The future of affirmative action in American universities could be decided within weeks, in a Supreme Court case with Texas roots. But a new report from the investigative journalists at ProPublica suggests that the story of Abigail Noel Fisher's fight against the University of Texas ultimately has very little to do with race.
Fisher, 23 years old and very white, has been suing the University of Texas since 2008, alleging that the affirmative action process kept her out of UT Austin. The case is bankrolled by the Project on Fair Representation, the brainchild of a 60-year-old former stockbroker named Edward Blum. According to a Reuters profile, Blum sought out Fisher, persuaded her to file suit, found her an attorney, and secured thousands in funding from a few sympathetic conservative donors to make sure the case could be appealed to the highest level. (He's done the same for a dozen or so other suits, including Shelby County vs. Holder, which seeks to strike down a law requiring a few select states — Texas among them — to check with the feds before changing election rules.)
Fisher's case is currently pending before the U.S. Supreme Court, with a decision expected soon. In the meantime, ProPublica took a stroll through thousands of pages of court documents and education records and found that Fisher's public story — about being a hardworking, high-achieving student who was unfairly shut out of her dream school because of her ethnicity— has a few large holes.
Nikole Hannah-Jones writes that in 2008, the year Fisher applied, 92 percent of freshman spots in the UT system were claimed by in-state high school students who graduated in the top 10 percent of their classes. That didn't include Fisher, who finished high school in Sugar Land with a 3.59 GPA and 1180 on her SATs, according to court docs.
So Fisher and the other remaining applicants were instead evaluated based on two scores: one for her grades and test scores, and the other based on a "personal achievement index," which ProPublica explains awarded points for two required essays, as well "leadership, activities, service and 'special circumstances.' Those included socioeconomic status of the student or the student's school, coming from a home with a single parent or one where English wasn't spoken. And race."
School officials say that this is where Fisher's mediocre grades and test scores really dinged her, Hannah-Jones writes: "[E]ven 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."
And yet: the school did offer "provisional" admission to students with lower test scores and grades than Fisher. Black and brown kids, surely, right?
Wrong. Five of those "provisional" students, according to court docs, were black or Latino. The rest of them —42 in all — were white.
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As Hannah-Jones points out, neither Fisher nor her backer Blum saw fit to mention those 42 accepted white kids 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.
In an interview last month, Blum agreed Fisher's credentials and circumstances make it difficult to argue — as he and his supporters have so ardently in public — that but for her race Fisher would have been a Longhorn.
"There are some Anglo students who had lower grades than Abby who were admitted also," Blum told ProPublica. "Litigation like this is not a black and white paradigm."
Hannah-Jones also does an excellent job showing how Blum's group has used civil rights-era tactics to advance an agenda that, if successful, would drastically roll back civil rights gains in the U.S. They've chosen the right historical moment to take this case before the Supreme Court, she writes: "[A]s the Supreme Court's make-up has grown more conservative, it has taken up a steady stream of so-called reverse discrimination cases, in which white plaintiffs have argued that race-specific measures born of the civil rights movement discriminate against white Americans and violate the 14th Amendment."
Fisher, meanwhile, graduated from Lousiana State University last year. She recently took a job at an Austin finance firm. Her name appears a grand total of five times in the lengthy complaint with the Supreme Court filed on her behalf.