When the Supreme Court heard arguments in Abigail Fisher's suit against the University of Texas last week, the focus was on the right of a public university to use affirmative action to ensure a "critical mass" of diversity among students. There is another aspect of this case, though, that warrants consideration, though probably not a SCOTUS decision.
According to The New York Times, Fisher describes herself as "devastated" by UT Austin's rejection and states, “I’m hoping ... that they’ll completely take race out of the issue in terms of admissions and that everyone will be able to get into any school that they want no matter what race they are but solely based on their merit and if they work hard for it.”
I have no doubt that she is sincere. Young people are often devastated by life events that those who are older or more experienced might take in stride. And the idea of a race-blind meritocracy is an admirable one.
But we are not there yet. There are advantages to being white that transcend socioeconomic status.
African American friends and clients have told me, for example, about consistently being tailed by security workers in department stores, despite being well dressed and shopping with the intent to buy. A Latina acquaintance has been harassed at the supermarket for not having her EBT card ready. (Not that there is anything shameful about needing food stamps, but this woman is an employed accountant.) Another friend had a very positive phone interview until the interviewer said to her, "You have the prettiest accent — are you French?" My friend replied that she was from Haiti, and the interview ended abruptly and with finality. And we read every day about more overt cases of profiling.
Experiencing this sort of chronic stress, either personally or by proxy (through a parent, for instance) can have a decided negative impact on one's productivity and motivation, putting minority students at a subtle disadvantage. Affirmative action programs can help address these inequities as well as providing a diverse environment that can enrich each student's education.
Rejection hurts, especially when we perceive that we are as qualified as the person in whose favor we are passed over. But in a country whose citizens are still having trouble believing that our president is a real American, I think it is premature to assume a level playing field.