In almost every argument I’ve had about affirmative action in college admissions, someone eventually trots out the idea that the beneficaries of affirmative action are somehow “stealing” spots that rightfully belong to more “deserving” students. Ignoring, for a moment, the implicit assumption—that minority students are somehow less deserving—it’s simply a fact that college admissions don’t work that way. In open-admission pools where no one has a guaranteed spot, universites use a large number of factors to determine whom they accept and whom they deny. Sometimes, it turns on race and ethnicity, and sometimes it doesn’t.
Which is why I was a little amused when reading that the Supreme Court will hear a case on affirmative action, the first time since 2003. Abigal Fisher, a white student, says she was denied admission to the University of Texas because of her race. Texas, like several other states, grants automatic admission to its public universities for students who place in the top ten percent of their class. For students outside of that group, UT is permitted to consider race (along with other factors) in determining admission. Fisher failed to qualify for automatic admission, and instead, competed with other students outside of the top ten percent. She was denied a spot at UT and sued the university, arguing that the decision was based on the color of her skin.
Of course, the fact is that any number of factors could have led to her rejection, from her grades, to her skill set as a student, to the kind of activities she did while in high school. The point is that it’s a little silly to immediately jump to race, as if minority students are—by definition—only in school because they are minorities. Indeed, at selective schools like the University of Texas, the odds are good that you won’t get in at all, given the large pool of applications and lower acceptance rates.
Which is to say that in a world without affirmative action, it’s likely that Fisher wouldn’t have earned admission to the school anyway. It’s a little like complaining that you would have gotten a place in a crowded parking lot, if not for those spots reserved for the handicapped. The problem is that hundreds of other people are also looking for a parking spot, and if that space wasn’t reserved, chances are that someone else would have gotten it.
Regardless of the merit of Fisher’s claim, however, there’s a fair chance that the Supreme Court will rule in her favor, given the anti-affirmative action position of the Court’s conservatives. Indeed, this case could spell the end of affirmative action in the United States. And it’s infuriating. Until fairly recently in American history, African Americans and other groups faced private and state-sponsored discrimination in virtually every aspect of life (along with routine violence). This created huge disparities which persist till this day. But somehow, it’s serious and reasonable to argue that the government should do nothing to alleviate this, as if this is the most “fair” outcome for everyone.