Affirmative Action and White Privilege

Affirmative action, a policy meant to favor marginalized individuals that suffer from discrimination in our country, was a term first mentioned in America in the 1960s. It gained real momentum in 2003 when the Supreme Court ruled that educational institutions could consider race as a factor in admissions and, since then, has been a topic highly debated. Although this policy is clearly only meant for the benefit of those who are disadvantaged within our society, many white people have taken it as a personal attack against them and have claimed that “less-qualified” minorities are “stealing their places.”

One white woman in particular, Abigail Fisher, has become an outspoken voice against affirmative action after she was denied admission at the University of Texas. Even though her academic credentials and extracurricular activities did not meet the university’s standards, Fisher brought this case to court on the claim that she was being discriminated against because she was white.

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“There were people in my class with lower grades who weren’t in all the activities I was in, who were being accepted into UT, and the only other difference between us was the color of our skin,” she says. “I was taught from the time I was a little girl that any kind of discrimination was wrong. And for an institution of higher learning to act this way makes no sense to me. What kind of example does it set for others?”

The first thing I noticed wrong in this statement was that Fisher had absolutely no idea what these other students had to offer in their applications; yet, she was making a sweeping judgement anyway. College admissions make some exceptions for lower grades for special circumstances and outstanding achievements, and focus more on what kinds of classes the student had taken. They also pay more attention to the level of involvement within individual activities, not necessarily how many the student is involved in. The real problem here, however, is not that Fisher doesn’t understand the basic admissions process. In actuality, Fisher seemed to believe that she was entitled to a place within UT and that her place was being stolen from her by “undeserving people that had not worked as hard as her.” Her statement claiming that these minority students hadn’t worked as hard as her was really just a reflection of her entitlement. Issues of entitlement aside, this quote from Fisher also seems to call for a color-blind society. In a perfect world where institutions don’t systematically oppress minorities, it would (obviously) be great to see an admissions process that doesn’t use race, a social construct, as a factor of consideration. However, our institutions do oppress minorities and race needs some weight in admissions decisions in order to give more opportunities to those who have been barred from them previously. This is where equitable treatment supersedes equal treatment.

Besides her failure to see past her sense of entitlement, Fisher also fails to see that, as a white woman, she receives the most benefit from affirmative action out of any other demographic. While industries like politics and entertainment still maintain a low percentage of female employment, there has been a relatively large improvement because of affirmative action policies. In education, these policies have contributed to the numbers that show women making up 55% of college students, among many other advantages. And because white people hold the most institutional power in this country, the majority of these women benefiting are white. (Crazy how a policy meant to provide more opportunities to minorities still helps white people the most, right?) Despite the fact that countless studies show exactly how wrong Abigail Fisher is, her case continues on.

Not only is Fisher’s privilege shown in this case, but the white privilege that permeates our society and goes widely unnoticed by white people is made even more painfully obvious. The fact that this case made it all the way to Supreme Court is an accurate reflection of one of the many things wrong with our justice system, and the words exchanged during the case’s hearing are no exception.

Justice Antonin Scalia stated that minority students with inferior academic credentials may be better off at “a less advanced school, a slower-track school where they do well” and continued on to say that the majority of Black scientists had graduated from smaller schools less known for their academics, and had succeeded because their education “fit their capabilities.” 

Although these kind of remarks from Justice Scalia are far from surprising (check out some other garbage statements he made here), we can’t brush this off as another ridiculous, isolated instance of racial prejudice spoken by a biased man, and we can’t pretend that Abigail Fisher is the only white person up in arms about affirmative action policies. We need to remember that this court case doesn’t stand alone in our white supremacist nation, but it is a good place for us to start talking about white privilege.

In response to Fisher’s case, Black students across the country have started #StayMadAbby on Twitter and have posted their outstanding accomplishments in education to show Fisher why she, Justice Scalia, and the nation steeped in white privilege are wrong. For more information on what an affirmative action ban looks like, the New York Times has compiled an informative, interactive graph page showing how minorities seeking higher education have fared after individual states banned affirmative action (the short answer: unsurprisingly, not well.)

Cases like Fisher’s only aim to tear down the already small steps made towards progress for minorities. If this case wins, justice for minorities will be ruled unconstitutional, the system that favors white people will prevail with even more power, and our country will take a huge step back in its strides towards equity. Let’s continue our conversation about the importance of affirmative action and stop the attacks on equitable treatment.



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