SAN DIEGO — The Supreme Court seems eager to end affirmative action in college and university admissions.
Not because of the law on the books, or the facts of a particular case, but because the court will likely let itself be led where it wants to go anyway. Five justices (John Roberts, Antonin Scalia, Anthony Kennedy, Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito) have – either in previous cases or before taking the bench – opposed the idea of taking race and ethnicity into consideration to give minorities a leg up in the admissions process.
Allegedly, this sort of thing creates a new class of “victims” such as 22-year-old Abigail Fisher, who was denied admission to the University of Texas at Austin in 2008 and went on to sue the school for allegedly discriminating against her because she’s white.
The justices recently heard arguments in Fisher v. University of Texas. Some of the questions from the bench suggest that Fisher will find sympathy on the high court.
Never mind that the majority of students on the UT campus – not to mention most of the school’s faculty, staff and administration – are also white and somehow managed to overcome this obstacle. And never mind that Fisher’s grades in high school were – as the university contends – simply not good enough to get her into UT through the front door.
With lightning speed, Fisher’s complaint has traveled all the way to the Supreme Court. The university – while awarding three-fourths of the seats in its freshman class to students who graduate in the top 8 percent of their high school classes (it was the top 10 percent when Fisher applied) – grants the remaining quarter by taking into account other factors, including socioeconomic background, personal hardship and, yes, race and ethnicity.
None of this is relevant to what happened to Fisher. Her grades put her in the top 12 percent of her class. Admitting her would have required a new kind of preferential treatment – for the academically less qualified.
If we’re talking about bright-line racial preferences such as quotas and set-asides, as opposed to more benign measures such as outreach efforts, I’d be fine if the court decides to strike down affirmative action.
But here’s the catch. It’s not for the reason that seems to animate most of the critics of these programs – the allegation that taking race and ethnicity into account amounts to systematic and blatant discrimination against white people. It’s because these programs harm the same minority students they are supposed to benefit. How? By lowering standards, killing incentive, stigmatizing beneficiaries and masking severe educational inequalities at the crucial K-12 level that never get addressed. This is the real problem.
The argument that racial preferences actually hurt intended beneficiaries rarely gets heard. And here’s why: Defenders of affirmative action don’t want to concede that it does any harm to anyone, and its critics don’t seem to care as long as it is only minorities who are being hurt.
What gets far more attention is the fairy tale of reverse discrimination. In my view, the claim itself has become little more than a defense mechanism that some people use to rationalize why they don’t get everything they think they’re entitled to.
It’s time for a reality check, folks. White students are not, in some wholesale fashion, being turned away from the university gate because of their race in the same way that African-Americans and Latinos were turned away in the last century. The fact that whites still constitute a majority of those who attend most schools of higher learning all but proves it. After all, discrimination is when those in power deny you an opportunity based on your membership in a group that they consider inferior. Who is saying that whites are inferior?
I’ve had this conversation with lots of people for a quarter-century, and I can tell you that most of my Latino and African-American friends agree with me that Americans can never have a real discussion about what to do with affirmative action until we get beyond the noise of beleaguered white males singing: “We Shall Overcome.”
We’re not insensitive to suffering. We just don’t see the point in imagining it where it doesn’t exist. Let’s focus on the real harm being done by these programs, and the actual victims.
Ruben Navarrette is a columnist for U-T San Diego. Reach him at [email protected]