42 White students less qualified than Abigail Fisher got in to the UT-Austin. Yet she and the racist Supreme Court justice blame affirmative action. Is this what "elite" education is all about?
This article was made possible because of the generous support of DAME members. We urgently need your help to keep publishing. Will you contribute just $5 a month to support our journalism?
Last week during oral arguments in the Fisher v. the University of Texas case, conservative Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia flipped his robe and showed his entire racist butt when he said that affirmative action sends Black students to schools that are too advanced for them.
Once again, Justice Scalia is proving that like the GOP, right-wing activist judges are allergic to facts. The irony is that the case itself is premised on the tears from a mediocre White student named Abigail Fisher, who couldn’t get into the University of Texas-Austin.
Rather than pull herself up by her proverbial lace straps, Abigail Fisher has blamed her shortcomings on a phantom less-qualified “minority” who supposedly took her spot and not the 42 White students with lower grades and test scores who were accepted instead of her. Fisher and her supporters knew that playing into the popular stereotype of Black people as innately intellectually inferior and incapable would shift the spotlight away from her mediocrity and paint her as the victim of “reverse racism.” This, from the poster girl of White mediocrity.
The narrative that Blacks can’t “do well” in White schools is clearly based on the lies and conceits of White supremacy. Never mind that the president of the United States—a Black man—attended Columbia and Harvard universities, and his Black wife went to Princeton. If Scalia and Fisher were able to figure out how to leave their conservative echo chamber, they should head to Twitter to peruse the innumerable success stories from Black graduates.
While tempting, I’m not going to waste my time defending Black intelligence against Scalia’s implicit racial inferiority argument because it is sooooo 19th century. We don’t need to pull out our quills and school these flat-Earth dinosaurs to prove anything to them. Plus, it makes racists feel good when Black people get mad and use their precious energy debunking their intellectual fuckery and racist projections.
Yet, what Scalia has done has more serious implications than the average White person espousing racist notions. As one of nine members of the Court, he has the power to affect policy using his judicial philosophy and Bull Conner ethos to advance the antiquated notion of “separate-but-equal” schooling.
“There are those who contend that it does not benefit African-Americans to get them into the University of Texas, where they do not do well—as opposed to having them go to a less advanced school, a slower-track school where they do well,” Scalia said from the bench. “One of the briefs pointed out that most of the Black scientists in this country don’t come from schools like the University of Texas. They come from lesser schools where they do not feel that they’re being pushed ahead in classes that are too fast for them.”
Scalia is offering the same kind of argument that people have made about women in the sciences and math; that they don’t do well because their brains don’t operate the same way as men. The subtext of this kind of biological determinism is that this can never be changed and so affirmative action and diversity programs are useless because Black people can’t make it in this competitive world. Channeling his inner Frederick Hoffman, Justice Scalia is merely arguing that there is no need to create policy that defies natural racial differences.
Scalia went on to say that it could be bad if the “really competent Blacks” do not go to these “lesser” schools because they might then not become scientists.
He is accurate that most Black scientists—as well as doctors, lawyers, professors, etc.—don’t come from predominantly White institutions (PWIs) such as the University of Texas. It is a well-known fact that on a per capita basis, more of those Black professionals come from historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) who surely just don’t want to be on the same campus with the likes of Scalia and Fisher.
But where Scalia is wrong is in suggesting that Black students are more likely to thrive at HBCUs because those schools are easier or somehow “dumbed down” on a level that matches their allegedly lower intellectual capacity. The simple reason so many Black students thrive at HBCUs compared to PWIs is that they are studying and learning and building skills in supportive and empowering environments, free of anti-Black racism. In many cases, they are considered the norm, the standard, the majority—and where students are being taught by faculty, who have high expectations and support mechanisms firmly in place.
