Dugan: Economic privilege and affirmative action

BY JACK DUGAN | JULY 01, 2015 5:00 AM

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On Monday, in the wake of the monumental Supreme Court decision concerning same-sex marriage, higher-education affirmative action is back before the court. In 2008, Abigail Fisher, a white woman, pursued legal action against the University of Texas-Austin, the state’s flagship institution, under the allegations that her application was rejected based on her race. One year later, the courts upheld the legality of the university’s admissions system.

The Texas system accepts all those who graduate from high school in the top 10 percent of their class, and others are subject to race being considered in their applications. According to the University of Texas website, approximately 70 percent of its undergraduate students graduated in that 10th percentile of their high-school class.

Also published on the university’s website, white students are the majority, 45 percent, which could lead one to believe that perhaps the University of Texas isn’t persecuting the white population.

Conservative justices have cast the necessary four votes to review the case, leaving Justice Anthony Kennedy as the swing vote. Given his track record of never voting to uphold an affirmative-action plan, the situation for civil-rights proponents, affirmative-action advocates, and aspiring students of color everywhere looks bleak. The New York Times writes, “It would, all sides agree, reduce the number of black and Latino students at nearly every selective college and graduate school, with more Asian-American and white students gaining entrance instead.”

Aspiring students of color already face numerous socioeconomic obstacles, for it’s impossible to separate issues of class and race, and higher-education opportunities are entirely affected by one’s class or family income. According to the Texas Tribune, median income in the state for black and Latino households sits around $36,000, compared with the almost doubled median income of $62,000 for white and Asian families.

What does this entail? Economic privilege, and with said privilege comes better elementary- and high-school opportunities — even options for private schools. Economically privileged students don’t have to work during high school, allotting time for volunteer opportunities or the dedication to a more rigorous advanced-placement course load. If grades slip, families can hire a tutor.

One could think of the journey from grade school to university as a marathon. The average white student trots along in high-end running shoes, training with some of the best coaches along the way, while the average student of color treks along in hand-me-downs, carrying a 20- or 30-hour work week in their backpack like river stones. This is white privilege.

Is that to say the white student doesn’t deserve to cross that finish line? Not at all, but the athlete who made it to that same finish line with the burden of color in contemporary American society worked just as hard, if not a bit harder,

This is why a holistic approach to college admissions should not be limited, because factors outside of a college application without a doubt play a role in a student’s performance, and institutions, such as the University of Texas, seem to be helping straddle an ever-present racial divide among student privilege in the states.

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