Today, I woke up to the news that this administration is planning to investigate colleges that discriminate against White people. Specifically, they are planning to attack affirmative action programs. As an advocate for increased access to education in the Latinx community, campaigns like this make me want to scream. Anyone who is genuine about education and increased access knows that AA programs do not harm people in power. In fact, and please repeat this until you can’t say it anymore, white women have benefited the most from affirmative action. Affirmative action programs and policies gave me a spot in schools and situations where I likely would have been overlooked in favor of a white candidate. So I want to talk about this now because people in power have used AA programs to shame people of color and we need to do away with that shame. If this administration’s focus goes anywhere that means there will be a renewed fight against this program and it’s vital that we can discuss what affirmative action really is, what it means to our community, and ways to fight back against accusations that this policy is “unfair” or “racist.” With that in mind, today, I’m sharing a piece I wrote for an online magazine a few years ago as we waited for the second Fisher v. Texas decision. Obviously things have changed since summer 2015, but one thing that remains consistent is how oppressors take any sign of progress within our community as an attempt on them. The Latinx community needs AA programs to get qualified candidates through doors that are normally closed off to them. It is important that we support these programs and we do so vocally and aggressively. If you need inspiration then check on J. Sotomayor who praises the difference this policy made in her life.
Originally posted in September 2015
The end is near. That’s what many legal scholars and pundits believe will happen to Affirmative Action as the Supreme Court has granted Fisher v. Texas certiorari for the second time. The question SCOTUS is determining through Fisher is whether colleges can consider race as a factor in admissions. In 2013, SCOTUS heard Fisher v. Texas for the first time and remanded the case back to the appellate court. The lower court then once again ruled against Abigail Fisher, the plaintiff. Fisher’s advocates are headed by Project for Fair Representation, a one-man shop obsessed with dismantling Affirmative Action and bankrolled by DonorsTrust, an organization that backs conservative causes.
For SCOTUS to grant review of a case that was so recently decided means that they will probably broadly limit consideration of race in higher education or even ban it all together. There is hope that they may decide to rule narrowly so that it only applies to this case, but proponents of Affirmative Action aren’t holding their breaths. Aside from the conservative judges on the Court (who consistently vote against Affirmative Action); Justice Kagan will recuse herself because of the previous work she did on this case; and Justice Kennedy, often a swing vote on supposed “liberal” issues, has previously come down hard on race and has not been supportive of Affirmative Action in the past.
Before discussing what is at stake, it is important to understand the principles of Affirmative Action. It is not a quota system (those are unconstitutional); or a push to select less-qualified candidates in lieu of more qualified ones; or a mandate to lower admission standards. The original mission of Affirmative Action was to recognize that certain groups of people have experienced marginalization and have had access to educational opportunities purposefully limited. Affirmative Action sought to redress this discrimination by encouraging institutions of power to seek out minorities in order to increase access to higher education in those communities.
But, like anything that seems to favor people of color, those in power immediately start to complain about reverse racism or showcase false concern over an alleged lowering of standards. It is interesting to note, however, that for decades prior to Affirmative Action, people in power never questioned when a white man, less qualified than a minority candidate, was selected because of his race or gender; but let minorities get their foot in the door and it is suddenly time to assess the parity of admissions programs.
So let’s talk about fairness and parity through a feminist lens. In this case, Abigail Fisher has been used as the face of the anti-affirmative action movement. The story is that she was a hard-working student with dreams of obtaining admittance at University of Texas-Austin, and those dreams were dashed when UT selected minorities over her. Minorities, she claims, who had worse scores and weren’t as well-rounded as her. What we’re supposed to elicit from this story is that this poor girl worked hard, did what she was supposed to do, and then some lazy, less-intelligent person of color took her place. She seems to believe that she earned a place simply because of her background; that she deserved to be at UT because of her whiteness.
Some might give Abigail a pass or write her off as a young woman being used as a pawn in a bigger conservative movement, but Abigail is grown and college-educated; she survived UT’s rejection and went on to attend Louisiana State University. Since then, she has had ample opportunity to learn from her mistake and acknowledge the damage her case is set to cause, instead she’s still promoting her incorrect belief that UT discriminated against her (confirming this in a statement issued this past spring).
The facts, however, are different–Abigail was a good student, but not better than average. She failed to make the top 10% of her graduating class, which would have guaranteed her a spot in UT; she claims students of color were accepted over her—students that did worse than her. Yet, of the 47 accepted students who had worse scores than Abigail, 42 were white. Never mind that over 100 students of color with better or equal scores were also denied admission. No, in Abigail’s world the facts don’t matter—what matters to Abigail, and to opponents of Affirmative Action, is that a person of color maybe, possibly, perhaps received a benefit over a White woman.
Here comes the irony: Affirmative Action works and statistics show that it really, especially works for White women. Since Affirmative Action began, there has been a steady increase of women represented in higher education and in professional fields that once seemed out of reach to them. Professions that earn more money and allow for more social and political capital; Affirmative Action had a large role in that increased representation. This should be a program that White women embrace and protect because they do so well by it.
Instead, Abigail Fisher and her lot are quick to believe that a program that benefits people of color must, by its nature, take something away from them. They work in tandem with oppressors for fear that some person of color may get one up on them. This is a prime illustration of why feminism must be intersectional. Feminists must acknowledge the varieties of oppression that different groups of women encounter and vocally support programs that benefit people of color–even when they don’t see how it directly benefits them; otherwise one faction of women will continue to progress, while the rest of us are left out in the cold.
Unfortunately, Abigail, and White women like her, have gained as much as they could from a good and viable policy and now that they feel secure in their ability to succeed, not only turn their back on other oppressed groups, but demand (litigate!) an end to the policy. If this isn’t an example of “forget you, I got mine,” I don’t know what is.
The Fisher case is shameless, ignorant, and harmful. The misguided fight for so-called justice is threatening to dismantle a program that has benefited Blacks and Latinos who already struggle mightily to access higher education. States that have banned Affirmative Action saw a precipitous drop in enrollment of minority students that took years to rebuild. Latinos are enrolling in two-year universities more than other groups, but the path to a four-year university will be long and hard if universities don’t feel pressure to increase diversity and minority representation.
It’s a sad reality that we may be at the end of Affirmative Action in higher Ed, and the Abigails of the world may never recognize that their spiteful behavior is harmful, racist, and deeply-seeded in entitlement; but we can push back against these behaviors. Latinos who have successfully accessed college need to make a concerted effort to demand increased diversity at their alma maters as much as possible. On a local and national level, Latinos need to vote and support progressive candidates who promote increased access to education, or run for office themselves. Just as important, feminists must acknowledge the imbalance of power structures between races and ethnicities. Recognizing our different privileges allows for a better understanding and clears the way for a more equal progression. If we aim to do this, then perhaps next time a white Woman is denied something she wants, she won’t automatically blame a person of color.