How America’s original affirmative action is still going strong

George W. Bush used to joke about it, his mediocre record at Yale, his less-than-diligent efforts throughout his educational career. So many laughed along at every bit of the persona he played into – the incurious certainty, the attempts to pronounce “nuclear” and the confident attitude throughout it all. But few questioned his right to take that place at Yale, another at Harvard and the privileged path that led to the White House.

That is how America has always worked, with the rich and the ones with the last names that matter usually stepping to the front of the line. It’s a system that has overwhelmingly benefited whites and males and, to look at the boards of Fortune 500 companies, still does.


Abigail Fisher, who challenged the University of Texas’ admissions process, outside the Supreme Court in October. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

Yet, you don’t see the righteous indignation or a spate of lawsuits to rid higher education of the curse of legacies. Voices are rarely raised to demand that elite colleges and universities take the thumb off the scale for families with a fat checkbook or a name on a campus building. There is not a suggestion that “they” don’t belong.

When Abigail Fisher was refused admittance at the University of Texas, she didn’t think that because she didn’t earn her way into the top 10 percent of her high school class — a bar that in Texas would have gained her automatic admission – that just maybe she should have studied harder. She refused the school’s offer to attend another Texas university, earn good grades and transfer in.

She didn’t consider the university’s logical explanation that it, like every other school, takes a “holistic” approach when putting together a class – using musical talent, community service, athletic ability, SAT scores, disadvantages overcome and yes, family legacy, among a long list of qualifications.

She did not consider the facts, as Pro Publica pointed out in a breakdown of the case, that UT offered provisional admission to 42 white students with lower test scores and grades, and that 168 black and Latino students with grades as good as or better than Fisher’s were also denied entry.

What Abigail Fisher did was assert that she was discriminated against because she is white. She has expressed her disappointment in not being accepted to a school she had dreamed of going to, one her family members had attended. But she has never acknowledged that a dream her family members could dream for generations could only be shared by African Americans starting in 1956, when they were first admitted there. (It wasn’t until 1964 – fewer than 50 years ago – that blacks integrated the residence halls.)

If life is a zero-sum game – what someone else gets takes away from me – then recruiting minorities for a diverse student body at UT, using race and its legacy as a consideration among many when choosing a freshman class, takes away Fisher’s rightful place.

Does she know or care about the history of the University of Texas, where minority students didn’t even get the chance to compete for so long, giving unfair advantages to every white hopeful? Does she know or care about the ways she as a woman has benefited from the tactics and gains of the civil rights movement, from the lessons pioneering feminists learned from the protesters who changed a segregated nation?

Would Fisher ever acknowledge that her family history at the university gave her an advantage and she still could not cut it?

The Supreme Court compromised in its ruling on Fisher’s case against the University of Texas last week, sending it back to lower courts for review but telling the courts to carefully scrutinize any consideration of race in programs to promote diversity.

Not every childhood finger-painted creation on the refrigerator door is a masterpiece, no matter what mom and dad say, and not every student is going to get first choice on the college list. But after this Supreme Court ruling, expect more legal challenges from students who get the skinny college envelopes in the mail.

And you know the lawsuits won’t examine the SAT scores of millionaires, or ask if too many oboe players made the cut. In America, where a man with degrees from Columbia and Harvard is blithely referred to as a “food stamp” president by opponents, any perceived gain by a minority is too often seen as a loss for the way things should be rather than a step toward equality and inclusion that’s valuable for all.

The lack of respect for black achievement is nothing new.

What’s truly missing in American education is a comprehensive history class, one that clearly states what African Americans have contributed, as a counter to a characterization that has taken hold of many minorities as undeserving takers. It was a belief on full display when privileged presidential candidate Mitt Romney – wealthy son of a governor – complained about the 47 percent who expect to be given things such as food and health care. There was outrage but also support for his statements, especially from the high rollers in the room who ignored the minimum wage workers serving them and the guy mixing drinks and making the tape.

In Charlotte, N.C., where I live, an exhibit that should be required viewing for every American fills in some of that history. The Kinsey Collection: Where Art and History Intersect has opened at the Harvey B. Gantt Center for African-American Arts + Culture, named for a former Charlotte mayor and honored architect who had to sue his home state of South Carolina for the right to attend Clemson University. Bernard and Shirley Kinsey’s amazing collection of art and historical artifacts and documents, one amassed during more than 40 years of marriage and shared goals, is American history, no hyphen required.

It includes a Currier and Ives lithograph of “The First Colored Senator and Representatives in the 41st and 42nd US Congress,” from 1872, a portrait of seven distinguished men elected after the Civil War — when black soldiers suffered a mortality rate 35 percent greater than other troops. After post-Reconstruction disenfranchisement of black voters in the South for much of the 20th century, such officials vanished until the Voting Rights Act of 1965, weakened last week by the U.S. Supreme Court.

The contributions of African Americans to this country have not been noted, but “we’ve got the documentation,” Bernard Kinsey told me as we walked slowly among the proud portraits, the books written and overwhelming evidence of the sacrifices made during a preview of the exhibit last week. He called it “the myth of absence.”

Despite the privilege that would assert otherwise, the descendants of these history makers aren’t stealing anyone’s seat. They are merely taking their rightful place.

 

Mary C. Curtis, an award-winning multimedia journalist in Charlotte, N.C., has worked at The New York Times, Charlotte Observer and as national correspondent for Politics Daily. Follow her on Twitter: @mcurtisnc3

Mary C. Curtis is an award-winning multimedia journalist in Charlotte, N.C. She has worked at The New York Times, Charlotte Observer and as national correspondent for Politics Daily.
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Melinda Henneberger · June 28, 2013