Years ago, I helped Abigail Fishers get into college in Texas. That was my job: I “tutored” entitled teenagers through the application process. Specifically, and ominously for my later life, I taught them to write a convincing personal essay—a task that generally requires identifying some insight, usually gained over some period of growth. And growth often depends on hardship, a thing that none of these 18-year-olds had experienced in a structural sense over the course of their white young lives. Because of the significant disconnect involved in this premise, I always ended up rewriting their essays in the end.
My students were white, and without exception. Their parents were paying me $450 per session, and this was Houston; of course they were white. The means were the essays, and the end was the assurance that the benefits of whiteness would continue to vest themselves even as Texas demographics and UT admissions practices began to put their lovely families in a bind.
Texas parents—as ability permits, and like parents throughout the country—pay good money to live in good school zones. These schools are “good” in a double and mutually reinforcing sense: they are academically vibrant, supportive, and competitive; they also draw from a wealthy population, which means most of the students are white. As Abigail Fisher’s case, a.k.a. Becky With the Bad Grades v. UT Austin, reminded us: the top 7 percent (formerly 10 percent) at all Texas high schools get admitted to UT’s flagship campus automatically. This means that a second-rate student at a first-rate school, a.k.a. an Abigail Fisher, does not automatically get in. This means that a portion of white kids don’t get the educational success those property taxes were supposed to pay for. The 10 percent policy is implicit discrimination against “good schools,” the party line goes.
Most of the UT student body gets in through the Top 10 rule. The rest—approximately 8 percent, the year Fisher applied—are admitted through a holistic evaluation process, which takes into account things like extracurriculars, leadership, personal essays (thus the $450), and race. This is the part of UT admissions policy that Fisher’s case was challenging. Note that it was easier for her (or the anti-affirmative-action zealot who bankrolled her) to take a margin of UT admissions to the Supreme Court than to envision a version of justice in which she had, along with 92 percent of admitted students, straight-up earned her way in.
Because UT Austin is a terrific place—the rare kind of school that radiates both capaciousness and prestige—it is the top choice for many Texas high school students, and its unique admissions policy carries a lot of weight. It is discussed ad nauseam during application season; however, the reasoning behind this policy—behind the 10 percent rule, behind affirmative action—is not. I figured that part out only after I left the state and saw how much about my previous surroundings had been determined by the fact that rich white people can still game the system simply by living—that they are still reaping the benefits of centuries of preferential access to everything that sets a person up for success.
Today, certain measures have been enacted to level the playing field. But, as the Abigails among us can’t seem to admit, the mere existence of these measures does not mean that the need for them has expired. White people remain uniquely able, in a monetary sense, to game the system. For a summer, at $150 an hour, I was paid to help.
And I did. The kids were sweet, and I knew how to elicit and identify whatever topic would make their voice speed up when they talked about it. We wrote about canoes capsizing at summer camp, about football injuries, about girlfriends freezing us out at youth group. For the most part, they got in where they wanted, and I worked a leisurely three hours a day, helping them cheat.
I’ve had a lot of relatively demeaning jobs in my life. I never thought I deserved better than any of them—first because I didn’t, and second, because a sense of entitlement means nothing without capital to back it up. I’ve waitressed in short shorts and cowboy boots. I’ve street-canvassed for recycling. When I was 16, I was paid minimum wage to participate in a reality TV show in Puerto Rico that included challenges like eating mayonnaise on camera with my hands tied behind my back.
This job—writing college essays for Abigail Fishers—was the only job I have ever been truly ashamed of, and I am so ashamed of it now that it hurts. I did it, too, for a particularly embarrassing reason: because it paid so well that I could keep my earning hours to a minimum, and for four months spend most of my time writing fiction so I could get into an MFA program. Once I did get in, my boyfriend started looking at me reproachfully when he came home from work and saw me sending invoices. “Stop doing this,” he said flatly, in the late afternoon one day.
The first time Abigail Fisher filed a Supreme Court case because she didn’t get into college, she was 18 and reaching. She had a 3.59 GPA, an 1180 SAT score. She had not cracked her high school’s top 10 percent, and so, by the book, she did not qualify for guaranteed admission to UT. But she deserved admission nonetheless, she believed, and primarily—it appears—because she wanted it. She had “dreamt of going to UT ever since the second grade,” she said, in a 2012 video. Her dad had gone there, and so had her sister, and so had “tons” of friends and family. “It was a tradition I wanted to continue,” she said. For Fisher, basic competence and a powerful sense of unexamined entitlement was admissions criteria enough.
Fisher’s temperament—this exact sort of greedy placidity—made her an ideal figurehead for Edward Blum, the University of Texas graduate (’73, hook ’em!) who is bankrolling her case. Blum, who is white, runs an organization called the Project on Fair Representation, which takes on the noble work of arranging legal representation to fight race-based policies aimed at combating inequity. Blum took the underlying, incorrect instinct that is latent in people like Fisher and turned it into the basis of a court case: Fisher went from a tautological belief (“I deserve to be admitted because I deserve to be admitted”) to a frankly insane one—that she deserved admission because she’d been discriminated against, and specifically, discriminated against for being white.
