Defending Affirmative Action in Higher Education

Thanks to Tumblr, I got wind of the story regarding Abigail Fisher and her case against the University of Texas at Austin. The basic premise of her case: that using race as a factor in college admissions is unconstitutional. In the following video, Ms. Fisher casually states that it would be better “…if the boxes were just removed from the application…”, referring to eliminating gender and race classifications from the application; resulting in a ‘merits only’ system of admission.

This is disastrous. But before I go into the details why, let’s look at some basic facts about the University of Texas at Austin. Less than 5% of the student population is African-American and about 20% is Hispanic. Both figures are less than the respective minority population in the state of Texas for both groups, which stands at 12% and 37% respectively. Also, in spite of the Brown vs. The Board of Education decision in 1954, which was the impetus for integration in higher education, UT was not significantly integrated until the 1970s and in 1982, less than 3% of the student population was Black…almost 30 years since integration efforts began. Clearly, something wasn’t right.

Now, let’s take a step back and look at higher education overall. Higher education, unlike primary education, is often times the first opportunity that a student has to live and study with peers that are outside the socioeconomic class that they grew up in. The student body helps to create the learning environment at a college just as its physical setting, coursework and faculty do. Yes, the measure of the impact of diversity in education is subjective and will not impact each and every student equally. However this does not mean that this impact does not exi

Now, let’s look at affirmative action. I’ll be the first to admit that it has many problems; the largest being lack of transparency and failing to address the larger underlying problem of class inequity. However, to take affirmative action away completely is a huge slap in the face to all minority populations in this country. Why? Because it sends the message that racism and sexism are dead; and that we now all play on a level playing field. In reality, nothing could be further from the truth.

But perhaps the most discouraging thing of all it that Ms. Fisher seems to have a good amount of public support – people who lump affirmative action along with the other ‘entitlement’ programs. To be fair, there are also a fair share of outspoken opponents including other Black women and even some White men. Most of these opponents focus on Ms. Fisher’s decent, but not good enough high school career, highlighting the fact that she did not qualify for UT’s top 10% admission policy. However my opinion is that even is she was right (that less qualified minorities gained admission over her), she would still be wrong. This is because she discounts the impact of White privilege. Most people do…because it is a latent characteristic that does not reveal itself unless carefully highlighted.

I myself have attended all types of primary schools; from parochial, to low-income public, to middle-upper income public. The constant factor throughout was me and my race. What I can tell you from firsthand experience is that when opportunities were available to me, I took them, and benefited greatly from them. However, if I could not afford the opportunity (which was most often the case), I simply missed out. Now some may argue that this is an economic issue…not a racial one. But my experience has shown me otherwise. For example, my big extracurricular interests were ballet dancing and music. Numerous times I’ve had teachers and peers who tried to get me involved in sports, cheerleading (at my one high school,95% of the cheerleading squad was Black, while 90% of the majorettes and colorguard was White) or vocational studies. These suggestions completely downplayed the fact that I had no interest or aptitude in these areas. It was just simply “Well that’s what the rest of Black girls do”. This advice came from both White and Black teachers and peers. Yes, plenty of people encouraged me on the path I stuck to; but the detractors were a constant force throughout my childhood, and it did not let up until I went to college. So what people don’t understand is that the societal pressure is immense. When you see few others who are like you and who live around you going to college, working in professional capacities, or excelling in the arts — you may as well be asking that person to spin straw into gold.

So you see it is not about ability but opportunity. The high school I graduated from had AP courses where the percentage points for an “A” were greater than 100. Which means, someone with all As in AP courses could get a 4.5 GPA. Well I never took AP courses. Not because I couldn’t hack it…but because they were offered after school at a satellite campus of Penn State, and because I worked part-time, I couldn’t commit to that.

Another response that I put out there to those who oppose affirmative action is this: Affirmative action is enough to get you in; but it does nothing to determine your success. I have yet to enroll in a college class where I received brownie points for being a Black woman. I’ve been fired and let go of jobs, so I don’t think my race had any bearing on that either. Are people so insecure (or are they so gracious) that they would rather deny people opportunities rather than just offering up the chance to try…even if they do fail? Especially in the case of college…where you pay to attend. It’s not like these people are stealing a salary from you. Besides, haven’t you read the memo that college is overrated anyway?

In closing, I would like to point out that I honestly do feel for economically poor White students…especially the males. The United States can do a much better job at providing real opportunities to overcome the wide economic gaps among its citizens. The focus on affirmative action also ignores the plight of poor white men and the public perception is an ‘us’ vs. ‘they’ mentality. In reality though, minorities are not the enemy to fight against. 13% of the U.S. population is Black, 16% are Hispanic, and more than 70% are White. With those ratios, you should have no fear about minorities taking your jobs, opportunities, and money away from you. To seriously entertain such thoughts reeks of paranoia and outright bigotry and hatred for others who share a dissimilar background and who come from a disadvantaged background.