Higher Edge: The necessity of taking action

February 25, 2015

It hurts to get rejected from your dream college, especially if you believe you’re qualified. It even makes sense to bear a bit of resentment in the years following your rejection. While most students eventually learn to bear and shrug off their disappointment, Abigail Fisher is taking her case to the Supreme Court… again.

Seven years ago, Fisher, a white applicant, did not receive admission to the University of Texas, presumably on the grounds of her race. Because she did not graduate in the top 10 percent of her high school class, she was not granted automatic admission into the university through its race blind acceptance program. Instead, her application was evaluated under “holistic review,” which takes factors including race into consideration, and under this process, she was denied admission.

Fisher stood before the Supreme Court for the first time in October 2012, calling into question the constitutionality of these types of affirmative action policies. According to Fisher, the University of Texas’s decision to take race into consideration during the admissions process violates the Equal Protection clause of the constitution. In June 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court, rather than giving a direct answer, ordered (in a 7-1 ruling) an appeals court to critically reevaluate the university’s affirmative action program. Over a year later, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit Read decided (in a 2-1 ruling) to uphold affirmative action.

Fisher, however, refuses to be satisfied with this ruling. On Feb. 10, Fisher petitioned to the Supreme Court to hear her case again. Although the Supreme Court won’t decide whether or not to accept the case until mid-spring, Fisher’s persistency raises larger questions concerning the legality and effectiveness of affirmative action policies at universities.

The University of Texas’s “holistic” application process is meant to counterbalance the effects of its race-neutral automatic acceptance of the top 10 percent of students from Texas high schools. The Top Ten Percent Plan accounts for 80 percent of the university’s student body, but works against black and Latino students, who are disadvantaged relative to their predominantly white classmates. The university argues that affirmative action is necessary for correcting for the effects of unequal high school education.

Although race and wealth are not always related, there persists a strong correlation between the two. Minority students often come from economically disadvantaged households and attend underfunded high schools. Even when these students do have the opportunity to attend better endowed high schools, they are often still disadvantaged against their peers. Economically-disadvantaged students often do not have the same access to tutoring as their peers and need to devote their free time to earning money rather than studying or extracurriculars. No matter how hard these students work, their work in itself is not enough to outweigh the disadvantages put before them. Affirmative action is designed to correct for these effects.

The argument then could be raised that rather than affirmative action policies, universities should be providing better opportunities for economically disadvantaged students regardless of race. The flaw in this thinking, however, is that the reason why so many minorities are economically disadvantaged is because blacks and Latinos have been historically systematically deprived of education and discriminated against in the job market. It is impossible to consider affirmative action without also considering the history of racially-based slavery, segregation, and oppression in the United States.

Chief Justice John Roberts, on the other hand, has argued, “the way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.” Roberts argues that continuing to consider race as an admissions factor actually perpetuates racism rather than eliminating it. In her defense of affirmative action, however, Justice Sonia Sotomayor asserts that this view is too simplistic and is the equivalent of trying to “wish away” inequality in a world where race still matters. The United States is not a post-racial society because race and racism are the main determinants in deciding who is able to succeed in America. To suggest that the United States could ever be post-racial would be to completely ignore hundreds of years of oppression.

In addition to addressing issues of equity, affirmative action also promotes diversity on college campuses. It gives universities a depth and breadth in their student body representing communities from all different backgrounds .

The issue with affirmative action, however, is that it often predominantly advantages only upper-middle class and wealthy minorities because these minorities are often better academically qualified and are less of a financial burden. Therefore, although affirmative action is necessary and ought to continue to be upheld if it is reconsidered in “Fisher II,” universities need to seriously consider how they use it and if the policy is actually benefitting the groups it intends to, that is, socioeconomically disadvantaged minorities.

When it comes to affirmative action, it is not good enough for universities to simply follow the status quo. They must strive to think unconventionally to bring about effective and innovative solutions to racial diversity on college campuses.


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