From the above YouTube video:
There were people in my class with lower grades who weren’t in all the activities I was in, who were being accepted into UT, and the only other difference between us was the color of our skin. [...] I was taught from the time I was a little girl that any kind of discrimination was wrong. For an institution of higher learning to act this way makes no sense to me. What kind of example does it set for others? [...] A good start to stopping discrimination would be getting rid of the boxes on applications—male, female, race, whatever.
This is that familiar type of “I don’t care whether you’re black, white, blue or spotted” language that’s generally associated with the type of person who has only ever thought of race as something (1) bad that (2) belongs to other people, and has just now realized that her own race can be named. It is also, essentially, what Justice Roberts wrote in 2007, in his claim that the days of race being constitutionally relevant are behind us: “The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.”
But, while Fisher’s Supreme Court case was about race, her actual admissions case was barely. The fact of the matter was that she simply did not have the grades. Nikole Hannah-Jones wrote in ProPublica in 2013: “University officials claim in court filings that even if Fisher received points for her race and every other personal achievement factor, the letter she received in the mail still would have said no.”
It’s true that the university, for whatever reason, offered provisional admission to some students with lower test scores and grades than Fisher. Five of those students were black or Latino. Forty-two were white.
Neither Fisher nor Blum mentioned those 42 applicants in interviews. Nor did they acknowledge the 168 black and Latino students with grades as good as or better than Fisher’s who were also denied entry into the university that year. Also left unsaid is the fact that Fisher turned down a standard UT offer under which she could have gone to the university her sophomore year if she earned a 3.2 GPA at another Texas university school in her freshman year.
That last detail, to me—like all of this—feels damning and familiar. Again: Fisher could have gone to UT Austin if she’d just waited out a year at another UT campus. But to a certain type of person in Texas, this is a possibility as shameful as rehab. It’s for people who have not maintained the advantage that was given them, or for people who never had that advantage in the first place. Trashy people, lots of non-whites. There’s no Greek scene to speak of at UT Permian Basin or what have you, anyway.
UT Permian Basin, by the way, is 43 percent Hispanic, where UT Austin is 22 percent Hispanic; UT Dallas is 24 percent international, where UT Austin is 5 percent international; UT Arlington is 15 percent black, where UT Austin is 5 percent black. There is a reason that Fisher didn’t want to go elsewhere and transfer back in. Texas is segregated; its schools are segregated; this segregation extends to the UT system. Those other schools are worse, academically, than Austin, and they are way less full of white people, and those two facts are one and the same.
And so the UT Austin admissions policy is essential. It’s not perfect—the 10 percent rule is unduly tough on kids in small-town public schools who graduate in a class of 20, for example—but it nonetheless does a good job of adding some structural decency to a public educational system that functions quite well for wealthy white people and much worse for everyone else. The school knows from recent experience that, if you remove the ability to correct for and consider structural inequality, you will immediately increase it: in 1996, the ability to take race into account in Texas state school admissions was removed by Hopwood v. Texas, and black admissions to UT Austin fell by 40 percent. (Hopwood was effectively overturned by the Supreme Court’s Michigan decision in 2003.)
The 10 percent rule was created as a correction after Hopwood, and it worked, but only to a point. Minority admissions increased, and then they stopped increasing. The 10 percent rule, remember, is “race-neutral.” As a diversity practice, it is necessarily incomplete. In a Supreme Court ruling on UC Davis in 1971, Justice Blackmun wrote:
I suspect that it would be impossible to arrange an affirmative action program in a racially neutral way and have it successful. To ask that this be so is to demand the impossible. In order to get beyond racism, we must first take account of race. There is no other way. And in order to treat some persons equally, we must treat them differently. We cannot—we dare not—let the Equal Protection Clause perpetuate racial supremacy.
This is why, after the 2003 Supreme Court ruling, UT started considering race for the students admitted outside the top 10 percent. And, because so many of the automatically admitted students go elsewhere, this policy affects more of the matriculating population than it does the population the school admits. NPR wrote: “In 2008 when Fisher applied, 20 percent of the incoming class was admitted under the ‘holistic’ admission plan that could consider race. According to the university, that 20 percent is essential to the student body as a whole.”
How can Abigail Fisher and her dream school hold such diametrically opposed opinions? The difference comes down to a very old question about whether a person is obligated to do anything to right an injustice that they did not personally commit. I would argue, as you might expect, that we are obligated to do so. Nikole Hannah-Jones put it elegantly for the New York Times Magazine: “True integration, true equality, requires a surrendering of advantage,” she wrote.
