White Whining: Student Takes Affirmative Action to the Supreme Court

I’m sure everyone here has heard of the demon known as affirmative action, and its henchman, the dreaded quota. For those who haven’t, affirmative action’s mission is to damn the Great White River and let all those brown folks take over universities and work places. The quota is the number of said brown folk needed to accomplish the mission. Ooh, scary! Ok, so I’m being more than a little bitter and sarcastic here, but I guarantee you know at least one person who thinks that way, whether you know it or not. As a Southerner, I tend to run into such unpleasantries all the time. Shit ruins your day. What’s worse is that I’m about to start hearing a lot more about it, and so are you, because affirmative action is going back to the Supreme Court.

Affirmative action is, according to Wikipedia,  policies that take factors including “race, color, religion, gender, sexual orientation or national origin” into consideration in order to benefit an underrepresented group, usually justified as countering the effects of a history of discrimination.” For conservatives, this means that workplaces and schools are keeping track of all minorities they hire or admit, and specifically looking to hit a magic number. Supposedly, this sort of quota-filling keeps deserving White men out of their rightful places or something. In reality, the Supreme Court forbade the use of quotas or point systems in a comparatively recent 2003 case. Conservatives still howl about how the quotas are happening, and how the mass liberal conspiracy is hiding the tally sheets. However, it is permissible for universities to take race into account when admitting students, which brings us to the case at hand.

The case boils down to a White girl who decided to sue The University of Texas at Austin because they didn’t let her in, but minority students with test scores and grades lower than hers were admitted. Apparently this pissed off the student, Abigail Fisher, and another woman who dropped out of the suit, so much that they’ve brought it all the way to the Supreme Court. Despite Fisher being a graduating senior at another university, she’s determined to bring UT Austin down a notch. Though between the 2003 ruling and Fisher’s 2007 application, minority students increased by only about 5%, she is convinced of the bias. In reality, UT Austin, along with most other universities, only takes race into account when admitting students rather than using it as a basis for admission. The lawsuit seeks to ban affirmative action altogether. If that happens, universities will no longer be able to even consider race. It becomes nothing in terms of admission.

UT Austin also adheres to a very specific rule governing admissions the top 10% rule. This rule states that if one is in the top 10% of one’s graduating class, one will be unconditionally and automatically admitted to the university. Living in Texas, I know that this rule has been the source of some heated arguments, because while it does give children at lower-performing high schools the opportunity to enter a top university, it also admits students who can’t cut it at a university. Basically, Sallie from Rural Texas High is in the top 10% of her class of 75, where there are few AP classes, the teachers are ineffective, and everyone does worksheets all day. Sara is from Big City High, is also in the top 10% of her class of 500, and her classes are taught college-style, with multiple papers, etc. Fundamentally, the rule ensures that students have opportunity, but does nothing to help the students who sink. Seventy-five percent of Texas resident spots must go to those admitted by the 10% rule. I find it necessary to bring this up because it puts the case into perspective. Abigail Fisher was, to put it plainly, vying for a spot in that 25% at one of the nation’s top public schools. I honestly think she’s attacking the wrong rule here. She didn’t fail to get in because she’s White, just like the another non-top 10% Texas student didn’t get in because they are Black or Latin@ or Native.

I know many Persephoneers have applied to a university recently or are planning to apply, so many reading this will be familiar with the little blurb stating that universities consider applicants from all races, religions, etc., and that they take race into consideration when admitting students. Though I have significant Native American blood (no, it’s not from my great-great-great-great grandmother on my mother’s side, I think), I never thought to tick that box along with my usual when applying for undergrad. It just didn’t occur to me, since my family didn’t live on a reservation or have significant ties to our people. However, I did check it when applying for grad schools. Did it help? I’ll never know. Maybe one of the universities that called to congratulate me on my acceptance was calling because the director was thrilled at the prospect of a genuine Indian in the program. After all, the percentage of Native Americans with a college degree is about 9%, compared to about 20% overall. I think most of us like to think that it wasn’t our race, but our achievements that got us where we are. Looking at the numbers, racial disadvantage is pretty damned clear, due to everything from institutionalized racism to economics to social policy. So I ask you, dear reader, what do you think? Should we keep things as they are? Bring on the quotas? Or should we outlaw it altogether?

