Of mediocre white kids and college educations
I don't want to be a traitor to my generation, but is there anyone less inspiring than the Mediocre White Kid? You know the one I mean: he (or she) sits somewhere in the middle of all of the honors classes; he gets slightly above-average grades easily, but never pushes himself beyond that; he takes part in the National Honor Society pie sale every year but never does any real volunteer work. This kid has all the trappings of a fine student, but nothing more. What's worse than his wasted potential, though, is the fact that he expects nay, demands to get into a great school with just as little effort.
Forgive me for being blunt, but I have a sneaking suspicion that Abigail Fisher, the 22-year-old woman currently leading an anti-affirmative action Supreme Court case, is one of those students.
Fisher's case against the University of Texas alleges that the school didn't accept her on the basis of race. No, she's not African American or Hispanic. She has never, I would guess, considered herself a victim of racism at any other time in her life. Fisher, with her red hair and freckled skin, is as white as they come.
Fisher also has all the accoutrements of the Mediocre White Kid: unexceptional (but not bad) grades, satisfactory test scores, and a huge sense of entitlement. You see, her father and sister both attended UT, technically making Fisher a "legacy" in other words, practically guaranteed admission (at least according to college lore). A lot of times, that works out. I've known more than one Mediocre White Kid to get into Princeton or Yale based on the merits of his lineage rather than his GPA.
But not in this case. While Fisher contends that it is her "whiteness" that held her back (a risible claim if ever I heard one), I have yet another sneaking suspicion that her rejection was based on an SAT score of 1180, a GPA of 3.59, and a class rank of 82 (top 12 percent). Not that any of that is bad it just didn't guarantee her admission. And when push came to shove, she didn't get picked from the remaining pool.
With all of the competition kids are facing to get into college today, there are no guarantees; the admissions process is nebulous at best. Nonetheless, Fisher's rejection seems pretty clear-cut: according to Gregory Garre, the University of Texas' attorney, Fisher's Academic Index simply did not qualify her for automatic admission.
And yet here we are. Abigail Fisher's case is before the Supreme Court of the United States (a court that, not too shockingly, is dominated by a bunch of white guys in robes who actually agreed to hear a case based on … what?). I just have to ask: what sense of entitlement, what amount of hubris, allows a 22-year-old girl to think her self-inflicted academic disappointment deserves to be given the highest consideration possible in our country?
My last sneaking suspicion is that few hate affirmative action more than the Mediocre White Kid.
When I was Abigail Fisher's age, affirmative action was in its infancy. In the wake of John Kennedy's assassination, Lyndon Johnson pushed through the 1963 Voting Rights Act and the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Another decade and a half passed before the Supreme Court considered its first affirmative action case in higher education.
Regents of the University of California v. Bakke (1978) involved a young white male, who was denied admission to the UC Davis Medical School. The school had set aside 16 of its 100 first-year seats for minority-group applicants. Bakke complained of "reverse discrimination" and won. The high court held that quotas were unconstitutional.
The Supremes returned to affirmative action in higher ed in the 2003 case of Grutter v. Bollinger. Here the high court held that the University of Michigan Law School could take ethnicity into consideration in making its admissions decisions. The school's rationale was that future lawyers would benefit from participating in a diverse student body. Since no quota was enforced, a majority of the justices blessed the practice.
In Abigail Fisher's case, which was argued a week ago Wednesday, the Supremes confronted a racially neutral admissions process. UT Austin, the Lone Star State's premiere university, automatically admitted the top 10 percent of every high school graduating class. This, of course, meant that some students, who graduated from top-notch suburban high schools might lose out to others from not-so-great inner city or small town schools. While facially neutral, the admissions policy arguably had a disparate impact on (predominantly white) kids from affluent districts. Ms. Fisher presumably was one of these.
The Grutter decision was penned by Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, a moderate member of the court, who resigned to care for an ailing spouse. She was replaced by conservative Samuel Alito. Fisher presents the five conservative justices with a chance to gut Grutter, if they are so inclined. As always, Justice Anthony Kennedy is the swing vote. Kennedy has leaned right a lot lately, but reports are that he held his hand close to his vest during the October 10th oral arguments.
Whatever the ultimate outcome, when a decision is announced next spring, expect the sort of passion, exemplified by Claire's position this week, from both the winners and the losers. Affirmative Action ever was, and still is, one of the most contentious issues in American public policy.