Wednesday, October 17, 2012

DBTWP 9: Affirmative Action: Myth, Reality and Texas

whatshername has expressed concern that I was not challenging the underpinnings of white racism.  I can understand where she is coming from, and I want to address her comments in greater detail as time allows.  But for now I wanted to take some time to look at what most white people consider the most egregious example of "reverse racism" -- affirmative action programs that favor blacks and other minorities over white people.

I've met quite a few white people who believe that federal and state laws force companies to choose any black applicant over far more qualified whites.  Many others assume any POC in a position of authority was put there to fill a quota and remains there despite being spectacularly incompetent.   In an article I referenced earlierGeorge Will suggests liberal guit will drive whites will re-elect Barack Obama even though "administration is in shambles." From the other side of the conservative bell curve Donald Trump has combined Birther rants with repeated allegation that Obama was only admitted to Columbia and Harvard because of his race.

This term the Supreme Court will be hearing Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin, a case which is likely to have a significant impact on Affirmative Action programs no matter how the court decides. Even before they hand down their decision, the documents at hand can help illuminate the real impact race-based preferences have had on white people.

A talented cellist and Honor Roll student with a family legacy at UT, Abigail Joan Fisher "dreamt of going to [the University of Texas] ever since the second grade." When she was rejected and saw others in her class admitted with lower scores and "the only difference between us was the color of our skin" she decided to take a stand:
I was taught from the time I was a little girl that any kind of discrimination was wrong. And for an institution of higher learning to act this way makes no sense to me. What kind of example does this set for others? A good start to stopping discrimination would be getting rid of the boxes on applications -- male, female, race, whatever. Those don't tell admissions people what type of student you are, or how involved you are. All they do is put you into a box, a theoretical box. 
I didn't do this for recognition. I just want to stand up and say this isn't right, because it isn't. I hope that by doing this other students in years to come won't have to worry about the color of their skin when applying to college. If people say anything about me, I hope they say I didn't take this sitting down. I didn't accept the process, because the process is wrong.
Several of the justices have raised pointed questions about the role race plays in determining admission to UT.  Justice Stephen Alito mockingly asked:
How do they figure out that particular classes don't have enough? What, somebody walks in the room and looks them over to see who looks Asian, who looks black, who looks Hispanic? Is that how it's done?
Among the people presenting amicus curae briefs in support of the University are the family of Heman Sweatt, whose 1950 Supreme Court case forced the University of Texas to integrate its law school; the ACLU; the United Negro College Fund; and the American Bar Association. Briefs in support of Fisher have been offered by (among others) the Falwell family's Liberty University;  Congressman Allen West, a black conservative; and the Asian American Legal Foundation, which argues
In the name of racial diversity, racial preferences in college admissions programs in general, and at the University of Texas at Austin (“UT”) in particular, discriminate against Asian-American applicants by deeming them overrepresented relative to their demographics in the population and thus less worthy of admission than applicants of underrepresented races. At highly selective schools, such discrimination imposes an admissions penalty on Asian Americans equivalent to hundreds of SAT points relative to Hispanic and African-American applicants, and a lesser, but still significant, admissions penalty relative to White applicants.
Amidst all these arguments it may be easy to miss an important point: the "racial preferences" used by the admissions office play a very small role in determining who does and not  attend the University of Texas.  This is not the first time UT has been in court over the issue: in 1996 Cheryl J. Hopwood successfully challenged race-based preferences at UT's law school in Hopwood v. University of Texas.  In response to this, the University of Texas announced a new policy: they would now offer automatic admission to all Texas high school students who graduate in the top 10% of their class.

Texas neighborhoods (and thus Texas schools) are largely segregated. This meant that the top 10% of all students in a largely black neighborhood in Houston or a largely Mexican town near the border would be admitted alongside the top 10% from a lily-white Dallas suburb.  Thanks at least in part to this policy, there is now a large "minority" presence at the University of Texas. In UT's incoming Class of 2010, only 47.6% of incoming students self-identified as white.

80% to 85% of all freshman slots are filled by students admitted through this "Top 10%" policy -- and competition is extremely keen for the remaining spaces. Evette Dionne explains further in her excellent "Open Letter to Abigail Fisher"

You knew that the institution automatically accepts the top 10 percentile from every high school in Texas and that the average SAT score is in the 1200s. It is common knowledge that UT is one of the most prestigious institutions in the United States, so it is challenging to gain admission.
Before securing those letters of recommendation and forking over that expensive application fee, you knew that despite your legacy as the child of UT graduates, a spot on the coveted honor roll and a lifelong affair with the cello that admission wasn’t guaranteed. 
In blaming affirmative action for that denial letter, you have failed to mention that you graduated number 82 in a class of 674 with a 3.59 grade point average on a 4.0 scale, which alienated you from the automatic admissions bunch. You conveniently omit that you scored an 1180 on your SAT, which is way below UT’s average, so that automatically diminished your chances of being accepted.
Even Fisher's attorneys estimate that race was decisive for, at most, 33 of the 7,478 students admitted in 2008, and that 96 percent of the African-American and Hispanics who got in that year were admitted because they’d graduated at the top of their high-school classes. For its part, the University of Texas argues that Fisher would not have qualified for admission even if she had received extra points for "special circumstances" like socioeconomic status and race.

People of good will can arge the benefits and drawbacks of race-based preferences. In the case at hand it seems beyond debate that Fisher was at best a marginal candidate and that the vast majority of African-American and Hispanic students at UT neither benefitted from nor required any sort of affirmative action.  Fisher's attorneys not only concede the latter point but have made it a major part of their defense:  the fact that race matters so little in UT admissions proves to them that it should not matter at all.