SAN DIEGO – Long before the phrase “white privilege” crept into the national lexicon, my parents raised me to believe that – as a Mexican-American – I had to be twice as smart, and work twice as hard, just to be considered on par with white counterparts. This is standard operating procedure for Latino and African-American parents.
Graduating from high school in the 1950s and ’60s, my parents’ generation was denied good schools, jobs, promotions, home loans and more because of their race and ethnicity. Instead of being angry and bitter, the elders plowed ahead and raised their children to think that, if they far out-distanced the competition, it would be harder for The Man to rob them of what they earned.
Apparently, Abigail Fisher was given a very different message growing up. She must have been told that mediocre was good enough and that, if she felt victimized, she could always hire a lawyer and make a federal case out of it.
Boy did she. Denied admission to the University of Texas at Austin in 2008, Fisher sued the school and claimed that – because she was white – she had been wronged by reverse discrimination. Her case made it all the way to the Supreme Court.
Fisher was only victimized by two things: meritocracy and math. She lacked the academic chops to be admitted on her own steam. And given that UT-Austin – with its 52,000 students – is just 4.5 percent African-American and 22 percent Latino, it is statistically far more likely that she was beaten out by another white person than by a person of color.
Back then, UT-Austin set aside about three-fourths of its available slots to students who graduated in the top 10 percent of their high school classes. (Today it is the top 8 percent.) The remaining one-fourth were allotted under a separate process where admissions officers weighed several personal factors including race, ethnicity and socioeconomic status.
Fisher’s grades and test scores weren’t good enough for her to be admitted under the first category; she graduated in the top 12 percent. Theoretically, she could have still been admitted under the second category if her personal story had been especially compelling, interesting and unique. We can assume it was none of those things because she was rejected.
People cope with failure in different ways. Some people go to a therapist. Fisher went to court.
Last week, eight years after the lawsuit was filed, the high court – by a vote of 4-to-3 – put a merciful end to this self-indulgent drama. They ruled in favor of the university and sent a message that admissions officers may continue to consider race as one factor among many in pursuit of a diverse student body.
Higher education in Texas could use more diversity. While African-Americans and Latinos together account for nearly half of the state’s population, they make up only about a quarter of the student population at UT-Austin.
Imagine the time, money and effort that could have been spared if Fisher’s parents had done a better job of teaching her to own up to her shortcomings and not be so quick to play the victim.
That’s how I was raised. During my senior year in high school, as I applied to a handful of extremely competitive universities, it just never occurred to me that – if things didn’t go my way – I should file a lawsuit and take it all the way to the Supreme Court.
Imagine how much more productive this national conversation could have been if we had focused instead, over the last eight years, on the real problem with taking race and ethnicity into account in college admissions. It is not that the practice magically leads to systematic 1960s-style, across-the-board discrimination against whites. Rather, it is that often any such accommodation has the unintended consequence of hurting beneficiaries by weakening standards, camouflaging inequalities at the K-12 level, dampening students’ incentive, stigmatizing recipients, and propping up an unhealthy racial and ethnic spoils system that benefits few while underserving many.
That’s the dialogue around racial and ethnic preferences that we need to have in this country. But we never get around to it. That’s because we’re too busy responding to the ludicrous claims of litigious underachievers like Abigail Fisher.
Ruben Navarrette’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.