Our country is in the midst of a national reckoning regarding systemic racism and social injustice. We are grappling with our dark history and dreaming of ways to respond. On November 3, Californians have an opportunity to craft a more just society by voting yes on Proposition 16, empowering California’s public colleges and universities to take into consideration race when evaluating a prospective student’s application.
As a young Black man, I have experienced firsthand how educational opportunities provided by affirmative action can function as the great equalizer. I am currently an attorney at a top law firm in San Francisco. I passed the California Bar exam on my first attempt. I have served as a law clerk to federal judges at both the trial and appellate level. I am a Fulbright Scholar who worked in Malawi for 10 months assisting their government with anti-corruption efforts. I am an alum of both Yale College and Berkeley Law. Despite my sterling resume, I do not come from a privileged family background. My mother and father only had a high school education; both worked blue collar jobs. It was affirmative action that opened the door for me to pursue academic and professional pursuits usually reserved for the social and economic elite.
I was born in Oakland, California, and raised in a working-class single-parent household. I attended a resource scarce urban California high school that was plagued with difficulties that reflected the inequalities in our society. I remember studying for Advance Placement (AP) exams using textbooks that were 10 years out of date and literally falling apart. I remember fights breaking out in the school corridors frequently and praying that we would be safe during the subsequent mandatory lockdowns. Most of our Black and brown working-class parents juggled too many jobs to attend back-to-school night or parent-teacher conferences. We had teachers who did not believe that we would amount to anything significant in the world.
Despite residing in an environment with seemingly insurmountable obstacles, I studied like my life depended on it. By the time I was a senior, I had over a 4.0 GPA. I had passed every AP exam that I took and was designated an AP Scholar. However, the SAT was a struggle. I scored well on the verbal and the written portion but struggled with the math section. My math teachers did not prepare me for college-level quantitative thinking and my college applications were seemingly imperiled as a result.
In faith, I applied to Yale College and gained admission. I know that affirmative action helped me overcome my less competitive math score. However, I do not view this to be an unfair advantage or that I took the spot of a more deserving white applicant. I view it as an intervention of equity meant to counteract a current of inequality that had been flowing around myself and my family since before my birth.
It is not a coincidence that my parents, grandparents and great-grandparents did not attend college. It is not a coincidence that despite being in this country for hundreds of years, my family has not accumulated generational wealth and that I grew up in poverty. The racial history of how this country has marginalized Black Americans explains why I attended an inner-city school with crumbling books. It was not my ancestors’ choices, work ethic or virtues that led to chattel slavery, Jim Crow laws, segregation and discrimination. It took more than my choices, work ethic and virtues to break the cycle that has intertwined my family’s racial history with poverty.
Affirmative action is a way to combat systemic racism through intervening into the lives of Black and brown kids like myself who work hard but need an extra push to get across the finish line. We are not looking for a hand-out. To the contrary, we have worked harder than many of our privileged peers and have overcome much more. We just need an intervention of equity in order to help break us out of the cycles that we did not create but which eagerly attempt to entrap us.
As a result of affirmative action, I have been able to help out my relatives when they experience financial difficulty. I have been able to guide my little sister to become the second person in our family to graduate college. I have been able to give back to my community through volunteering and pro bono work. Affirmative action is not just an intervention of equity for one particular student. It is a way to disrupt cycles of systemic racism and inequality through investing in future Black and Brown leaders.
I implore my fellow Californians to vote yes on Proposition 16 so that more Black and brown Californians can experience the intervention of equity that has changed the course of my life and my family.