The trouble is that it is often up to white people to demonstrate this, because they have so much more advantage to surrender; the further trouble is that there are so many Abigail Fishers out there, who not only refuse to surrender advantage but refuse to understand that they have it in the first place, who often then—magnificently—go so far as to say they are being disadvantaged whenever their race is accounted for and named.
I always forget, too, that there’s a line of argument, as referenced by Alito in Becky v. UT Austin, contending that race-based admissions policies hurt Asian students. I was aware of this idea in high school, even as people around me told me (not that I asked) that affirmative action would get me in everywhere I applied. And I didn’t get in everywhere; I got rejected by Harvard, for example—a school that has recently been sued by Asian-American students for “illegally” capping Asian-American admissions. That lawsuit was funded by none other than Edward Blum, and tellingly, it was disowned by many Asian students on campus. Maybe they didn’t want to be associated with insecure white racists. Maybe they, like me, were fine with the hypothetical idea of losing out due to a quota that was never about them. And there, dear Abby, is the real way non-whiteness gives you the advantage: you gain the moral clarity that comes from having less to lose.
To be against affirmative action, you have to be some combination of dumb, selfish, or deeply indoctrinated. (A personal favorite of mine is the “I don’t want black students hearing [exclusively from people like me] that they only got in because of affirmative action” argument.) What Abigail Fisher was fighting against is the idea that a public college might want to note that a student is black or Hispanic in Texas, a state where the governor was actively opposed to desegregation during the civil rights movement, where the structure of financing public school systems was ruled racially discriminatory by a State Supreme Court decision as late as 1989. She was fighting against the idea that a college might then extrapolate the logical conclusion that, perhaps, that black or Hispanic kid, almost surely coming from a worse school district than the white person whose application showed the same academic statistics, might have possibly had to work a little bit harder than her equivalent Abigail Fisher.
That, to Abigail Fisher—because she worked hard and is a nice white person whose parents have always had burnt-orange Longhorn pot holders hanging on the grill in their nice neighborhood with nice schools made possible by nice FHA policies that made possible a life in 2016 in which “diversity” could seem like a value that would hurt white people rather than assuage whatever it is in their soul that makes them this way—is wrong. Some proof that American discrimination is still quite high-functioning is available in the fact that Abigail Fisher went to the Supreme Court with an idea of the concept that centrally applied to her.
I have heard so many Abigails tell me that UT’s policy is reverse racism. I sat across from white girls in oversized T-shirts, white boys in basketball shorts, sweet kids with good hearts and sleep still in their eyes, who told me—either very nicely or very snidely, never anything in between—that it was harder for white people to get into college now than anyone else, because of affirmative action. They said this as their parents wrote me $450 checks to “edit” their essays. They said this to me, the living proof that there is still so much to be compensated for—the minority literally paid to help get them into school.
That 1989 Texas State Supreme Court decision, Edgewood v. Kirby, gave rise to legislation that was informally called the Robin Hood plan, in which some property tax revenue from wealthy, white school districts would be redistributed to poorer, non-white school districts. (That plan was revised in 2005, to our detriment.) And at the time I was writing essays for Abigail Fishers, this scheme—a Robin Hood scenario—is sometimes how I thought about what I was doing. I was fleecing the rich, and giving to the poor, by which I meant myself, fresh out of Peace Corps with an empty bank account. I had tried to do good and had lost my understanding of what good was; I deserved to get away with something, I think I had come to believe.
It took me until some time later to realize what is so obvious to me now, why my boyfriend hated my job so much, which was that I was the one letting the Abigails get away with everything. That I was feeding and affirming and making possible the entitlement of mediocre white high schoolers, many of whom believed themselves to be facing structural discrimination, and needed to hire a ghostwriter to stay on top. Luckily, they could afford to. Luckily, I liked them when they weren’t talking about affirmative action. Luckily, we all made out just fine in the end.
We were all lucky, weren’t we? In 2005, I applied to college—not in the Philippines or Canada, where my parents had gone, but in America. I was salutatorian at my high school; I had perfect SATs. I was a cheerleader, the editor of our yearbook, cast in every musical, an officer in every club. And still, when I got into colleges, I felt lucky. I never felt like I’d simply gotten what I deserved.
In fact I still don’t know what it would be like to feel automatically deserving of something, to have enough of a claim on advantage to give a fuck about giving it up. I have never had a case for any sort of admission, not even when I was a selfish high schooler, not even when it came to the 10 percent rule, because even when I opened my Texas acceptance letter I knew some Abigail Fisher would think that if anyone was coasting on race here, it was me. How the legacy of inequity took hold of me internally even as I clawed through it with a sunny disposition was not obvious to me then, or in college, or after I graduated, on a hot summer where I needed money and I couldn’t ask my parents and I felt lucky—lucky—to be helping Abigail Fishers cheat.
Illustration by Jim Cooke