Black students at HBCUs don’t have to worry about “blackface” parties,” dookey swastikas smeared on walls, or nooses hanging from doors. Professors aren’t lecturing about the benefits of slavery, and campus security isn’t body slamming them on the ground for jaywalking in front of the campus. How can opponents of affirmative action continue to make the argument, with a straight face, that significant numbers of White students are being victimized by affirmative action when Black students from Mizzou to Yale to Brandeis have been protesting about the racist treatment they are receiving at PWIs?
Black students who don’t perform well at PWIs don’t do so because the schools are too advanced and difficult for them to achieve, but for the simple reason that these schools, faculty, and curricula are more racist! In my years as a reporter at The Chronicle of Higher Education, I read countless studies about the issues faced by Black students at these schools, particularly in the STEM fields.
For example, In “Why Science Majors Change Their Minds (It’s Just So Darn Hard),” Christopher Drew highlights the structural racist obstacles to Black success: “Studies have found that roughly 40 percent of students planning engineering and science majors end up switching to other subjects or failing to get any degree. That increases to as much as 60 percent when pre-medical students, who typically have the strongest SAT scores and high-school science preparation, are included, according to new data from the University of California at Los Angeles. That is twice the combined attrition rate of all other majors.”
A recent study at University of Washington concluded that racist campus climate undermines student success: “Results indicate that campus climate is significantly related to academic achievement of African-American students, as represented by GPA, accounting for about 11 percent of the variance.”
That means Black students facing adverse conditions are likelier to leave college early—and would, presumably, be likelier to stay in what they felt to be a safe space.
Among the factors that Black students face at these bastions of Whiteness are academic and cultural isolation, the difficulty of performing in the face of negative stereotypes and low expectations from faculty members, a lack of mentors of color and friendship networks, concerns about financial debt, inadequate advising and emotional support during times of stress, and lack of exposure to hands-on research. Maybe Antonin and Abigail haven’t noticed that advantages at each and every step for White students. The fact that Black students and faculty continue to experience isolation, micro-aggressions, verbal and physical harassment without necessary intervention speaks to the vulnerability that comes with not having significant numbers on campuses. Antonin and Abigail need to be honest and say that the presence of even just a handful of Black students in these White spaces is intolerable to their notions of White privilege, entitlement, and supremacy.
Scalia, like so many of the diversity efforts, sees the issue as the cultural and intellectual failures of Black students. They think that what is needed is for Black students to change or be fixed rather than on addressing the structural and institutional forces that undermine their academic achievement and sense of belonging on campus.
It’s interesting, but not surprising, that such racist comments about Black students are coming from a man whose Italian peasant ancestors ended up in Trenton, New Jersey, and were ushered into the White American Dream with government help. The fact is, Scalia, like many other White ethnic immigrants, are the beneficiaries of big government affirmative action programs that were popular during the New Deal era: World War II veterans’ mortgages, veteran job training and health benefits, and late 20th-century federal subsidies to the colleges and universities they attended.
Scalia is where he is today because these programs got White families like his through the Great Depression, the post-World War II recovery and even the prosperous 1960s and ’70s. These programs put him in Harvard and Georgetown classrooms because federal subsidies gave his WHITE family the economic head start and low tuition needed to keep students like him there. And yet Scalia and the rest of the Rethuglicans remain in ideological opposition to affirmative action and other federal interventions for the poor, people of color, and undocumented immigrants. When affirmative action was White, it made sense but now that they want to change the rules because it is so “harmful.”
Aside from Scalia’s dim sense of history, and disdain for people of color, how is it possible that Abigail Fisher, a White woman, can argue that she has been victimized by affirmative action, the very program whose biggest beneficiaries are White women?
Never mind, all those White men who cash in on their Whiteness not just historically but today. Never mind all those White boys, who landed at Harvard because of mommy and daddy’s donations, or at Duke because they were the best field hockey player from Suburban Whiteville. Forget about the legacies, tutors, and the connections that result from living in segregated neighborhoods. Sure Becky and Connor had White mentors, and the Dean of admissions on speed dial, but they deserved that spot. Even if Blair popped Adderall with impunity, he EARNED that spot … just as much as Lance Armstrong did his victories at the Tour de France.
