Posted on October 5, 2012

Affirmative Action and ‘Victimized’ Whites

Pamela Newkirk, The Chronicle of Higher Education, October 5, 2012

On Wednesday the U.S. Supreme Court will once again consider the merits of affirmative action and the plight of purportedly victimized whites, ripping the scab from a deep and scarcely healed American wound.

The ever-contentious debate sparked anew by Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin is likely to overshadow recent figures showing the widening household-income gap between non-Hispanic whites and African-Americans and the stubbornly low black and Latino high-school graduation rates that persistently keep higher education out of the reach of millions. A new study from the Schott Foundation for Public Education found that just 52 percent of black and 58 percent of Latino males graduate from high school in four years, compared with 78 percent of non-Latino whites.


Against this backdrop of pain, inequality, and upheaval, fear of white disenfranchisement seems oddly out of place. The cold numbers do little to illuminate the suffering of many people across the country who have the misfortune of being born into underresourced and woefully neglected school districts. Those districts remain overwhelmingly populated by blacks and Latinos. {snip}


Still, in the face of gaping inequality, African-Americans and Latinos can once again serve as the convenient scapegoats for individual failings. Had Abigail Noel Fisher finished in the top 10 percent of her high-school class, she would, as a Texas resident, have been automatically admitted to one of the state’s public colleges or universities. Because she did not, she had to compete for one of the remaining open seats. In failing to win one of those, she found an easy target: the growing number of minority students living in the state who were admitted to the university under a plan for the remaining open seats that considers race as one factor among many, including leadership, geography, socioeconomic background, and special talents.

The university’s cohesive approach is endorsed by many of the nation’s leading institutions of higher learning, including Brown, Columbia, Cornell, Dartmouth, Duke, Harvard, Johns Hopkins, Princeton, Stanford, Vanderbilt, and Yale Universities, the Universities of Chicago and Pennsylvania, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In a joint amicus brief filed in the case, the institutions supported the consideration of all aspects of an applicant’s background, including, in some instances, race and ethnicity.

“Although amici differ in many ways, they speak with one voice to the profound importance of a diverse student body — including racial diversity — for their educational missions,” the brief states. “In amici’s experience, a diverse student body adds significantly to the rigor and depth of students’ educational experience. Diversity encourages students to question their own assumptions, to test received truths, and to appreciate the spectacular complexity of the modern world.”

In Texas, where more than half of the population is nonwhite and 38 percent are Latino, the state’s diversity plan was beginning to bear fruit. From 2009 to 2010, the percentage of Latino freshmen at the University of Texas at Austin increased from 20.8 percent to 23.1 percent. Still, Latinos remain underrepresented in a state where they compose nearly 40 percent of the population. They were 17 percent of the university’s enrolled undergraduate and graduate students, compared with whites, who compose 45 percent of the state population but were 52 percent of the student body.

Since filing the lawsuit, Fisher has gone on to graduate from Louisiana State University, but perhaps not from a sense that she, as a white American, was entitled to enrollment in the state’s most selective public university. As she garners headlines, the continuing plight of the nameless, faceless black and Latino youths in broken schools will languish in the shadows, as will the collateral damage: the wasted human capital and disproportionate number who will fill the nation’s prisons and unemployment rolls. It’s been nearly six decades since they’ve had their day in court.