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Affirmative Action and ‘Victimized’ Whites

On Wednesday the U.S. Supreme Court will once again consider the merits of affirmative action and the plight of purportedly victimized whites, ripping the scab from a deep and scarcely healed American wound.

The ever-contentious debate sparked anew by Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin is likely to overshadow recent figures showing the widening household-income gap between non-Hispanic whites and African-Americans and the stubbornly low black and Latino high-school graduation rates that persistently keep higher education out of the reach of millions. A new study from the Schott Foundation for Public Education found that just 52 percent of black and 58 percent of Latino males graduate from high school in four years, compared with 78 percent of non-Latino whites.

In 2011 the median household income of African-Americans was $32,229, compared with $55,412 for non-Hispanic whites. The median black household income dropped from 2010 by 2.7 percent, twice the percentage for non-Hispanic whites. Furthermore, the latest census figures show that 27.6 percent of all blacks lived below the official poverty threshold, nearly three times the rate for non-Hispanic whites. And while the percentage of whites living in poverty slightly declined in 2011, the percentage of blacks slightly increased.

Against this backdrop of pain, inequality, and upheaval, fear of white disenfranchisement seems oddly out of place. The cold numbers do little to illuminate the suffering of many people across the country who have the misfortune of being born into underresourced and woefully neglected school districts. Those districts remain overwhelmingly populated by blacks and Latinos. In my home state of New York, just 37 percent of black and Latino males graduate from high school in four years, a jaw-dropping figure that is rivaled only by the rate in the nation’s capital.

In New York City, the overwhelming majority of black males—72 percent—fail to graduate in four years. Seventy-two percent! Not surprisingly, the city’s school system is rigidly segregated, and as the Schott study shows, the states with the highest black and Latino male-graduation rates are the ones where those students are not relegated to underresourced, mostly black and Latino schools. But then again, the U.S. Supreme Court reached a similar conclusion in 1954, when in Brown v. Board of Education it declared separate but allegedly equal unconstitutional.

“These graduation rates are not indicative of a character flaw in the young men,” says John H. Jackson, president and chief executive of the Schott Foundation, in a press release, “but rather evidence of an unconscionable level of willful neglect, unequal resource allocation by federal, state, and local entities, and the indifference of too many elected and community leaders.”

Still, in the face of gaping inequality, African-Americans and Latinos can once again serve as the convenient scapegoats for individual failings. Had Abigail Noel Fisher finished in the top 10 percent of her high-school class, she would, as a Texas resident, have been automatically admitted to one of the state’s public colleges or universities. Because she did not, she had to compete for one of the remaining open seats. In failing to win one of those, she found an easy target: the growing number of minority students living in the state who were admitted to the university under a plan for the remaining open seats that considers race as one factor among many, including leadership, geography, socioeconomic background, and special talents.

The university’s cohesive approach is endorsed by many of the nation’s leading institutions of higher learning, including Brown, Columbia, Cornell, Dartmouth, Duke, Harvard, Johns Hopkins, Princeton, Stanford, Vanderbilt, and Yale Universities, the Universities of Chicago and Pennsylvania, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In a joint amicus brief filed in the case, the institutions supported the consideration of all aspects of an applicant’s background, including, in some instances, race and ethnicity.

“Although amici differ in many ways, they speak with one voice to the profound importance of a diverse student body—including racial diversity—for their educational missions,” the brief states. “In amici’s experience, a diverse student body adds significantly to the rigor and depth of students’ educational experience. Diversity encourages students to question their own assumptions, to test received truths, and to appreciate the spectacular complexity of the modern world.”

In Texas, where more than half of the population is nonwhite and 38 percent are Latino, the state’s diversity plan was beginning to bear fruit. From 2009 to 2010, the percentage of Latino freshmen at the University of Texas at Austin increased from 20.8 percent to 23.1 percent. Still, Latinos remain underrepresented in a state where they compose nearly 40 percent of the population. They were 17 percent of the university’s enrolled undergraduate and graduate students, compared with whites, who compose 45 percent of the state population but were 52 percent of the student body.

Since filing the lawsuit, Fisher has gone on to graduate from Louisiana State University, but perhaps not from a sense that she, as a white American, was entitled to enrollment in the state’s most selective public university. As she garners headlines, the continuing plight of the nameless, faceless black and Latino youths in broken schools will languish in the shadows, as will the collateral damage: the wasted human capital and disproportionate number who will fill the nation’s prisons and unemployment rolls. It’s been nearly six decades since they’ve had their day in court.

Pamela Newkirk is a professor of journalism at New York University.

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