Abigail Fisher

Once upon a time when I was young, affirmative action in education was for Black people. It was born in the Kennedy and Johnson Administrations as programmatic redress for eons of wrongs bestowed upon Black people. Race mattered. Now it is for White people, and race still matters.

A brief history. In the barbarous days of the nation White people made it illegal for Black people to learn to read or be educated in any way save the tasks of burden for which our humanity had been traded. When the glaring inhumanity of that fell with the abolition of slavery, it became illegal for Black students to go to school together with White students. Those laws ruled the nation until 1954. In historic terms, until yesterday.

In the meantime, the educational infrastructure and resources allocated to Black students were savagely unequal, dismal and, in many cases, continue to be.  Affirmative action was designed to acknowledge Black achievement in the face of those historic and continuing crimes – and to acknowledge that race was, in fact, a factor in denying admissions to Black students.

The arguments against affirmative action from primarily White communities, students and their parents have been simple and consistent. America is a meritocratic society. Race does not and should not matter. To consider race in college admissions is inherently unfair and the process gives to Black, and now Hispanic students, seats that they don’t deserve and penalizes White students of greater achievement and meritocratic measure.  In colorblind admissions, if their scores don’t match up, so be it, goes the popular argument. Their core objection is to the perception that Black students with lower test scores are being admitted over White students with higher test scores.

In 2015, the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia said, in his dissent in Abigail Fisher v. University of Texas (II), that Black students were ill-equipped for elite education and should go to “slower track” schools where we would do better. “I’m just not impressed by the fact that the University of Texas may have fewer [African-American students]. Maybe it ought to have fewer.… I don’t think it stands to reason that it’s  good for the University of Texas to admit as many blacks as possible.”

Anti-affirmative action advocates cheered the dissent and scorned the opinion of the court – that race can be used as a limited factor in college admissions among an array of other factors. Meritocracy now, meritocracy tomorrow, meritocracy forever!

Until Asian students arrived.

For decades the public center piece of the anti-affirmative action argument has been that merit is determined by test scores. Albeit a specious argument, it works in the American narrative of equality, accountability, standardization and individual achievement. Everyone has equal opportunity to prepare for those tests, therefore, they are all that should matter. The quiet part of the argument is the historical residue of the belief that Black and Hispanic students are simply not welcome in the treasured enclaves of elite American higher education institutions – because they are Black and Brown, regardless of their merit.

Now, White students can’t compete with Asian students on those sacrosanct meritocratic measures. They can’t compete playing by the very merit rules that they themselves have argued for. On average, Asian students outperform White students on every measure that White opponents of affirmative action have argued are the primary determinants of academic merit.  At elite American universities where only SAT scores above 1500 matter, there is no contest – consider SAT math.

Harvard University is being sued for discriminating against Asian students. The core of the argument is that Harvard is using subjective criteria to deny Asian students admissions in order to maintain a diverse student body. It remains to be seen whether Harvard is in fact discriminating. Once the case for diverse student bodies is brought up, however, the perception is that it is ensure the presence of Black and Hispanic students. That is how the taxonomy of “diversity” has evolved.  Perhaps.

Another interpretation of Harvard’s alleged discriminatory practices is that it is protecting the seats of White students who now cannot compete on purely meritocratic measures. If they held strictly to the standards of merit that White anti-affirmative action advocates have been championing, White students wouldn’t stand a chance at America’s most elite and sought-after institutions.  Then, Justice Scalia’s voice comes back from beyond with haunting irony:

“I’m just not impressed by the fact that the University of Texas [Harvard] may have fewer [African-American students] [White students]. Maybe it ought to have fewer.… I don’t think it stands to reason that it’s good for the University of Texas [Harvard] to admit as many blacks whites as possible.”  According to Justice Scalia, perhaps White students should just go to slower track schools where they’ll perform according to the limits of their aptitude.

Georgia Tech’s College of Computing is among the best in the world. In 2015, for the first time in the history of the college there were more Asian undergraduate students than White students.  Not only were there more Asian students, their respective growth trajectories suggest that without a commensurate expansion of the physical capacity of our college, White students will soon be decidedly underrepresented if they are present at all.

What do the anti-affirmative action advocates say now? It isn’t clear yet that they’ve offered a roaring defense of meritocracy when Harvard is considering “likability” and “class fit” as factors in admissions to benefit White students.

One hint of the national response to at-risk White students is the move to stop considering SAT scores altogether at elite higher ed institutions. The University of Chicago recently became the first elite research university in the country to stop considering SAT scores in student admissions. A host of others are on deck.  Again, the popular public arguments are that:

  1. SAT scores are not helpful as a determining factor for admissions because all applicants do so well
  2. SAT is a measure of family income and ability to pay for test prep parading as a measure of merit
  3. SAT is not a good predictor of student success
  4. SAT scores are just one factor of many considered to ensure a diverse student body

These are all valid and reasonable arguments.  The quiet one that won’t be spoken out loud is the possibility that major elite American universities are not considering the SAT anymore because on average, White students can’t compete. Institutions may be being pressured to make this change by their alum and donors and parents of their legacy admits to ensure that Asian students do not usurp the seats that even mediocre students, like Abigail Fisher, feel entitled to. They are not winning at that level so the institutions are changing the rules, adjusting the policy, shifting the goal posts. Perhaps.

I firmly believe that meritocracy has its place as an ideal. Like so many other ideals, it rests on the presumption of equity and justice. In American education that is a myth. In fact, American education is criminally bifurcated leaving the question of how to determine merit an unsolved national challenge.

While it is not clear to me why White students, as privileged and cloistered and protected as they are, cannot compete with Asian students, my defense of the consideration of multiple factors in admissions remains resolute. SAT and AP and ACT scores are important, but they fall woefully short of being accurate measures of students’ capacity to learn and build themselves and develop and contribute. They say nothing about students’ life stories or the potential of their future contributions to the country or the world.

This showdown at Harvard is a harbinger of things to come at elite American higher ed institutions.  Black and Hispanic students have already been on the decline at the highest levels over the last two decades. Scalia and his kind said, so be it. White students are on deck. Now what will they say?