Having spent the majority of my career in admissions and international education, I have been following the Supreme Court’s affirmative action case between Abigail Fisher and the University of Texas at Austin with great interest. The cavalcade of retrograde theories spilling from the mouths of Justices “Slow Track” Scalia and “Unaware of Neil deGrasse Tyson” Roberts has been illuminating to say the least. But how did we get to the point where, in 2015, our Supreme Court is debating the existence of race-based intellectual inferiority and the relative merits of separate-and-unequal?
It all started with the travails of brave Ms. Fisher, a white applicant who argued that in 2008, UT Austin’s holistic admissions philosophy improperly allowed students of color to take her place in their incoming class. She wanted badly to go to the University of Texas at Austin; in fact, had dreamed of it since she was in the second grade. And doesn’t that simply entitle her to go? I mean, her father, sister and “tons of friends and family” went to UT Austin, and she wanted to continue the tradition. And had the legacy option been available, she simply could have utilized that super-equitable program typically locked up by affluent, well-connected Caucasians.
But no, Ms. Fisher couldn’t rely on legacy. She was determined to blaze her own path into the family tradition on the unquestionable strength of decent grades, middling test scores and activities alone. She submitted her application like anybody else, and even though her actual qualifications weren’t sufficient for admission in the first round (the top ten percent of Texas high school graduates), certainly she was entitled to be admitted before people of color competing against her in the second, even more competitive pool, right? Surely.
Yet it was not to be. And being from an affluent family, she had little recourse but to choose from the other 2,000-plus four-year institutions across the country—and to let herself be recruited by her father’s friend Edward Blum, a former stockbroker and current activist against affirmative action, who paired her with attorneys and bankrolled her suit with donations from a handful of conservative donors.
Well, Ms. Fisher’s journey has been educational for me. Maybe I’ve been looking at this whole thing the wrong way (I am a person of color after all, so as Justice Scalia knows, it takes me a while to catch up). Could it be that the way to face life’s disappointments is not to pick myself up, learn from the setbacks, and keep on marching? Perhaps the answer is, instead, to sue my way around our country’s legacy of inequality.
So tell me, Ms. Fisher and Mr. Blum: who do I sue?
Who do I sue for the fact that my father, despite being the first African-American trusted to fly a jet in the Air Force, had to move his family to Alaska in the 1960s for a chance at professional advancement—because the best place to provide a future for his children was 2,500 miles from the rest of the United States?
Who do I sue for the fact that two of my high school relationships ended when the boy’s parents found out their son was dating a black girl and decided—without even having met me—that I was not the right kind of girl for their son? Yes, twice. That was not so helpful for a young woman’s self esteem, so dear Ms. Fisher, my sister in rejection, who do I sue for that?
Who do I sue for the fact that, growing up in Alaska, we didn’t hear a whole lot about government and university feeder programs for college and grad school; and that only after I finished my degrees and started working at elite universities did I learn about flagship scholarship programs like Truman, Pickering, PPIA, etc? The same unfathomable world that denied you, Ms. Fisher, your inalienable right to attend UT Austin also neglected to hand these particular scholarships to me—so who, exactly, do I sue?
Who do I sue for the high school classmates who grumbled about “reverse racism” for the scholarships I did receive? No matter that I graduated second in my class; apparently I didn’t really deserve financial support for college.
Ms. Fisher and Mr. Blum, you have opened my eyes to the outrageous iniquities that have been visited upon your people for tens of years under affirmative action. I understand now that by accepting those scholarships, I unwittingly entangled myself in a system designed to audaciously counteract the effects of centuries of slavery and discrimination.
But I still have so many questions. Please tell me:
Who do I sue for all the time and money I wasted on chemical relaxers to smooth out my kinky curls because “professional” hair was “white” hair?
Who do I sue for having to worry that my darker-skinned brother will someday get shot for “wrong place, wrong color”?
Who do I sue for the fact that our country’s gains in equality are being turned back by conservative members of the Supreme Court who have chosen to eviscerate the Voting Rights Act, pontificate on the inherent deficiency of African-American students, and ignore the legacy of social and economic inequality that affirmative action was enacted to combat?
I ask you, Abigail Fisher and Edward Blum, where’s my attorney? Who am I supposed to sue for all that?
Tara Campbell is a person of color, yet had the temerity to accept admission to, and complete, a BA in English and an MA in German before taking a white person’s spot in an 18-year career in international education and admissions.