I’m not ashamed to admit that without affirmative action, I’m not certain I would be on the precipice of the law career that I’m at right now. As an African-American woman from a poor family, I have little doubt that affirmative action helped me get into college, earn a degree, and enroll in law school.
Some people — including those who want to end affirmative action in higher education through the Fisher v. University of Texas case now before the United States Supreme Court — have argued that affirmative action stigmatizes the recipients as being less intelligent, less qualified, and less deserving. I have little doubt that some of my white peers think of me that way.
Interestingly enough, I do not care. My opinion of affirmative action can be summed up by the statement, “Stigmatize me, give me the degree, and then maybe I can be free.” What stigma, after all, could be worse than not achieving and not being successful in a culture that values people based on their achievements?
Affirmative action policies made it possible for me to achieve more than my family had before. The possibility that Fisher could undo affirmative action has left me wondering where I would be if affirmative action didn’t exist.
As a freshman undergrad at Drury University, I was usually the only African-American student in class. During my first semester, a professor broached the subject of affirmative action and some of the white students immediately bemoaned the fact that the students of color in our section — which included me and one other student — probably were accepted and given scholarships because of affirmative action.
Several of the white students proclaimed they had no such advantages in the admissions process, and one even suggested that I probably grew up with more privileges than some of the white students, so I did not deserve “special treatment” over them.
I explained how my single mother had raised my two siblings and me on an income below the poverty level and sent us to public schools that provided an average to below-average education, while my drug-addicted father remained incarcerated and otherwise absent. Afterward, one of the white students looked apologetic and thanked me for telling my story. She admitted she was middle-class and had had certain advantages that I had lacked, while I admitted that maybe I had grown up a bit more privileged than some white people. She acknowledged that if she were in my shoes she would want some policy like affirmative action to help her overcome such disadvantages.
When she approached me after class, she said, “You deserve to be here as much, maybe even more, than anyone else in this class.”
I don’t remember her name, but I remember her words that helped me appreciate my background. Up to that point, it was my background that felt like a stigma from the moment I entered college, not affirmative action.
In her brief, plaintiff Abigail Fisher states that affirmative action policies stigmatize recipients. Fisher, who is white, was not admitted to the University of Texas, while other nonwhite students whom she believes were less qualified were. She argues that the university’s consideration of race in its admissions decision violates the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment, and that recipients of affirmative action are doomed to wear the scarlet letters “AA” that suggest they achieved not because they were intelligent or qualified but because of their race.
Such a stigma, the argument goes, creates an unfair psychic burden on the recipients of affirmative action. Affirmative action, therefore, is bad for people of color and perpetuates racial tensions.
Put plainly, Fisher is wrong. The social stigma of my childhood background was my greatest psychic burden, not affirmative action. Whatever stigma I have received from affirmative action is insignificant by comparison.
In fact, affirmative action policies that allowed me access to college helped minimize the social stigma of my childhood and helped me appreciate the strength and insight my life gave me. Affirmative action helped me find freedom from the constraints of my background. What’s more, it has allowed me access to the tools and knowledge I can use to help those like me free themselves from the constraints of their own racial and economic backgrounds.
Maybe affirmative action places a stigma on its recipients. I would guess that if we asked most recipients, they would shrug, and say that stigma is nothing compared to where they might have been without it.
Berneta Haynes is a law student at the University of Iowa College of Law.