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What Abigail Fisher’s Affirmative Action Case Is Really About

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Posted on Mar 21, 2013
AP/Susan Walsh

Abigail Fisher and Edward Blum, whose nonprofit is bankrolling Fisher’s lawsuit, outside the Supreme Court the day oral arguments were heard in the case in October.

By Nikole Hannah-Jones, ProPublica

This report was first published on ProPublica.

When the NAACP began challenging Jim Crow laws across the South, it knew that, in the battle for public opinion, the particular plaintiffs mattered as much as the facts of the case. The group meticulously selected the people who would elicit both sympathy and outrage, who were pristine in form and character. And they had to be ready to step forward at the exact moment when both public sentiment and the legal system might be swayed.

That’s how Oliver Brown, a hard-working welder and assistant pastor in Topeka, Kan., became the lead plaintiff in the lawsuit that would obliterate the separate but equal doctrine. His daughter, whose third-grade innocence posed a searing rebuff to legal segregation, became its face.

Nearly 60 years after that Supreme Court victory, which changed the nation, conservatives freely admit they have stolen that page from the NAACP’s legal playbook as they attempt to roll back many of the civil rights group’s landmark triumphs.

In 23-year-old Abigail Noel Fisher they’ve put forward their version of the perfect plaintiff to challenge the use of race in college admissions decisions.

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Publicly, Fisher and her supporters, chief among them the conservative activist who conceived of the case, have worked to make Fisher the symbol of racial victimization in modern America. As their narratives goes, she did everything right. She worked hard, received good grades, and rounded out her high school years with an array of extracurricular activities. But she was cheated, they say, her dream snatched away by a university that closed its doors to her because she had been born the wrong color: White.

The daughter of suburban Sugar Land, Texas, played the cello. Since the second grade, she said, she dreamed of carrying on the family tradition by joining her sister and father among the ranks of University of Texas at Austin alumni.

And the moment for her to lend her name to the lawsuit might never be riper: The Supreme Court has seated its most conservative bench since the 1930s. The Court is expected to issue a decision any week now in what is considered one of the most important civil rights cases in years. 

On a YouTube video posted by Edward Blum, a 1973 University of Texas graduate whose nonprofit organization is bankrolling the lawsuit, she is soft-spoken, her strawberry blond hair tucked behind one ear. Not even a swipe of lip gloss adorns her girlish face.

“There were people in my class with lower grades who weren’t in all the activities I was in, who were being accepted into UT, and the only other difference between us was the color of our skin,” she says. “I was taught from the time I was a little girl that any kind of discrimination was wrong. And for an institution of higher learning to act this way makes no sense to me. What kind of example does it set for others?”

It’s a deeply emotional argument delivered by an earnest young woman, one that’s been quoted over and over again.

Except there’s a problem. The claim that race cost Fisher her spot at the University of Texas isn’t really true.

In the hundreds of pages of legal filings, Fisher’s lawyers spend almost no time arguing that Fisher would have gotten into the university but for her race.

If you’re confused, it is no doubt in part because of how Blum, Fisher and others have shaped the dialogue as the case worked its way to the country’s top court.

Journalists and bloggers have written dozens of articles on the case, including profiles of Fisher and Blum. News networks have aired panel after panel about the future of affirmative action. Yet for all the front-page attention, angry debate and exchanges before the justices, some of the more fundamental elements of the case have been little reported.

Race probably had nothing to do with the University of Texas’s decision to deny admission to Abigail Fisher.

In 2008, the year Fisher sent in her application, competition to get into the crown jewel of the Texas university system was stiff. Students entering through the university’s Top 10 program — a mechanism that granted automatic admission to any teen who graduated in the upper 10 percent of his or her high school class — claimed 92 percent of the in-state spots.

Fisher said in news reports that she hoped for the day universities selected students “solely based on their merit and if they work hard for it.” But Fisher failed to graduate in the top 10 percent of her class, meaning she had to compete for the limited number of spaces up for grabs.

She and other applicants who did not make the cut were evaluated based on two scores. One allotted points for grades and test scores. The other, called a personal achievement index, awarded points for two required essays, leadership, activities, service and “special circumstances.” Those included socioeconomic status of the student or the student’s school, coming from a home with a single parent or one where English wasn’t spoken. And race.

Those two scores, combined, determine admission.

Even among those students, Fisher did not particularly stand out. Court records show her grade point average (3.59) and SAT scores (1180 out of 1600) were good but not great for the highly selective flagship university. The school’s rejection rate that year for the remaining 841 openings was higher than the turn-down rate for students trying to get into Harvard.

As a result, university officials claim in court filings that even if Fisher received points for her race and every other personal achievement factor, the letter she received in the mail still would have said no.

It’s true that the university, for whatever reason, offered provisional admission to some students with lower test scores and grades than Fisher. Five of those students were black or Latino. Forty-two were white.

Neither Fisher nor Blum mentioned those 42 applicants in interviews. Nor did they acknowledge the 168 black and Latino students with grades as good as or better than Fisher’s who were also denied entry into the university that year. Also left unsaid is the fact that Fisher turned down a standard UT offer under which she could have gone to the university her sophomore year if she earned a 3.2 GPA at another Texas university school in her freshman year.


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