Rage or Justice

The complicated emotions behind the Supreme Court’s upcoming argument on affirmative action.

A college student
A college student

Photograph by Stockbyte/Thinkstock.

Last week, I asked you to tell me about your experiences of affirmative action. The Supreme Court will hear a potentially blockbuster case on Wednesday about how the University of Texas takes race into account in admissions, and I wanted to hear personal stories, from all over the spectrum, before the legal arguments begin. The amazing responses I got underscore the power of affirmative action to soothe and to enrage. This issue is the opposite of abstract: It can make all the difference in how you see the course your life has taken.

I’ll start with the anger. J.R. Constable writes that after taking the community college courses he was told were required, he tried to transfer to California State University at Fresno, only to be told by a counselor there off the record: “ ‘We can’t admit you, because we have too many white males enrolled in your major.’ ” He says, “I was enraged,” and continues:

I wish I could say that within a few weeks I got over it, but I still find myself once in a while having the thoughts that I missed a promotion because of my gender, or race. Or that because I’m white I don’t have as much potential, or ability. That I was being viewed as a failure. If life is supposed to be so much easier for me, why do I have to struggle so much? 

Immediately after the incident, I was at the worst of my self-loathing, I was constantly hating myself for what I was, a white man. I hated myself for what I was becoming, a bigot. Race and gender went from being a non-issue, to being the only issue. I was crushed, and I dropped out of school. I settled in to the fact that because of something that happened to me at conception, that I had no control over, that is an insignificant part of the larger sum of me, I’d been doomed to being at the bottom.

J.R. says he was rejected from Cal State in the early 2000s, after California voters passed a referendum that barred the state from considering race, sex, or ethnicity in public employment, contracting, or education. He says he was told that the school needed more minorities in his major because of a federal funding mandate, and that trumped the state law. He also says he grew up poor, taking care of his disabled mother, and that he’s sure being on the losing side of affirmative action, as he sees it, was a terrible turning point for him.

An email from a man from Austin had the same flavor. When he didn’t get into the University of Texas at Austin law school in the mid-1970s, he was told that he’d met the minimum standard for test scores and grades, “but because of affirmative action and the fact that the University was trying to increase minority enrollment, there were not enough places for me. Tough luck.” He didn’t have the money to attend another law school, since he was living and working in Austin. “I never became an attorney,” he continues. “ I don’t harbor any ill will, but I guess just regret and sadness.”

I checked on UT’s affirmative action policy in the ’70s. According to a 1994 court ruling, the law school had a separate admissions committee that considered applications from minority students and disadvantaged white students. In 1977, out of 500 applications, the committee admitted 68 minority students and three white students. So it’s true that the law school was trying to increase minority enrollment, and it’s possible that these efforts could have edged out a white student on the margin. For the man who wrote to me, that possibility is enough for a life’s worth of complicated emotion.

Robert Grant, who went to law school at the University of Mississippi in the 1990s, feels bitter about the scholarships he saw go to minority students. He’d just come out of the Air Force, the GI Bill didn’t cover graduate school, and he was working the graveyard shift at a local hotel to pay for school when he ran into a black classmate parking her fancy car. She was on scholarship; he was not. “This is justified as a remedy for past discrimination. Fine,” he writes. “However, I currently have over $100,000 in student loans. … I wouldn’t be human if it didn’t leave a bad taste in my mouth.”

On the other side of the divide are people of color who are grateful for the leg up they got. “I have no doubt that affirmative action played a part when I was accepted to Boston College back in the 90’s,” Catherine Casiano writes. 

As a Mexican-American from Texas, I was definitely in the minority. The majority were wealthy white kids from the New England area. … Yes, I faced a lot of challenges, such as discrimination from professors and racial comments made by other students, but I looked past all of that and became a very active member of the Boston College community and graduated with my Communications degree in 1997. I’m now an attorney in Texas and I still count my days at Boston College and some of the challenges I faced as experiences that made me who I am today.

And from Rene Vera, who graduated from UT-Austin in 1996:

I am a Hispanic and was never sure that affirmative action helped me with admission to UT, but I believe it was a factor. I was a terrible high school student, as my father had retired from the military and we moved back to Texas. I went to five high schools in four years and was very disgruntled. I went to Austin Community College and did well, made the Dean’s List. I applied to the University of Texas as a transfer student and obtained admission. I heard the arguments, that affirmative action was bad for minorities because it set us up for failure. But that was not my experience. In most of my classes, I was often tutoring/helping other students. I graduated and later went to get my MBA from another university and did well in my graduate classes. I am now a Senior Technical Recruiter at a large technical company here in Austin.