Legacies, athletic participation in segregated sports and donations are some of the best antidotes for White ineptitude. Money and WHITENESS can conceal White mediocrity and stank every time.
I can tell you that as a Black woman professor who has taught in predominantly White classrooms, White students are in no way more advanced than students of color. I enjoyed teaching my students but I have found a good number of them to be lazy, entitled, shallow thinkers whose writing and analytical skills were severely underdeveloped. They plagiarized papers, cheated on tests, made excuses for why they couldn’t get assignments done on time, and treated professors like customer service reps. My experiences are not unique.
To think otherwise reflects a White supremacist ethos. White students are not inherently special or smart. I saw so much mediocrity in some of my classrooms that at times I resented my elders for telling me that I had to be “twice as good” as White folks to get anywhere in life. But the truth is that rich and connected White folks need to be half as good as everybody else.
A few years ago my former journalist colleague Peter Schmidt wrote an indicting piece about this phenomenon. In his piece “At the Elite Colleges—Dim White Kids,” he noted that many of the applicants who were rejected were far more qualified than those accepted and contrary to popular belief, it was not the Black and Latino beneficiaries of affirmative action, but the rich White kids with cash and connections who elbowed most of the worthier applicants aside. Schmidt cited closely guarded college admissions data that found that, on the whole, about 15 percent of freshmen enrolled at America’s highly selective colleges are White teens who failed to meet their institutions’ minimum admissions standards.
In Schmidt’s report, the mediocre White students getting into schools like Harvard, Wellesley, Notre Dame, Duke, and the University of Virginia included a sizable number of recruited athletes who performed worse on average than other students with similar academic profiles. A larger share, according to Schmidt, were students who gained admission through their ties to people the institution wanted to keep happy, with alumni, donors, faculty members, administrators, and politicians topping the list. Schmidt also noted that just 40 percent of the financial aid money being distributed by public colleges is going to students with documented financial need. Most such money was being used to offer merit-based scholarships or tuition discounts to potential recruits who enhanced a college’s reputation, or appeared likely to cover the rest of their tuition tab and to donate down the road. These trends certainly continue today. Maybe Abigail Fisher should focus her anger at her parents for not giving her a lacrosse stick, or donating enough money; maybe she should have got a tutor or just worked harder.
Not surprisingly Abigail Fisher’s White woman tears garnered concern from the Supreme Court. And Scalia is embracing America’s inner Donald Trump, aiming to make America White (and therefore, right) again. These dangerously powerful White men are fighting hard to turn back the clock, and rewind America’s racist attitudes on the dawn of a majority brown future.
They want Black students to go to Black schools, period. They want fewer Black and other non-White students to forgo college educations, period. And the truth of brilliant, capable, high-achieving Black professionals in every field makes them crazy.
At the end of the day, Trump brags about how he went to Wharton; George Bush crowed about how he went to Yale. Both are living evidence that PWI’s are no more “advanced” than HBCU’s, but rather overrated dens of entitled and privileged morons.
The whole construct of “elite” education and “selective colleges” is such a sham anyway. As one of my friends on Facebook brilliantly put it the other day, elite institutions are “a bunch of bullshit to make rich White people feel special. They’re just manufactories of White truth and capitalist ideology and White supremacy flattering itself.”
Before you go, we hope you’ll consider supporting DAME’s journalism.
Today, just tiny number of corporations and billionaire owners are in control the news we watch and read. That influence shapes our culture and our understanding of the world. But at DAME, we serve as a counterbalance by doing things differently. We’re reader funded, which means our only agenda is to serve our readers. No both sides, no false equivalencies, no billionaire interests. Just our mission to publish the information and reporting that help you navigate the most complex issues we face.
But to keep publishing, stay independent and paywall free for all, we urgently need more support. During our Spring Membership drive, we hope you’ll join the community helping to build a more equitable media landscape with a monthly membership of just $5.00 per month or one-time gift in any amount.