Affirmative Action? Good, but not enough

Oct. 8, 2012, 12:17 a.m.

On Wednesday, the Supreme Court of the United States will hear oral argument in the case of Fisher v. University of Texas.  Brought by Abigail Fisher, a white student who claims that the University of Texas system denied her admission because of her race under its current affirmative action plan, Fisher has the potential to render race-based affirmative action unconstitutional in university admissions – especially given the conservative bent of the current Court.

The upcoming case has reignited an old series of debates, largely untouched since 2003’s Grutter v. Bollinger, about the continued relevance of affirmative action programs in higher education.  People smarter and more informed than I am have advocated various policy solutions – shifting the focus of affirmative action from race to class, doing away with affirmative action altogether, or strengthening a fading national commitment to students of minority descent by preserving the status quo – in response to what could be one of the Court’s most important rulings on race and education this side of the new century.  I’m not going to rehash these debates here.

Instead, I’d like to argue very briefly that all of this rather misses the point.  All parties to the argument seem to agree that affirmative action artificially increases the number of minority students admitted to universities; they simply disagree about whether this measure is justified.  I’d like to suggest that the very fact that African-American, Hispanic, and lower-class students of all races still continue to require assistance from the state in order to make it to college is proof in itself that this country continues to face very serious problems in educational and social equity – problems that begin long before the senior year admissions dance to which Fisher is about to set the tune.

By the time a high school senior decides to apply to college – and many, too many, never do – many of her skills, interests, talents, and convictions have already been determined by her parents, living environment, and level of educational opportunity.

The Fisher case provides instructive evidence in this regard.  The University of Texas system, in an attempt to maintain a diverse entering class via racially neutral means, has long used a “top ten percent” system to admit freshman applicants.  The system works, as the name suggests, by automatically accepting applicants from the top ten percent of their high school class.  Since a significant number of high schools in Texas remain effectively racially homogeneous, the “top ten percent” plan has had the beneficial side effect of admitting African-American and Hispanic students who have performed well by the standards of their de facto segregated high schools – even if not by state or national standards – into the University of Texas system.

But by the time the top ten percent plan has kicked in, many of these students have faced twelve years of schooling in an inadequate, segregated system.  The damage has been done.  And affirmative action has become a Band-Aid on a gaping wound.

In short, affirmative action before college is too little, too late.  Tinkering with admissions numbers when a child is 18 does little to address the many underlying root causes of inequality – causes from race to class to geographic location – that this country has yet to deal with in a satisfactory, even adequate, manner.

Whatever the Court decides in Fisher will make headline news.  The countless individual stories of kids in schools with more guns than books, kids with single moms or dads whose jobs got them home too late to read before bed, kids who missed out on the elite $20,000-per-year kindergarten regime and had to settle for inadequately funded public schools – those stories won’t.

But those are precisely the stories we should be listening to.

Contact Miles at [email protected].

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