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Supreme Court’s Affirmative Action Ruling and States’ Anti-DEI Laws Have Chilling Effect on Black College-Bound Students

Updated: Apr 22

By Adeyela Bennett

Editor's note: This article first appeared in the Montgomery Advertiser on April 10, 2024.

For the past 35 years, I have invested a gigantic amount of time and resources focusing on the academic excellence of my four daughters. My mother instilled in me the belief that education is the key to financial independence. Before they could even speak, I told my daughters about Howard and Harvard universities and the many opportunities the right school could provide.

Aspiring college students in the WIT Leadersip Development Academy. The middle and high school girls are affectionately called the WIT Monarchs.

I actually want more than financial independence for my children. I also want them to love and be loved where they study, work and provide service. I want them to honor the dignity of all human beings and, likewise, be dignified. I want them to be free to go to the places where they want to go, and to be in the company of kindhearted people with whom they want to study, work, travel and provide service.

Nuola and Moremi Akinde, my eldest daughters, are profoundly gifted. Yet, they are high school dropouts. Well, they voluntarily left high school early in Florida to attend Bard College at Simon’s Rock in Massachusetts. While Nuola found community at Simon’s Rock and graduated in four years, Moremi took a gap year to study Middle Eastern culture in Abu Dhabi and Dubai. She later earned her bachelor’s degree from The New School in New York.

Twenty years later, my 16-year-old twin daughters, Brooke and Breanna Bennett, are limiting themselves to applying to universities in our original home state of Florida and Alabama, our new home state. My stomach is in knots at the very thought of them attending universities in states where the governors have instituted laws against diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI). These laws are racist at their core.

Alabama’s and Florida’s anti-DEI laws have the unspoken goal of keeping faculty members of color out of public universities and suppressing their unique experiences and knowledge. Conversely, Black students are absolutely welcomed – and desired – on the football fields and basketball courts! I’m with Mayor Randall Woodfin of Birmingham: Students of color should attend universities in states that prioritize diversity, equity and inclusion.

Racism is a mental illness. [Some people] will not be happy until our people are back in the field picking cotton! Oh, but that knowledge must be suppressed from their fragile children who presumably cannot handle the truth of their ancestors’ barbaric history. I wish everyone could see that diversity strengthens schools, workplaces and communities.

After a great start at international schools in the United Arab Emirates, we spent a few years struggling to find the right school for the twins in Florida and Alabama. As juniors at The Montgomery Academy, Breanna and Brooke are being intellectually challenged; we are pleased with the high level of academic rigor. Administrators are generally caring and supportive. Most parents are welcoming. And teachers, the lifeblood of any school, are eager to share their knowledge and challenge my daughters to dig deeper.

I particularly appreciate my girls’ Advanced Placement teachers, Dr. Elizabeth Hutcheon, Dr.

Scott Taylor Morrison and Mr. Jay Rye, who passionately and unabashedly teach the writings of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Bryan Stevenson, Zora Neale Hurston, Maya Angelou and Ta-Nehisi Coates, as well as other intellectual and literary geniuses. Bree particularly enjoyed learning about music and art from the Harlem Renaissance. Brooke, who would merely skim textbooks before, now devours every word.

Will this high quality of education continue at Florida and Alabama universities with the new anti-DEI laws in place? These new laws, combined with the U.S. Supreme Court ruling on June 29, 2023, to prohibit direct consideration of race in college applications, has turned our college search upside down.

I’ve encouraged my daughters to follow the Drinking Gourd that pointed our enslaved ancestors north toward freedom. American students of color should consider schools in the United Kingdom, in Canada, in the Caribbean. I’ve pointed to Spelman College and the Seven Sisters women’s colleges, historically Black colleges and universities, and the Ivy Leagues. Breanna and Brooke summarily dismiss all of these options, saying: “We won’t get in.”

The 6-3 affirmative action ruling in the Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard case determined, however, that universities may consider how an applicant’s race has affected her life, “... so long as that discussion is concretely tied to a quality of character or unique ability that the particular applicant can contribute to the university.”

With that clause in mind, I advised Breanna and Brooke to focus on the unique ability they have that could contribute to any university: their passion about ending poverty in general and period poverty, specifically.

Breanna and Brooke inspired Alabama state Rep. Rolanda Hollis to introduce a bill to provide funding for menstrual supplies in public schools. Together, they convinced the predominantly white male, Republican-dominated Legislature to allocate $200,000 annually to the Alabama Department of Education for grants to Title I schools to fund menstrual supplies for students. After three years of advocacy, the bill passed unanimously. Gov. Ivey signed HB 50 into law on April 22, 2022.

First Lady Dr. Jill Biden honored the twins at The White House on International Day of the Girl in October 2023 as two of 15 “Girls Leading Change.” Under the umbrella of Women in Training, Inc., the youth empowerment organization the twins co-founded on their 12th birthday, Breanna and Brooke are currently advocating for an Alabama bill to end the pink tax on menstrual and some baby and maternity supplies.

Still, my daughters continue to suffer from imposter syndrome. I thought they would at least be confident about applying to Dartmouth, their father’s alma mater. In the summer of 2022, we attended the 50th reunion of the Black Alumni of Dartmouth Association, or BADA. Only a handful of the children and grandchildren of Black alumni were accepted at Dartmouth.

Generally speaking, legacy admissions is a privilege for the wealthy.

While Wesleyan University wasn’t on our radar, we noted that their president, Michael Roth, wrote an open letter stating that the university was officially ending legacy admissions. Several other universities have recently decided to end their legacy admissions policy: the University of Maryland, Carnegie Mellon University, University of Pittsburgh, Virginia Tech and Occidental College.

Now, the U.S. Department of Education is looking into Harvard’s legacy admissions policy and practice. A National Bureau of Economic Research study of Harvard’s legacy admissions found that 34% of white legacy applicants were generally admitted. On the other hand, the acceptance rate for Black legacies was lower, at 28.5%. Children of Hispanic alumni were accepted at Harvard at a rate of almost 36% and Asian Americans at 35%.

We have visited Agnes Scott College, Brown, Dartmouth, Florida A & M University, Harvard, Howard, MIT, the University of Florida, the University of Miami and the University of Michigan; however, Breanna and Brooke seem immobilized to apply to highly selective colleges.

Supreme Court rulings and state laws should empower young people; not deflate their confidence. Their rulings should unify the nation; not divide us further.

Adeyela Bennett is the president and chief engagement officer of Women in Training, Inc., and the mother of four gifted daughters.

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