The Supreme Court re-hears Abigail Fisher’s case against the University of Texas today. Fisher, who is a white woman, claims that she was denied admission to UT because of her race. If the High Court rules in her favor, Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin will shake affirmative-action policy to its core and could knock the 14th Amendment askew in the process.
To recap: Fisher applied to the University of Texas, Austin, twice, once through its fall 2008 cycle and again through a provisional summer program. According to court documents, African American and Hispanic applicants accounted for just five of the students with lower scores and grades than Fisher who were offered provisional admission to UT through the summer program. The other 42 arguably under-qualified students were white.*
The original suit makes no mention of the 42 white students. Conversely, according to court documents, 168 applicants of color who had higher scores than Fisher were not admitted to UT.
What has intrigued me most about Fisher’s case is her earnest sense of self-righteousness even in the face of these damning facts. “There were people in my class with lower grades and who weren’t in all of the activities I was in who were being accepted into UT,” Fisher remarks in a promo video for the case. “And the only difference between us was the color of our skin.”
In 2013, the Supreme Court kicked Fisher’s case back to the Fifth Circuit court, vacating the lower court’s ruling in favor of UT’s race-conscious admissions policy because it “did not apply the correct standard of strict scrutiny.” In her statements to the press, Fisher exuded the nobility of a martyr: “I am grateful to the justices for moving the nation closer to the day when a student’s race isn’t used at all in college admissions.”
If we take Fisher’s claim to be more than a cynical ploy in the decades-long campaign to erode affirmative action, then it forces the question, How can she truly feel like a victim of racism?
Since its inception, contemporary affirmative-action policy has attracted the attention of psychologists. Beginning in the 1970s, Americans’ attitudes toward affirmative action have been studied as not just a political phenomenon but a psychological one as well. The myth of the unworthy applicant is pervasive, and it both impacts the way white people—specifically men—think about themselves and the mental health of people of color.
In one 2001 study, researchers interviewed nearly 200 employed white men in public places in Chicago and New York City. They found that thoughts about affirmative action served to justify preexisting opinions of coworkers. The lower the opinion the men held about a coworker, the more they regarded affirmative action as the reason why the coworker was hired.