By Elfity

Elfity, so named for her tendency to be a bit uppity and her elf-like appearance, is a graduate student and professional Scary Feminist of Rage. She has a propensity for social justice, cheese, and Doctor Who. Favorite activities include making strange noises, napping with puppies and/or kitties, and engaging in political and philosophical debates.

46 replies on “White Whining: Student Takes Affirmative Action to the Supreme Court”

Oh this is a tough one, because at not-American it’s hard to imagine that your race works for or against you when it comes to your education.

My initial response is to keep it, but maybe do an extra test because you show that there can be such a difference in learning levels? And like that the student can show they’re really ‘worth’ university and the university can show that they not only allow the student in for the color of its skin but also for its mind. Does that make sense?

One of my favorite teachers taught an enhancement class (every other Wednesday and Thursday my school adheres to a block schedule, leaving us two periods to take an extra class) on white privilege. There was a fantastic video and he gave a pretty good short speech on it and, of course, the first comment out of anybody’s mouth was, “Well I think there’s sort of a reverse Hispanic (the video particularly touched on Mexican immigrants) privilege and racism against white people since they have a harder time getting into college.”

After I got over my immediate and visceral reaction my reply was somewhere along the lines of affirmative action actually proving the point of the video and universities reflecting the actual statistics of the population doesn’t negate the institutionalized racism that’s prevalent in other aspects of the society. If schools had to be mandated to accept more minorities, I reasoned, then clearly there was still work to be done.

She said that racism didn’t exist in America anymore, that we’re far past that point. She pointed to Obama. I don’t even remember what I said I’m not used to replying to such blatant denial. How do I talk about affirmative action and white privilege with my (mostly Caucasian, almost wholly privileged by wealth as well) peers? Do people with more experience- which is all of you, I’d wager- have suggestions?

I don’t have much experience but I think that you may want to check out Tim Wise, especially White Like Me. Wise really breaks down all the advantages of being white by weaving it in his own personal family history, talking about the different sides of his family and how their legacy and government policies enabled him to go to college. His other books are excellent too, but I think this one might answer your more immediate question.

I think her argument is ridiculous.  Even though it isn’t perfect, affirmative action is needed because of the economic disadvantages that many minorities face (see stats from this last recession; minorities really got that shaft when it came to everything).

Seems to me like she didn’t get what she wanted and Mommy and Daddy were appalled their little special snowflake was crushed, so they blamed affirmative action for it and decided to sue.  It’s common sense to apply to more than one college, and you’re not always going to get into the college that you want, particularly if admissions is extremely competitive.

affirmative action is just one giant band-aid policy.  it neglects the real issues at hand: the environment in which people live  (i.e., safety of neighborhoods), the quality of elementary and secondary school education, social support from both community and family, access to educational resources (tutoring, etc.), even access to adequate healthcare (can’t go to school or w/e if you’re sick all the time).  people living more privileged lifestyles will start their lives by having these crucial elements (plus others i’m probably leaving out, as well).  therefore, they will be more likely to move up on the great totem pole of our society and move on to higher education.  people who experience racial discrimination that is so apparent in hundreds (thousands? more?) of policies are at an inherent disadvantage.  policymakers need to realize that affirmative action doesn’t “fix” things anywhere near as well as directly facilitating and serving the needs of communities.

Agreed!  But I can also see how it forms a “trickle-down” (trust me, I use that phrase extremely sparingly) system in education and the workplace.  More minority people in high-up positions can represent their people politically, and can forge pathways for more to come.  Hopefully.  Also I feel like minority employers are more likely to hire minorities, not necessarily because they will favor them, but because they definitely won’t disfavor them.  I hope this makes sense.

I went to UT Austin, though in the early 90’s so the racial makeup of the school may have changed a bit. When I was preparing to go start, I got a book about the school from the Co-Op, one of those “Survive College” type guides. It described UT Austin as “The Whitest Big University, and the Biggest White University.” It was completely correct. I’m white, but grew up in the era of busing so I went to mostly inner city schools. I loved it, and am so glad I had that experience because it’s made me aware of the bubble you can live in if you don’t pay attention. I was completely confused when classmates and advisers at UT talked about “multi-cultural” classes. Why? Why would you need a class on that? Right, because many of you have never spoken to someone non-white unless s/he worked for you. I was amazed and disgusted by the openly racist comments and attitudes I encountered when I lived in Austin, something I hadn’t experienced anywhere near as much growing up in southern Louisiana. Greater diversity in education is good for everyone, not just minorities.

(In a total aside, I know a girl who was born in America to non-American parents. They lived in a big town, and were HORRIFIED to discover that their precious blonde snowflake may have to attend an inner-city school with the undesirable children because of the busing practice. So they moved to a smaller town to avoid it. Knowing the girl now, this does not surprise me. She’s still a special snowflake.)

What’s odd to me is that UT Austin now has a reputation for being diverse and liberal, just by virtue of being in Austin. It is still very heavily White, though. I didn’t go there, but I do attend lectures and conferences there every now and then and I am amazed at how heavily White it is, despite being in/near heavily Hispanic regions of Texas. I suppose the new reputation has something to do with the Texas A&M rivalry, as A&M is extremely conservative and extremely White. Perhaps people just assume UT is everything A&M isn’t?

The lawsuit seeks to ban affirmative action altogether. If that happens, universities will no longer be able to even consider race.

This just…kills me.

Said student has so many privileges by virtue of being white. INSTITUTIONALIZED privileges, no less. But the minute an institution tries to put in measures to rectify this, whine whine whine whine REVERSE DISCRIMINATION whine whine whine.

It’s not “giving minority students an edge.” It’s trying to make up, at least a little bit, for minority students being handed a huge pile of shit simply for being a minority.

I know! And the whole idea of “now universities can’t consider race,” that really just screams to me, “no race can be given positive points except white.”

And I am so glad that people here know what I’m talking about, cause I feel like that statement is huge trollbait if taken the wrong way.

Minor copy edit:  should be “dam the Great White River” ?

There’s a debate going on about gender quotas in politics in Ireland at the moment, and one of the thrusts of the argument is that women are not a minority group so it’s not a problem to require quotas. I’m actually in favour of them, but I think this is a dodgy argument given there will be a lot more adults of colour in Ireland in twenty years.

I work in higher ed and I’m not really sure what the answer is.  The unfortunate reality is that minority groups are at a significant disadvantage when it comes to admittance to institutes of higher ed.  Until those disparities are less significant, do we artificially create a diverse university setting while we wait for social stratification to level out and equal opportunity to become a more realistic notion?  I didn’t really provide an opinion here, did I?  I would just like a third option – a way to level the playing field without reducing it to the lowest common denominator.


We have to actively challenge the systems that make it harder for minorities to succeed. I think this is the whole purpose of affirmative action. If people from disadvantaged backgrounds are given a chance, then they might be able to pull themselves out of that situation. But if they don’t get a chance…disparities increase.

I don’t necessarily LIKE affirmative action, but I see it as necessary. I think that there are a lot of things that need to be done in the US, such as improving the safety net, improving schools in poorer districts, bringing in universal healthcare, etc.. And all these things would help decrease inequities. But until it IS an equal playing field, things like affirmative action are important.


I’m 100% with you.  We shouldn’t have to have something like affirmative action, we should live in a world where such things are not necessary.  But we have a large problem that needs to be corrected while we wait for real progress in the areas that caused the problem to begin with.

I don’t want to call AA a necessary evil – I don’t think that really captures it.  I do think it’s the best looking horse at the glue factory though.

How is the diversity artificial? Animatronic minorities? :D

On a more serious note, regarding [waiting] for social stratification to level out and equal opportunity to become a more realistic notion; we can all agree, I hope, that standing by and twiddling one’s thumbs while waiting for problems to go away is not the stuff solutions are made of.

And, regarding [leveling] the playing field without reducing it to the lowest common denominator; have you really, in your time working in higher ed, or in your own collegiate education previously, encountered many lowest common denominator minority students?

No worries; that’s how I read it.

My point is when affirmative action is employed in admitting students from depressed backgrounds, schools are merely finding students of equal capability who come from unequal circumstances. So, while the students don’t look as great on paper, they are ultimately no less intelligent or able.

Think of it like weighting GPAs based on the difficulty of coursework.

I honestly think that the way to level the playing field is to start much, much earlier than we are. We can’t just wait until the unieversity-level to go “Gee, something isn’t fair here!” Reducing disparaties has to start the second they are identified. Head Start and the like just isn’t enough. The problem is that there isn’t the funding for these kinds of programs. I’ve done some program evaluation and needs assessments at low-income, minority-heavy schools, and the administration tries so hard to level things out.

I completely agree that early intervention to prevent the disparity is the best course of action for kids who will be in college in 12 years, but like Silverwane was saying, and I completely agree with her, there is a problem now with kids who should  have access to college today but don’t.  I don’t know that AA is the solution to the current problem but when applied appropriately, it is better than the status quo.

