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With the fate of affirmative action in the hands of the Supreme Court, these graduates are fighting to save it

By Nicquel Terry Ellis, CNN

For nearly 60 years, institutions of higher education have been able to give limited preference to people of color and women with admissions.

The practice, advocates say, has afforded marginalized people a fair chance to attend colleges and universities that may have otherwise overlooked them. It has also been a tool to prevent discrimination at institutions, many of which historically only admitted White students.

Now the fate of affirmative action is in the hands of the conservative majority Supreme Court. On Monday, justices will hear arguments for two cases at Harvard and the University of North Carolina.

The challenges are being spearheaded by conservative activist Edwin Blum who filed the lawsuits in 2014.

The Harvard challenge cites Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which prohibits schools receiving federal funds from discriminating based on race. The UNC lawsuit also claims Title VI grounds, as well as a violation of the 14th Amendment’s guarantee of equal protection of the law, which covers state institutions.

The Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights is among the groups that will be defending the constitutionality of affirmative action before the Supreme Court.

Genevieve Bonadies Torres, associate director for the Educational Opportunities Project for the committee, said affirmative action has led to college campuses becoming more diverse. In return, Black and brown students are able to achieve “profound economic mobility” and uplift their communities, Torres said.

“What we know from both experience and research is that when colleges stop considering race, they have seen steep declines in the number of Black and Hispanic students who gain access,” Torres said. “Students of color are less likely to apply once they stop considering race because they see them as less inclusive and welcoming.”

Torres said in 2015 students at both Harvard and UNC got involved in the cases by submitting letters and testifying about their experience on each campus and the importance of diversity.

CNN spoke with three of the college graduates involved about why they believe affirmative action should be upheld.

A daughter of immigrants earned a prestigious full ride scholarship

Cecilia Polanco grew up in a working-class family to parents who immigrated to the United States from El Salvador. Polanco said her father worked construction and her mother was a seamstress who also cleaned homes to provide for their family.

She said her parents allowed her to focus on school because they wanted a better life for her. Neither had the opportunity to finish school in El Salvador.

Polanco said she worked twice as hard and took AP courses in high school. She knew that as a Latina child of immigrants, she didn’t have the same resources as her White counterparts.

In 2011, Polanco was selected as a Morehead-Cain Scholar at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill which offered her a full ride scholarship.

Polanco said she believes affirmative action helped “level the playing field” so that students of color like herself could receive such a prestigious scholarship.

“If we had a more equitable and just society, we wouldn’t need something like affirmative action,” Polanco said. “But we do because our society is unjust.”

Polanco recounted being one of few students of color in some of her college classes and reading hurtful comments online from people who said she only got into UNC because the school had to meet a diversity quota.

But she didn’t let it deter her. She ultimately became a staunch advocate for affirmative action and was eager to contribute to the court case.

Now Polanco works as a community organizer in Durham, North Carolina where she focuses on philanthropy, racial equity and youth organizing.

“I think affirmative action helps see the ways in which I didn’t have some of the same opportunities as other people, as my White counterparts,” Polanco said. “There are many valuable life experiences that I had that made me a valuable asset to UNC.”

Polanco plans to be in Washington D.C. today as the Supreme Court hears arguments in the case. She believes the high court will ultimately uphold the practice.

“I’m definitely feeling optimistic,” Polanco said. “I feel like I’d be surprised if it went the other way.”

His family is seeing success for a second generation

Andrew Brennen said he has always faced reminders that he is Black.

From high school peers asking why he didn’t fit the stereotypical Black teen to being one of few Black students in his classes at UNC, Brennen said he never felt completely accepted.

He recounted one class discussion about affirmative action at UNC when a White student questioned whether some Black students were fully qualified to be at the university. Brennen also witnessed the protests on UNC’s campus when the “Silent Sam” Confederate statue was toppled.

With college campuses still battling racism, Brennen fears that overturning affirmative action could only make matters worse.

“The evidence is pretty clear that when admissions officers are not able to take race into account, diversity on campus suffers,” Brennen said. “These efforts to hold folks accountable for the history and current day racism on campus are led by students of color. And the reality is that our schools need to be as diverse as the workplaces and societies that we are supposed to be preparing to move into.”

Brennen said he was eager to offer his perspective when the North Carolina Justice Center asked him to write a letter in support of affirmative action for the case.

Brennen, the son of two attorneys, credited affirmative action for the success of his family. His parents, he said, both grew up poor but were able to attend law school and pursue legal careers.

Brennen said his parents instilled the importance of education in him and taught him how affirmative action had helped many Black families prosper.

Brennen graduated from UNC in 2019 with a degree in political science. He now works for a social change venture.

“There are people out there who want to exploit the fact that affirmative action somehow means that your White kid is going to suffer,” Brennen said. “I think that hugely mischaracterizes what affirmative action is doing.”

Affirmative action, he said, gives everyone, regardless of race, a fair shot at a quality education and success.

Brennen said he worries that the conservative majority Supreme Court won’t agree.

“While I’m confident that our attorneys are making strong, constitutionally-backed, precedent-based arguments in support of affirmative action, I’m nervous that this court doesn’t care,” Brennen said.

A young Vietnamese immigrant took a chance and got into Harvard

Thang Diep experienced confusion over his identity throughout his childhood.

Diep said he immigrated with his family from Vietnam to the U.S. (Los Angeles) at the age of 8 and didn’t speak much English. As he gradually learned the language, he still had a thick accent and classmates teased him throughout the grade school. Some would call him Chinese when really he was Vietnamese. As Diep settled into American life, he watched his father travel back and forth to Vietnam for work so he could still provide for the family. Diep’s mom didn’t work and stayed home.

When it came time to apply for colleges, Harvard was not on Diep’s radar.

“It seemed out of reach and this impossible thing,” Diep said.

But three days before the admissions application was due, his mother encouraged him to take a chance and apply. Diep said in his admissions essay, he wrote about his struggles with racial identity and fitting in during grade school.

Diep ultimately was accepted and studied neuroscience at Harvard.

When Diep was asked to write a letter in support of affirmative action while attending Harvard, Diep jumped at the opportunity. He believed Asian Americans, particularly Southeast Asian Americans, had been left out of the conversation and wanted the world to know that they too support affirmative action. Asian Americans, he said, are not a monolith. Contrary to the “model minority” stereotype, some Asian Americans come from working- class families like he did, Diep said.

“I think we live in society where race plays a critical role in our experiences and what access to resources we have,” Diep said. “One way we can make the education system better is to acknowledge and take into account these barriers.”

Diep now works for a nonprofit that works to combat domestic violence.

Diep said he will be in Washington D.C. rallying around affirmative action with other college graduates and students. He said he stands in solidarity with all communities of color that are fighting to keep affirmative action.

“I feel like there is some sense of optimism,” Diep said. “I hope that this will become an educational opportunity to spread awareness about the impact.”

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