Long story short, it was a major positive for me. My father was the first person on either side of the family to get a college degree. I was the first to get a graduate degree. Would I have obtained this level of accomplishment if affirmative action did not exist? I don’t know. I would like to think my hard work and intelligence would have brought me to the same place I’m at in my life, but maybe that’s wishful thinking.

Brittany Lee, a 19-year-old student at Hunter College, says she struggled over whether to say she is black on her college application, “so that I could know they wanted the real me and not a quota filler. I wanted the knowledge that I got in because I belonged there.” She decided, though, not to part with a defining factor in her life. “Race is a factor in the way each person of color sees the world,” she writes. “So by adding my race, schools I applied to get to see the ways I’m thinking and the way I view the world. My race is me, and it’s not something I want others to not see in me.”

Another reader, a 24-year-old New Yorker, said that while she’s pretty sure affirmative action helped get her into law school—she had top grades, but her LSAT scores were low for her school—she doesn’t credit it for her success since then. “I’m on track to graduate with honors, and I have a job lined up at a large law firm—not because of affirmative action, but because I worked very hard. To anyone who questions whether I was qualified or deserved to get into my school, I would simply answer that my hard work and success proves that I am indeed qualified and deserving.”

This reader also made a point I heard repeatedly: She thinks we’re at the point where it makes more sense to give applicants a boost because of class than because of race. “I grew up poor and I’m sure being poor is a huge disadvantage no matter what race you are, though I don’t doubt that it probably is a little more difficult if you’re poor and a minority,” she says. “My children will likely grow up in a solidly middle to upper middle class family (thanks to the affirmative action that benefited me). Would they be more deserving of affirmative action than a poor Caucasian student—I think not.”

As a white reader puts it who is applying for government research grants: “My objection is not that those from disadvantaged backgrounds receive special attention and nurturing to enter the competitive, low paying, and ever narrowing career path to scientific research. Instead, it is that qualification can come only from the color of your skin. So that the children of Colin Powell are automatically able to apply to a program meant for people with disadvantaged backgrounds.”

The children-of-Colin-Powell image is a sticking point for a lot of white people, I think, and not just conservatives. Like Lisa:

I was one of the poorer kids at a top university in the early 90s. And I was white, which means I paid my way via loans—I just missed the paltry Pell Grant cutoff and my school didn’t care to help poor white kids who weren’t really, abjectly poor. Yet I saw lots of upper-middle-class African-American kids there on full scholarships they didn’t need. These kids came from the same urban private schools and the same upbringing as the rich white kids in my class who were paying their way. These kids hadn’t grown up in the South, and had only rarely experienced any adversity based on their race. They brought their skis to school just like the other rich white kids, so didn’t feel the scorn I experienced when asked where your skis are stored. They added almost no diversity of experience to the class, while adding everything in terms of race-based affirmative action numbers.

I’ve been on admissions committees—I was on the admissions committee at my MBA school (top in the world by some rankings). Ideally, you’re looking for diverse experiences—not diverse skin color. But you DO have to keep an eye on the stats, which don’t take class or experience into account, only race/ethnicity.

Affirmative action would be acceptable to me if it looked at economic circumstances. But looking only at race is a problem. I say this even as a good liberal, knowing I have to apologize a hundred times for it. … If we could get out of affirmative action based on race, and look at class/economics instead, it’d get us out of all this.

It’s a tempting idea; there’s a debate over whether it holds up. A brief in the Supreme Court case by more than 400 social scientists says that if schools like UT can only admit students based on where they went to high school and their performance there—the Texas Top Ten Percent plan—the number of blacks and Hispanics admitted will fall. The NAACP Legal Defense Fund points out that happened at state universities in Michigan and California after race-conscious admissions were banned.

Mike Wiser, who is 31 and finishing his Ph.D. in biology in Michigan, wrote in to say that while diversity should be measured in terms of a variety of factors, often that’s just not the focus. “We may say that it’s important to also consider geographic, economic, political, religious, or orientation forms of diversity, but if we’re not reporting on those, it’s simply not going to happen—race, sex, and disability are all that are going to count.”

I’ll end with an email from the father of a white applicant to UT who didn’t get in (like Abigail Fisher, the plaintiff before the Supreme Court). He opposes race-based affirmative action, but the change he calls for is broader than ending it. “The true solution is to offer citizens more choices of what are called “tier 1” schools,” he writes. “Currently the state has only two public universities that meet this criteria, UT-Austin and Texas A&M. The problem? That costs money, something the state really doesn’t have.” It’s a crucial insight: The less access people have to an important benefit—and college education ranks among the highest—the more they fight for the scraps. If we had more good universities, we’d have more opportunities to go around. That probably won’t come up at the Supreme Court this week. But it’s more than worth thinking about.