Tomorrow the US Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in the case of Fisher v. Texas, addressing the constitutionality of affirmative action in college admissions. I wrote a piece on the history of the case and how the Court might rule back in July, and I’d encourage you to go take a look at it if you’re not familiar with the background. But this morning I want to talk about something a little less technical.
Here’s how the case’s plaintiff, rejected University of Texas applicant Abigail Fisher, described what’s at stake in today’s New York Times:
“I’m hoping that they’ll completely take race out of the issue in terms of admissions and that everyone will be able to get into any school that they want no matter what race they are but solely based on their merit and if they work hard for it.”
For better or worse, that’s not remotely on the table.
Colleges accept and reject candidates for all sorts of reasons that have little or nothing to do with merit. They take legacies — relatives of other graduates — because those admissions are good for alumni donations. They accept football players because bowl games and shirt sales are good for the bottom line. Many private colleges consider a student’s wealth in admissions decisions, and many publics are pumping up out-of-state admissions to enhance tuition revenue. None of this has anything to do with merit.
And all of it is completely legal.
That’s worth underscoring. It’s not illegal to discriminate on the basis of non-academic factors in college admissions in the United States. There are no barriers to rejecting students because they’re not rich, or went to crappy high schools, or studied the piccolo instead of the oboe in a year when you’ve already got enough piccolo players. Unfair, arbitrary, and venal admissions standards are part of the fabric of every selective college’s decision-making process.
And there’s something truly twisted about the argument that all of that is okay but affirmative action — precisely because it’s intended as a remedy for the country’s long history of racial discrimination, a history that didn’t end in 1865 or 1954 or 1963, but continues to this very day — is not.
When we as a country say that it’s right and just to accept one student because her high school had a great gymnastics program or her parents are big donors or her grandfather was a dean while while we simultaneously recoil at the “racism” of giving a boost to another student who, as a result of the nation’s persisting inequities, had no chance to acquire any of those advantages, we aren’t saying we want to move beyond our history of racial discrimination.
We’re saying we want to lock it in.