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A Legacy of Affirmation

Abigail Fisher

I have been avoiding writing this blog post because even thinking about the supreme court case opposing affirmative action makes me blindingly angry. There’s been a lot of sputtering and pacing around my house and impromptu rants at my sympathetic and all-too-patient roommate, Ceylon.  I don’t think I can say everything I think all at once without writing the first draft of a dissertation, so I’ll try to focus this post as much as possible.

So, in case you hadn’t heard, Abigail Fisher, who applied to the University of Texas at Austin and did not get in, is contesting UT Austin’s use of race as an admission’s factor, claiming that the University’s failure to admit her violated her 14th Amendment rights. The New York Times piece on this matter says that Fisher is pissed (ok my word, not theirs) because she doesn’t have access to UT Austin’s extensive alumni network, which could have landed her a better job. “I’m hoping,” she said, “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.”

Ok. Ok. Deep breath. I’m going to try to sum up what’s wrong with this like a rational adult. I have a larger point, but there a few things I feel I need to say before I can get to my main argument about the elephant in the room here, which is the sense of entitlement that comes with the policy which admits legacy students. So I present you: bullet points!

  • First (but not most importantly), Abigail might not have gotten into her top pick school, but she did get into Louisiana State, which gave her what I think is a crucial opportunity to live out of state and out from the yolk of her family, and perhaps gave her some perspective on what life is like in other parts of the country. Then again, perhaps not.
  • Second, Ms. Fisher is arguing that since she did not graduate from Austin she did not have access to UT’s extensive alumni network and this was a detriment to her career. “Just being in a network of U.T. graduates would have been a really nice thing to be in. And I probably would have gotten a better job offer had I gone to U.T.” . UM, WHAT WAS THAT YOU SAID? A better job offer? You mean a better one than the position you MANAGED TO LAND IN A SHIT ECONOMY as a financial analyst STRAIGHT out of college? Do you have any idea how lucky you are to have a job at all, and a good job at that? I know people with master’s degrees and PhD’s who can’t find work in this economy. FAHDGHDGHAGHDAH (this is the noise one makes when they feel compelled NOT to turn off their caps lock).
  • Third, but no less important, nobody likes the idea that they are being discriminated against based on their ethnic or racial background, regardless of what their skin color is. We would all love to live in a country in which everyone had equal chances and opportunities and educational backgrounds. However, neither you nor I nor Abigal Fisher  live in that world. Only when everyone in this country has equal access to affordable, quality primary and secondary school education (not to mention food, public transportation, and job opportunities, to name a few more) REGARDLESS of their race can we throw race out the door as factor to consider in college applications.
  • Last: Was the editor of the New York Times asleep at the switch when he let this section of very awkward demonstration the benefits of an “integrated” classroom go to press?? The journalist who wrote this exceedingly crucial piece sat in on a freshmen seminar at UT Austin, and this was the most profound thing he had to say about it: “It was only the third week of class, but the 18 students, of all sorts of ethnicities and backgrounds, talked easily and earnestly about contemporary echoes of slavery. An Asian student mentioned cheap labor in China. A Hispanic one talked about the ways employers in the United States take advantage of illegal immigrants. Other comments ran counter to possible stereotypes.” Um. This sounds like it was published in 1959. It’s like a journalistic cheap shot. “Oh how grand! The minorities are educating us all about the drawbacks to being brown. “

Okay, thank you bullet points. You really helped me narrow this blog post down from long-winded rant to a short-winded argument, and now I can get to my main point. The thing that really infuriates me about this case is the underlying implication that Ms. Fisher’s legacy rights were violated. According to the NY Times article, Ms. Fisher “had her heart set on” UT Austin, a school both her father and her sister had attended before her. If she had been accepted, that would have made her a legacy student. A legacy student, for those of you who don’t know, is someone who is admitted to a university based on the fact that other members of the family are alumni. The Economist referred to this as “affirmative action for the children of alumni.”

Does it seem fair that someone should feel entitled to getting into a certain school because other members of their family did? Aren’t those individuals who edge out other applicants because of their legacy status are also threatening potential students who also can’t benefit from affirmative action? In an article published last year in the Harvard Crimson, William R. Fitzsimmons, the Dean of Admissions and Financial Aid for Harvard, admitted that “Harvard’s acceptance rate for legacies has hovered around 30 percent—more than four times the regular admission rate—in recent admissions cycles.”Fitzsimmons went “It does no one any good to have a student come here and have an unhappy experience,” Fitzsimmons said. Translation: if we piss off their parents by not admitting their kid, they won’t give us money.

Click here for a link to Kahlenberg’s book

I learned a lot of things in college, the most poignant of which was that colleges are businesses just as much as they are institutions of learning. These particular business rely on the investments of their alumni to keep them afloat. However, according to Richard D. Kahlenberg, editor of the book “Affirmative Action for the Rich: Legacy Preferences in College Admissions,” “these policies have succeeded in  relic of European-style aristocracy that has no place in American higher education.”

Yet legacy policies continue to be overlooked as detrimental to the development of a fair, just, and egalitarian society. Why? Because they benefit those members of the ruling elite that want to continue being the ruling elite. In an Op-Ed piece in the NYTimes, Kahlenberg says, “Affirmative action policies are controversial because they pit two fundamental principles against each other — the anti-discrimination principle, which says we should not classify people by ancestry, and the anti-subordination principle, which says we must address a brutal history of discrimination. Legacy preferences, by contrast, advance neither principle — they simply classify individuals by bloodline.”

On another note, I can’t help but wonder what prompted Ms. Fisher to bring her case before the supreme court now, when our nation’s first and only non-white president is knee-deep in a battle for the white house against one of the biggest swells of right-wing conservatism this country has seen in a long time, with two of the most fervent and foamy-mouthed Republicans at the helm. It also seems strategic that Ms. Fisher is a female. If she weren’t, would her case have gotten all the way to the supreme court? Me thinks not.

this image scares some people