present reality of American education.
Where are the articles calculating the impact of students of color on campus and beyond? We all know very well that Princeton University does not flaunt the alumni who graduated with honors or achieved miraculous scores on the SAT. They lie in wait for us to achieve something truly, undeniably great, and only then do they claim us as their own. At alarming rates I encounter students of color at Princeton who already sparkle with the sheen of ridiculous success. How can GPA come to mind when the greatest performers, most charismatic future politicians, and arrestingly passionate civil servants-to-be are right in front of you? While I believe in the pipe dream that colleges should give each student, no matter how sparkly, the same care and attention, my more grounded argument is this: Why does worthiness stop being “holistic” after students of color have been accepted to college?
The real answer is, of course, that it never was. The more pertinent answer is that, within the will-they-won’t-they debate of race-based admissions, students of color are not permitted to justify their existence outside of academics. On an individual level, we can be given non-academic awards, honors, and recognition through the University, typically tied to service, but these statistics rarely make their way into any affirmative action literature on either side of the aisle. The uplift is purely individual, and this, too, is a trick. The more they have us think that we’ve made it, that any one of us can make it, the less able we are to realize that not everybody can. While a high GPA is a testament to hard work or some convenient mental hard-wiring, there are many reasons why a student of color would not maintain a 4.0, reasons that don’t even touch on the systemic barriers at hand. For instance, maybe they’re working, maybe they’ve over-committed to extracurriculars, or maybe they’re disillusioned by grades in general, knowing that future employers won’t care.
Maybe the most depressing facet of all this is that my Princeton GPA matters beyond me. I’m not applying to grad school, I’m not pursuing any job that would gawk at a 4.0, and yet, if I choose to have other priorities or be great in other ways, suddenly I’m justifying the end of affirmative action by not actively proving myself in the one way that counts to news outlets and the Supreme Court. Rest assured, I’m not setting out to do anything ostentatiously wicked with my life. In a typical article measuring Princeton students of my background, I wouldn’t push the needle in either direction, towards underachieving evil or sensational goodness. My point is that, if I were, it wouldn’t truly matter beyond my individual uplift. It wouldn’t count as a point towards justifying more admits with racial profiles like mine, but if I were a legacy, perhaps it would.
Having lived in a state where affirmative action has been illegal for a long time, here’s what comes next for us. We will have to be covert, sneaking racial identifiers into our personal statements and extracurriculars. We will still have to justify our placement at every turn, and people will still allege that whiteness is an inherent disadvantage in the process. Worse of all, I fear there will be pressure to take a certain path, the only path that will (allegedly) show them all that (finally) we are worthy. To be honest, I have always felt overshadowed by the looming expectation of Black Excellence, which comes with so many limitations and strings. But, if you have the privilege, try not to be swayed. There are many ways to do good, to be great, and to be happy. That’s just not how we’re measured.