In 2008, Abigail Fisher, like many high school seniors, was rejected from her top college choice. Unlike most high school seniors, she responded by claiming she was discriminated against for being white, challenging the affirmative action policies of the University of Texas at Austin, in court. Fisher lost her case when the Supreme Court upheld UT Austin’s policies of considering race as one component of admissions considerations, but just one year after the ruling, affirmative action policies that aim to level the playing field are under threat again.
Donald Trump’s justice department intends to investigate and sue universities “deemed to discriminate against white applicants,” according to a document released by the New York Times on August 1. The project will not be run out of the U.S. Department of Education, which generally handles campus racial discrimination issues, but rather the Department of Justice’s front office, which is stacked with Trump’s political appointees. With this intention to direct energy and resources into undermining a Supreme Court decision, Trump continues to pander to the white fragility and insecurities that put him in the White House.
It’s easy to dismiss cases like Abigail Fisher’s as small and unimportant by focusing on her individual character flaws, but her case is representative of institutionalized white supremacy. Her case, which took years to conclude, was funded by Edward Blum, who actively searched for a white student to challenge affirmative action laws. He has orchestrated lawsuit after lawsuit challenging policies achieved by the Civil Rights Movement such as equal voting rights in his push for a “color-blind society.” White supremacy is ingrained in our institutions, including that of higher education, and the powerful continue to push for policies that intentionally and actively disadvantage people of color.
Abigail Fisher’s mediocre grades are in all likelihood what kept her from admission to UT Austin, but many white students are admitted to top universities on the basis of their families’ success and class. Schools like Trump’s alma mater, the University of Pennsylvania, consider legacy as one factor of admission. Legacies are more than 45 percent more likely to be admitted to selective universities, so it’s certainly no coincidence that three of Trump’s children also were admitted to and attended the University of Pennsylvania. An Ivy League vice president of philanthropy vowed to look very closely at the application of a young woman whose father endowed a scholarship at $1 million, and the applicant was admitted. The admissions decisions of competitive universities have never been based solely on merit, especially for families like Trump’s.
But for some reason, Trump is not interested in addressing the forms of affirmative action that benefit white wealthy students. He is concerned that applicants of color may have unfair admission advantages, and not the fact that the percentage of UC Berkeley students who are Black dropped from 8 percent in 2006 to just 3 percent after the university stopped considering race. (Low enrollment of Black students at UC Berkeley is not due to a lack of unqualified applicants; 58 percent of Black students reject admission to UC Berkeley, largely because they feel isolated and unwelcome.) A 2009 Princeton study found that white students have an advantage over Asian students. The people who are quick to support outlawing consideration of race in admissions often fail to advocate for dismantling the systems of oppression that create inequity.
The Supreme Court ruled that a diverse student body has educational benefits that justify the use of race as an admissions consideration in a holistic evaluation while rejecting racial quotas. Applicants are more than their grades and GPA, and campuses are enriched by a student body with a diversity of backgrounds and experiences. If public universities such as UC Berkeley are to serve a public mission, then addressing racism should start on campus.
Getting into college and succeeding after arrival is more difficult and competitive than ever, and every person, regardless of race or class, deserves a quality education. But the color-blind society promoted by people like Blum and Trump has never existed, and youth of color continue to face disproportionate barriers to education and opportunity. The Department of Justice should abandon its intention to punish universities for mitigating the challenges that students of color face and instead address the myriad of real injustices that exist in the country.