The U.S. Supreme Court has heard the case of Abigail Fisher, a 22-year-old woman, who believes she was denied admission to the University of Texas at Austin on the basis that she was discriminated against because she was white. I cannot help but feel a multitude of emotions toward this specific case and college admissions — but most importantly, toward affirmative action in higher education.
The recent basis of what is known as affirmative action in higher education came from the case of Grutter v. Bollinger in 2003. In a 5-4 decision, the University of Michigan Law School was allowed to consider race as a factor when admitting students, but the Court affirmed that strict point systems, or quotas, are unconstitutional.
As a Texan, I know the controversy that surrounds the “Top 10 Percent” system, a process in which students in the top 10 percent of their high school class can receive automatic admission to a public university in Texas. But Fisher did not make the 10 percent cut in her high school and was denied admission when she applied through the normal application process.
There are districts in Texas that have excellent schools and prepare their students very well for college. However, those schools are typically competitive for spaces in that top 10 percent of class. Inversely, there are districts with poorly performing schools that are inherently less competitive.
So I can see how a student from a more competitive high school who falls just outside of the top 10 percent can feel slighted if he or she does not get into UT or another public university. A student from a poorly performing high school who just squeaks into the upper 10 percent will be able to gain automatic admission. There are other states, such as California, that have similar measures in place and find the same ethical questions within the process.
As a first generation African-American, I’ve always been on the periphery of this issue. American minorities have witnessed varying levels of marginalization for generations. But my parents, who have only been here for the past 20 years, have never had these strong feelings of a legacy to overcome. They instilled in me a foundation of hard work regardless of how the field might look. Opportunities will reveal themselves, just as they have for my parents.
Affirmative action never came up in my household, but have we benefitted from it? Maybe, but we measure our progress without considering policies.
That being said, I understand how minority groups, especially those who have experienced this marginalization, can believe that any measure that levels the playing field is desperately needed. Cycles of injustice are hard to break. But from my experience, it’s very hard to measure whether affirmative action helps or hurts its target population, especially when considering the diversity of other factors such as income or location. Trying to mold an equal playing field based on race, gender or income means someone will get the short end of the stick.
But most importantly, some people will have better preparation than others.
We need to start earlier. We need to start looking at feasible ways to reform education from the elementary to high school levels. We can make this happen by building the strength of primary and secondary schools through quality teachers, properly allocated funds, measures intended to keep students on track — including opportunities for vocational training — and policies that would illustrate the importance of learning in the classroom and at home. It’s not easy, but it would phase out the difficult questions of inequality we face when we develop a policy like the top 10 percent system.
Even though Ms. Fisher has a right as an American to bring this case to court, there are problems at a much deeper level that we must address before practices like affirmative action are no longer necessary.
Morkeh Blay-Tofey is a senior in Trumbull College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .