Commentaries

February 28, 2012

We can’t afford to reverse gains in campus diversity


By : Reverend Jesse L. Jackson, Sr.

Source: Weekly Column | Chicago Sun-Times 

Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court announced that it would hear a case challenging affirmative action at the University of Texas, with the arguments scheduled for October, a month before the November presidential election. The conservative faction that stopped the counting of ballots in Florida in Bush vs. Gore, and opened the floodgates on corporate money in politics in Citizens United, is now intent on politicizing racial justice.

The case, Fisher vs. Texas, was brought against the university by Abigail Fisher after she was denied admission in 2008. She did not qualify for the automatic admission offered to all who rank in the top 10 percent of their high school class. So she claimed that her race hurt her, arguing that less-qualified applicants of color gained the slot that somehow should have been hers. Funded by conservative donors, she has pursued the case despite rejection by the lower courts.

In the 1990s, the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals barred UT from using race in admission. In response, the university granted automatic admission for Texas graduates in the top 10 percent of their high school class, and it created an affirmative action program for economically disadvantaged students.

In 2003, however, the Supreme Court gave universities the green light to use race as a factor in admissions. Since then, the number of African Americans matriculating at UT has nearly doubled and the number of Latino graduates has increased by almost 50 percent. Today, to its credit, the University of Texas ranks sixth nationwide in undergraduate degrees awarded to minorities.

It is striking that affirmative action attracts the challenge here. In fact, universities have many categories for admission. For example, why don’t legacies — the longstanding policies that enable the children of alumni (particularly wealthy alumni) to gain favor in admission — get the scrutiny?

A Duke University study found that the SAT scores of legacy children are “40 points lower than students with professional degree parents and about 12 points lower than students with other degree parents.” And legacy preference is most extensive in the most competitive, highly selective colleges and universities, most prominent among them Harvard, Yale and Princeton.

Or why not the favors bestowed on good athletes or musicians? Or the foreign students willing to pay full fare out-of-state tuitions? All of these gain “points” on admission criteria as well.

The argument for affirmative action is apparent. During 150 years of slavery and 100 years of segregation, American schools discriminated against African Americans. There are few African-American “legacy” students because their parents were barred from admission. Despite obvious advances, racial bias still pervades our society. African-American children grow up disproportionately in poverty. They go to schools that still suffer what Jonathan Kozol called “savage inequality” in funding and facilities and skilled teachers.

Moreover, the country has a great stake in ensuring that our universities broadly reflect the society they serve. No student should be admitted who is unqualified to succeed in a school, but a racially diverse campus is more important than good athletic teams or skilled orchestras or happy alums.

A century ago, conservative justices interpreted the civil rights amendments as justifying segregation. Now they seek to use the law to once more harm the very people the amendments were designed to protect.

This inversion will not be accepted quietly.