Race cannot be ignored

Today the U.S. Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in in the case filed by Abigail Fisher, a white woman who alleges she was discriminated against when UT denied her admission in 2008. The eventual ruling may end all consideration of college applicants’ race. Meanwhile, this campus, not just its admissions office, remains haunted by questions about race.

Last week, 100 people marched through West Campus. The protesters, mostly black and Hispanic students, were protesting in response to several UT students’ allegations that bleach-filled balloons were hurled at them from the balconies of the surrounding high-rise apartments. The students believe the attacks were racially motivated.

Recent stories in The Daily Texan found that the majority of the Asian and white undergraduates residing off-campus live in West Campus, where the water balloon attacks are alleged to have taken place. Most Hispanic and black undergraduates live on East Riverside, where rents are lower and violent crime is three times more frequent.         

In between the high West Campus apartment buildings are the older fraternity and sorority houses, which represent a long tradition at UT. The marchers targeted their protest at these houses too. A few weeks after the bleach balloon incidents were reported, a sorority hosted — and a fraternity planned to host — fiesta-themed costume parties. The fraternity’s party was scheduled to feature a dividing line down the party room representing the U.S.-Mexico border, which guests would have to cross.

The Daily Texan’s stories about the protest, the bleach balloons and the theme parties were met with skepticism and suspicion. Many students wrote emails surmising that the bleach-filled balloon incidents were not racially motivated, but rather attacks directed at sorority girls who in annual beginning-of-the-year rush activities walk through West Campus streets in droves and are targeted by these balloons. (The practice is undeniably disgusting and horrible, regardless of who is being targeted.) Others dismissed the protest as an overreaction, a caricature of the 1960s and not evidence of real racism on campus.

But anyone observing the protester’s movement through the streets sensed tension. Some students seated on outside patios made rude gestures at the procession of the hesitant, but firmly chanting crowd, which repeated, “Don’t you hate, don’t you fear, people of color are welcome here.”  In a truck, a group of white college-aged men fixed stares at the protesters as their vehicle rode behind at less than 20 miles per hour. Uneasiness, discomfort and a sense of us-vs.-them hung in the air.

At the heart of the Fisher case is what role a student’s race plays in determining his role, if any, in a classroom. “Diversity” is a word with no universally understood meaning. Race alone is a crude way to decide what quotient of diversity any one student brings to the classroom. But the way UT considers race is holistically, or as one of many factors. UT admissions officers are aware of the applicant’s race, among their other qualities.

If the Supreme Court decides UT’s use of race is unconstitutional and the Texas Legislature takes no action, the class of 2015 will likely be entirely Top 10 Percent students. No other means of admitting students will be available.

Citing the stigma associated with race-conscious admissions, Fisher’s brief argues that when UT considers race, the cost outweighs the benefit. In fact, admission statistics show UT’s holistic review process does not admit many under-qualified black and Hispanic students, in the service of classroom diversity, as some suggest. Out of the in-state students admitted in 2011, 41 percent of students admitted through the Top 10 Percent Law were white. By comparison, 58 percent admitted through race-conscious holistic review were white. In the same class, 41 percent admitted through the Top 10 Percent Law come from households with incomes above $100,000, 61 percent admitted through race-conscious holistic review come from such households.

Our unconfirmed suspicion: UT uses holistic review to admit non-Top 10 Percent students from suburban Dallas and Houston high schools, whose high SAT scores boost the University’s national rankings. This past year, UT admitted 392 students from Plano alone. Generously, 300 of those students were admitted through the Top 10 Percent Law.

Questions about race dominate UT’s history. UT has been at the center of three deciding cases about race in admissions at the Supreme Court: Sweatt, Hopwood and now Fisher.

To argue for decades about how race factors into a student’s admission, as these cases have, but to shy away from harder questions about how her race affects her treatment once she arrives on campus is dishonest, and that deceit tethers this campus to its cyclical history of race-related incidents. We have agreed as a society to treat others fairly regardless of the color of their skin. Fisher, who graduated among the top 11 percent of her high school class, missed the magic Top 10 cutoff. Then she failed to make the holistic cut. She says her race, if not doomed her, at least disadvantaged her.

We disagree.

UT’s holistic review policy acknowledges a person’s race, but, the numbers show, in few cases is it the deciding factor. Almost all of us acknowledge a person’s race when he enters a room, even more so when he is the only black student in a classroom of 200. By suggesting race is not something to consider, Fisher’s advocates suggest it is not something others take into account. The Supreme Court should side with UT. The University should be able to consider race because UT students consider race when they look around the classroom.