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Affirmative Action Coalition panel discusses racial history of UNC

contrib-university-affirmative-action-coalition-summit

Photo Courtesy of the Affirmative Action Coalition.

UNC Affirmative Action Coalition hosted its inaugural Educational Equity Summit on Jan. 20, featuring guest speakers and panelists discussing the past and future of racial equity at UNC.

Pragya Upreti, the community chair of the AAC, said the event aimed to educate students on the University’s racial history and its connection to current affirmative action policies. She said the event was planned to include a diverse range of panelists and speakers with diversity and affirmative action expertise.

The event follows the first admissions cycle since the June U.S. Supreme Court ruling struck down affirmative action in higher education. 

Geeta Kapur, a civil rights attorney, spoke at the summit about UNC’s racial history, referencing material from her book, “To Drink from the Well: The Struggle for Racial Equality at the Nation’s Oldest Public University.” In particular, she noted that for much of the University's history, Black people were not permitted to attend the University, despite it being largely built off of the unpaid labor of enslaved people.

Civil rights historian Danita Mason-Hogans spoke about how the lack of acknowledgment of Black people’s contributions to the University was hypocritical and an injustice. 

“Some of our surnames — McCauley, Battle, Mason — they're connected to this University,” she said during the panel. "Although we are connected to the University in that way, we were never, ever connected to the power.”

During the panel, civil rights attorney Amber Koonce said understanding this racial history is especially crucial for young people. She said the Court’s ruling fits a narrative that overlooks the racial history that makes affirmative action essential.

“That’s why now we see history being attacked,” Koonce said during the panel. “They don’t want younger people to understand why these programs were necessary in the first place.”

During the panel, Koonce and Mason-Hogans discussed achievement gaps within North Carolina K-12 school districts, such as Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools. Mason-Hogans said often when schools show achievement gaps within their students, what really is being shown is opportunity gaps based on race.

“We underfund, we put Title I money, we don't have the greatest resources, and then we get to college, we have expectations that we should be happy with being labeled as unproductive, lazy or ignorant,” she said at the event. “I think it's really important if we're talking about affirmative action, we also have to talk about what does access to education look like before we get here.”

It’s critical to understand that affirmative action was always an "insufficient remedy" for harm against entire groups, Kapur said. For the majority of UNC's history, she said the University used race as a factor to exclude people of color from admissions. Since the implementation of affirmative action, race has been used as a factor for inclusion only when evaluating prospective students individually.

Kapur said Georgetown University’s policy of considering the ancestry of people enslaved by the Maryland Province of Jesuits as a factor in admissions serves as a good model of a group-based remedy. Upreti said having more direct communication with decision-makers, such as the UNC administration, would improve student-led policy advocacy. 

"We realize that if students were at the table, a lot of these decisions would not have been made," she said.

Koonce discussed the amount of power the Board of Trustees holds in making decisions that impact race and inclusion within UNC and noted the importance of understanding such influence. She said she feels like the knowledge of the BOT's inner workings has been deliberately denied to people, and — that after understanding the BOT's influence — they can begin to advocate for political changes.

Upreti said AAC remains dedicated to advocating for the change students want to see. She noted the importance of AAC as a coalition that unites the efforts of many different student organizations on campus, all fighting for a more equitable university.

“Our work did not end when affirmative action did,” she said. “We are entirely committed to creating and affirming that more just institutions exist, and that starts with our own.”

@dailytarheel | university@dailytarheel.com

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