We have got to start worrying about it earlier than we do. The disparity between white students who meet a certain level come college-application time and non-white students who meet that same level is indicative of problems that go a lot deeper than anything affirmative action at the college level can ever hope to address. Of course, you’ve got plenty of racist ass-wipes just chomping at the bit to smugly assert that their claims of racial superiority have been right all along based on this fact; these are the same individuals who use the term “reverse discrimination” without the faintest hint of irony.

Sorry. This is one of those topics that makes me near incoherent with rage. Thank you for an excellent article.

I love made-up terms like “reverse discrimination/bias”: isn’t the reverse of discrimination acceptance?  Ass-wipes indeed.

A agree with your point, though: work on the underlying societal and K-12 issues in the forefront.  I think it is a good idea to keep some affirmative action policies in place to ensure access, but it doesn’t help to a person access to higher education if they never received adequate lower education to prepare them.  It sets them at a disadvantage, and leads to situations where they have excessive student loans because they had to take extra classes up front or they lose grant money because of poor performance.  We have a long history of addressing the wrong problems, though…

That’s absolutely true. I’m in the educational psychology field and despite the vast amounts of literature on how disadvantages start early, nothing ever seems to change. Teachers, social workers, and psychologists call for change, but the government thinks it’s too expensive to properly and fairly educate citizens. We basically set up minority and poor students to fail, then wonder why they don’t do so well when they make it to college.

Interesting! For entry into my law school, those who identified as having Maori heritage got an extra 2 to 3% put on top of their grades. It meant those who hit the 80% grade required got in, no worries there,  but those with Maori heritage who were only a couple of marks off could also obtain a legal education. Considering  Maori make up 15.5% of the population but only 5.5% of NZ lawyers (info from my monthly Law Society magazine), I think this is a good way of redressing that imbalance. There are huge issues in NZ that relate specifically to Maori (customary land rights, the impacts of the Treaty of Waitangi to name but two), so I’m of the opinion that the way my law school acts is appropriate. White people have a huge amount of privilege, I’m not inclined to feel much sympathy for this special snowflake.

In Ireland (Republic of; Northern Ireland uses the UK’s system), we don’t have an equivalent of AA -there’s just not anything like the same racial history. Another difference is admission to university here is done almost solely anonymously and on the basis of state exam results. Some courses (art, music, medicine) want an in-person assessment but with the vast majority all the university knows is your ID number and the number of points you have.

There are programmes – called HEAR and DARE – that lower barriers to university for people from economically disadvantaged backgrounds, and people with (some) disabilities, respectively, and the participating universities reserve a certain single-figure % of their places for people from these programmes. I don’t know how effective they are.

Very much so, hideously over represented in poverty, jail occupancy and unemployment rates. To be honest, I think more could be done to support Maori and Pacific Islanders into tertiary education, but as people have said else where in the comments, a lot should be done at primary and secondary education levels to ensure there is the base level that will mean tertiary education isn’t such an impossible goal.

I wish France had affirmative action; we need something like it. But in our delusions of integration and colour-blindness, statistics based on ethnicity are illegal; there’s no race box in our census. So there can’t be any when you apply to university, or whatever. On the other hand, it’s already too late by the time we apply to university or to the Grandes Ecoles, because by the end of middle school, most minority kids have been shunted off to vocational training and apprenticeships.

I grew up in a town that went from 7000 to 20 000 in the fourteen years I lived there (my parents are still there). It is a very, very white place, although my parents tell me that is changing. There is a sizeable Arab population that lives in our suburbs, and that’s about it. By the time I was in my senior year of high school, in a school of about 1200 or so, I knew one Arab girl, one half-Chinese girl, and one half-Vietnamese. I don’t remember there being any black kids; there were more Arab kids in my freshman year, but most of them transferred to vocational schools after that.

And this is in a good area. My hometown is pretty well-to-do, my high school was one of the best in the area although we did have a reputation for being a bunch of potheads. All this is public schools, and although it’s been faltering a bit recently, France’s school system is pretty good. But the minority kids still get shafted. Especially if they’re Black/Arab.

(Bubble-bursting, I guess, but I have to.)

I think that cartoon is awful. It’s superlatively white. While its intent and overall message are not objectionable, the cartoon itself is painfully trivializing and simplistic. It’s neutered and cutesy, and it makes me cringe.

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