Society and Culture
At first glance this post is about Abigail Fisher — but it really isn’t. What it’s about is an epidemic in modern American society. That disease is entitlement. The entitlement that led one girl, when she was denied to one college, to sue and attempt to invalidate an entire system that is bit-by-tiny-bit attempting to ease the wounds of discrimination in this country.
I’ll admit from the outset that I am not the most objective person when it comes to the issue of Affirmative Action. I am Black. As sure as the day is long and Martin Schoeller photographs make you want to exfoliate, I am Black. Now I am not saying that every Black person has to be in favor of Affirmative Action policies to be considered “down.” What I am saying is that my unique experience of Blackness in America makes me inclined to agree with one of my favorite Malcolm X quotes:
“You don’t stick a knife in a man’s back nine inches and then pull it out six inches and say you’re making progress.”
Progress means moving forward. In the context of higher education at least, one of the best and most effective means of ameliorating the effects of historical discrimination are policies that take into account race as one of several factors in determining someone’s eligibility for admission to a college or university. That’s what the Supreme Court has said and I am inclined to agree with the final arbiters of the Constitution even if one of them happens to be Clarence Thomas.
The latest development in what many thought was a settled issue of Constitutional Law after Grutter v. Bollinger laid down the standard of acceptable race-based admissions policies in higher education was the curious case of Abigail Fisher. Her denial of admission into the University of Texas at Austin spurred a lawsuit that climbed all the way up the ladder and landed at the Supreme Court in October 2012. Her suit, in brief, proceeds thusly: 1) she applied to UT Austin; 2) she was denied admission; 3) she actually went to another college; 4) but somewhere along the way she sued the university. Those are the broad strokes. Yet more important than her story are what the grounds of her suit mean practically. That’s what I’d like to examine here.
Entitlement: n. the feeling or belief that you deserve to be given something (such as special privileges).
I wanted to begin with that definition. It’s a feeling many of us have felt from time to time. Myself included. The Apple Care Lady. All of us. But the measure of maturity, I think, is how we step out of ourselves and our own selfish desires to get what we feel we are owed, and take a long hard look at whether we have earned the desired thing. Or rather, whether we deserve that thing. Abigail Fisher, after having been denied admission, instead of looking inward and wondering about her own shortcomings, decided that the primary reason, or even the only reason, that she had been denied was because she had not been born a “minority.” But was it really her race? Would she have gotten in had she been Black? I want to examine these assumptions that are at the very heart of her suit, and the overall discussion of Affirmative Action.
Assumption 1: Abigail Fisher’s Qualifications were good enough to get into UT.
According to Miss Fisher’s own brief before the Supreme Court, “UT is a highly selective university, receiving applications from approximately four times more students each year than it can enroll in its freshman class.” The question then narrows to whether Abigail’s scores and experiences were good enough to beat out thousands of others.
Her stats: a) SAT: 1180 out of 1600; b) Cumulative High School GPA: 3.59′ c) not in the top ten percent of her high school graduating class.
I’ll let the University of Texas explain the significance of these numbers:
According to the hard data from Abigail Fisher’s admissions file, she would not have been admitted to the University due to the stiff competition of the applicant pool that year. Being in the top ten percent of her class would have guaranteed her admission. She was even denied to the provisional summer program that the University offers for those on the cusp of admission. More’s the pity. Maybe she should have worked harder or studied more.
Assumption 2: Other, less qualified applicants, were admitted because of their race.
There is simply no way to prove this. In her brief, Miss Fisher merely conclusively asserts, “[a]lthough [Fisher’s] academic credential exceeded those of many minority candidates, UT denied her application.” Well, yeah, sure, but still. Wait, let me give a more cogent answer. I am not an admissions professional at a flagship university. Neither is Abigail Fisher. Or her attorneys. The difference between us is that she seems not to realize this. I can conceptually understand that great schools could fill their classrooms solely with those who have 4.0 GPA and top SAT scores, but it is a reasoned and considered choice by the University to consider more than that. The admissions policy attempts to assign numerical values to often subjective factors…and the University is entirely within its right to do so.
Assumption 3: Other forms of non-merit based admission policies are totally acceptable.
This is perhaps the most sinister assumption that underlies the discussions of Affirmative Action programs. I might — MAYBE — be able to rationally accept the argument that race should not be considered in admission because it has nothing to do with the student’s merit. But there are other metrics — that have nothing to do with academic merit — that are used all the time to the benefit of those from populations that have been historically favored. Metrics like legacy clauses. Sports scholarships. Opponents of Affirmative Action don’t take their views to their logical endpoint. Their road only goes so far as to criticize non-merit-based policies that benefit minorities, and not those that benefit those of European descent.
The Supreme Court of the United States remanded Fisher’s case back to the Fifth Circuit, essentially punting on third and six instead of going for it and resolving finally the position of Affirmative Action in higher education. Yet I wonder less about the legal merits of this case and more about what it says about the American people. Affirmative Action, to me, seems a commitment on the part of our legal system to favor those who had been disfavored. Affirmative Action isn’t crippling the White race, in the same way Affirmative Action hasn’t elevated minorities into the stratosphere in terms of academic achievement. The cruel truth of it all is that those who had been most favored by every aspect of society for literally centuries feel so threatened by such insignificant and limited favor of the downtrodden classes in school admissions.
If that’s not entitlement, I don’t know what is.
Dominic Jones (@DomPerinyon) is originally from Atlantic City, NJ. He attended Morehouse College in Atlanta, Ga. followed by law school at the Washington College of Law at American University in Washington, DC. In his spare time he enjoys art, photography, and documentary films.
Featured image courtesy of [Reid Sullivan via Wikipedia]