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Should race be weighed in admissions? 'Colorblindness' doesn't match with real world

CAAS faculty, Eric Tang, writes in The Statesman

Posted: March 19, 2012

Should race be weighed in admissions? 'Colorblindness' doesn't match with real world

Published Sunday, March 18, 2012 at http://www.statesman.com/opinion/should-race-be-weighed-in-admissions-colorblindness-doesnt-2246113.html

Eric Tang, Local Contributor

At stake in the upcoming Supreme Court ruling on Fisher v. the University of Texas is our ability to speak honestly about the facts of racial inequality in the United States.

Here's a sampling of these facts. According to Michelle Alexander's best-selling book, "The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness," there are more black men under correctional control today than were enslaved in 1850.

According to Amnesty International, barriers to adequate prenatal care in the United States has lead to a maternal death rate greater than in 40 other countries, including all industrialized nations. A vastly disproportionate number of those dying are black women.

According to the Journal of the American Medical Association, the infant mortality rate among blacks is alarmingly on the rise; it is twice that of the general population and three times that of whites, a fact attributed primarily to a long history of racial discrimination in health care. Economic and educational status does not control for the deadly disparity — college- and graduate school-educated black mothers have a higher infant mortality rate than white moms who didn't finish high school.

Lest we believe that these dire facts are reserved for the hardcore urban poor, let us also consider the vast race-wealth gap in the United States: Even middle class blacks who earn relatively high incomes have on average a net worth that is 20 times less that of whites (the largest disparity in nearly 40 years), making them increasingly more vulnerable to all of the above. This is "colorblind" America.

I can already sense the fatigue settling in. Haven't we heard this depressing news before? Many believe that these breathtaking statistics are self-inflicted — the result of failure to work hard, particularly in school. But a recent study examining disciplinary action in Texas schools proves otherwise. Beginning in 2000, disciplinary data was collected on every seventh grader in the state — approximately 1 million students. Researchers found that more than 60 percent have been expelled or suspended, and black students were overwhelmingly targeted for removal. Black female students were more than twice as likely to be suspended or expelled than white females for the same offense.

Of those who were disciplined repeatedly, half ended up in juvenile detention facilities. The report claims that in every instance, a sole teacher or administrator called the shots. Individual discrimination continues to have an impact on the educational and life chances of black students in Texas.

What does this have to do with Fisher v. the University of Texas? Isn't the issue whether Abigail Fisher, a white applicant who was denied entry to UT's freshman class in 2008, was the victim of a policy that gave unfair preference to black and Latino students? Fisher argues that this is equivalent to punishing whites for being white.

For this logic to hold, however, discussion of how Fisher might be the beneficiary of race preferences must first be taken off the table. Moreover, that such preferences manifest as concrete and quantifiable barriers for blacks must also be rendered irrelevant. Did Fisher, a graduate of Sugar Land High School, benefit from a public educational system that is twice as likely to suspend a black female student as her white counterpart for the same offense, thus setting off a chain of inequitable events up to and including the college application process?

The good news for opponents of affirmative action is that they aren't burdened with such questions.

Since the Supreme Court ruling on Regents of the University of California v. Bakke in 1978, schools have been prohibited from remedying racial injustice by delimiting the unearned advantages whites accrue in society. According to Bakke, schools can only use race as one of many plus factors in order to diversify the student body.

The high court revisited this point when it ruled on Grutter v. Bollinger in 2003, reaffirming that race can only be used for diversity goals, but only in a narrowly tailored way and only after race-neutral factors have been considered first.

Now, Fisher comes along to finish the job. Opponents of affirmative action want to eliminate the use of race under any circumstances. They argue that diversity is reverse racism, and that universities should not sacrifice academic excellence for the sake of granting entry to the historically oppressed ("lowering the bar" is a favorite catch phrase). They've reduced affirmative action to the narrowest terms of the debate in order to achieve a greater objective: to foreclose an honest discussion on how to redress unearned white advantages and unrelenting racial barriers.

Keep in mind that those who are the driving force behind Fisher have little-to-no stake in higher education. They are not classroom educators nor administrators, but ideologues who have waged a decades-long battle to neutralize the ability of public institutions to deliver on racial equality by declaring any invocation of race unconstitutional. Their goal is not to deny the existence of racial inequality, but to deny effective efforts at remedying it.

If the Supreme Court rules in their favor, we risk much more than diversity at the public university.

We risk becoming a society that clings to colorblindness while it witnesses the unfolding of the most savage inequalities since Jim Crow.

Tang is an assistant professor of African and African Diaspora Studies at the University of Texas at Austin Department at Center for Asian American Studies. The opinions expressed here are those of the writer and not UT.

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