The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

What to do about affirmative action? Learn from the unstoppable Dominique Mejia.

She lost on TV’s “Making the Band” but became a teaching star and school founder

Activists in Los Angeles rallied in 2020 to support Proposition 16, a referendum that would have allowed affirmative action in California colleges. The measure failed. (Allison Zaucha for The Washington Post)
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Many legal experts think the U.S. Supreme Court will soon tell Harvard University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill that they can no longer use race as a factor in admissions. Such a ruling would apply to any college getting federal support — virtually all of them.

It’s uncertain what would happen then. I have spent many years watching great teachers prepare low-income Black and Hispanic students for college. College admissions officers will still be able to give them preference because the Constitution does not ban affirmative action for people who have suffered from poverty or other misfortunes. That means low-income kids might be hurt less than middle-class Hispanic and Black children, but that’s just my guess.

The long struggle over racial preferences in California, where I was born and now live, provides some insights. In 2020 the Golden State voted on Proposition 16, which would have reversed a ban on affirmative action in college admissions passed in 1996.

Proponents thought Prop 16 had a good chance because of a decline in the percentage of White and Republican voters, who tend to oppose such advantages for minorities. But Prop 16 lost 57 percent to 43 percent, an even wider margin than the 55 percent to 45 percent by which the state banned affirmative action 24 years earlier.

Why we still need affirmative action in college admissions

Many experts on the “yes” side in 2020 blamed the defeat on Prop 16’s complicated language and a failure to educate voters on its benefits. I think a more likely reason is the changes, sparked in part by good teaching, that have come in university admissions since California voters last banned racial preferences.

Voters like me noticed this Los Angeles Times headline in 2019, a year before Prop 16 was on the ballot: “UC admits largest and most diverse class ever of Californian freshmen.” Since 1996, the portion of Hispanics admitted to University of California campuses increased from 13 to 34 percent and the portion of African Americans from 3.7 to 5 percent. Asian Americans dropped slightly from 36 to 35 percent and Whites from 38 to 22 percent. Our biggest schools had become more diverse, not less, since minority admissions preferences were outlawed.

University of California at Berkeley economist Zachary Bleemer concluded that emphasizing applicants’ socioeconomic status and guaranteeing admission to the top graduates of each high school helped keep underrepresented minorities in the UC pipeline. Those who did well in their studies got in.

People who run America’s most selective universities appear to have no clear idea what a Supreme Court ban on affirmative action would do to student diversity. It could encourage hard-working but low-income African Americans and Hispanics to apply and make use of those preferences for impoverished students. It could also frighten them into shunning selective places like Harvard (5 percent acceptance rate) and UNC-Chapel Hill (24 percent acceptance rate) in favor of the majority of U.S. colleges, which accept most of their applicants.

I think the success many high schools have had helping impoverished youths find their potential will prevent any significant decline in disadvantaged minority admissions to selective schools. Many of those students are hard to resist. I call it the Dominique effect, after a young teacher I met 14 years ago.

Dominique Mejia (known as Dominique Young before she married) grew up in difficult circumstances in the Bronx. Her parents were 13 and 14 years old when she was born in 1985. She enrolled in a struggling public charter middle school that showed her how much she could learn. Its exhausted teacher-founders were about to give up on the school when one of them, a half-hour late to his class, found Mejia and another sixth-grader leading everyone through the lesson. That helped change the founders’ minds about quitting.

Mejia’s middle-school success got her the support she needed to enroll and graduate from the Oldfields School, a private high school for girls north of Baltimore. Her grades there went up. She got a 1220 on the SAT and graduated from the University of Maryland at College Park with a bachelor’s degree in communication.

Affirmative action that is doomed by this Supreme Court got me into Harvard and Yale

She wanted a career in show business. Her singing and wit were a sensation on 10 episodes of the TV reality show “Making the Band.” At the end, her poor dance skills led host and judge Sean “Diddy” Combs to rule her out.

She sought marketing jobs but was persuaded to try teaching. Her personality and grit captivated students and supervisors. After nearly 15 years as an educator, Mejia has just become the first graduate of the KIPP charter school network to found a school, KIPP Affirm Middle School. It is located back where she grew up, in the Bronx.

Many professionals from low-income families, like Mejia, know all about kids’ problems with college. She has no patience with my wishy-washy notion that the brand-name schools will save the day by fervently recruiting more intriguing applicants like her. If the Supreme Court kills affirmative action in college admissions, she will look for ways to bring it back.

“I believe that all children deserve an equal and high-quality education, and that’s not the way our society is currently set up,” she told me. “Students like me are still grossly underrepresented in selective colleges.

“Earning a degree has changed the entire trajectory of my life, financially, and will do so for future generations of my family to come,” she said. “It’s a travesty to live in a society where marginalized groups have to fight this hard. … While affirmative action is not the only solution to eradicating the inequalities in our education system, it remains a vital tool.”

It will be difficult to save or restore it. But there are many more educators with Mejia’s background and skills now than there used to be. I can’t predict what happens next, but as more rising educators like Mejia push for more opportunities for their students, schools and colleges will have to find ways to make that happen.