Déjà Vu All Over Again: The Damaging Affirmative Action Conversation

Published dec. 15, 2015

In 1992, I was a first-year law student at the University of Texas School of Law. Cheryl Hopwood, a white woman, sued the law school because she wasn't accepted as a student that year. She argued that she would have been accepted if it weren't for the blacks and Latino/a students being enrolled under affirmative action. She won her lawsuit. The approximately 50 of us (out of 300) who were black and Hispanic were on display for three years, having to defend our place in the law school despite our scores, grades, and achievements. The 250 white students were assumed to have earned their place there through merit.

Fast forward to 2015 and the Supreme Court is again hearing a case brought by a white woman arguing that she was not accepted into the UT because admissions favors minorities. Justice Scalia's recent comments that blacks may be set back by attending UT and would be better off at "slower track" schools is just a rehashing of Justice Thomas' statements the last time minorities were accused of taking a white woman's spot at UT. Justice Thomas' statements were not true about me or the black and Latino/a students at the law school during Hopwood; and Scalia's concern that today's black and Latino/a UT students are being set back is also wrong.

This is a damaging conversation. Affirmative action, and the black and brown students allegedly benefiting without merit from these policies, are being blamed for bringing down the quality of institutions or leading to overloaded remedial courses. But there is no correlation between affirmative action policies and remediation in higher education. In fact, very few higher education institutions have affirmative action policies, and most institutions of higher education have some form of remedial courses (even if they do not use that term in the course catalogue). The constant correlation of black and brown in the discussion of underprepared also obscures the fact that white students—also poor, also first-generation college-goers—are in the category of underprepared as well. It also makes it easier for critics to target students instead of the system.  

We should be instrumental in shifting the dialogue. Professor Paul Thomas' blog is a good start. The challenge to address, as Professor Thomas pointed out, is the challenge of students being underprepared and in higher education—not about students being black and in higher education. 

The challenge to address is the challenge of students being underprepared and in higher education—not about students being black and in higher education. 

I'll be honest. My feelings were often hurt at UT, but the experience certainly did not harm me. I proudly work for an organization that believes in the power of education to transform opportunity for students who fall behind in high school or are not "college ready." We help young people get Back on Track and restructure high schools so young people have access to Early College Designs and a pathway out of poverty. We advance strategies to put Students at the Center of learning and to accelerate opportunities for student success.  

To the students of color at UT—carry on! You'll graduate and get your dream job(s), just like I did. Just like my friends and peers did. It's déjà vu all over again!