Eliminate Race in Deciding UT Admissions? Fine, Then Let's Really Level the Field.

Let's say Abigail Noel Fisher wins her appeal now pending before the U.S. Supreme Court. Let's say a more conservative court backtracks on earlier opinions supporting the use of race as an admissions criterion at the University of Texas and tells the university to stop considering race altogether.

So, what next? In the battle for a level playing field, what other unfair barriers must be toppled? That's the goal, right? Isn't the motivation of conservatives in waging war on race-based college admissions a fairer more equitable playing field? In their view any consideration of race in college admissions is a social gerrymander, a thumb on the scales of merit. Right?

But getting rid of race as a factor will hardly level the field. C'mon. We all see that. So next in line, I would assume, will be all of the other tricks people use to shoehorn their kids into college ahead of the competition. If race can't be a leg up, then we can't allow it to be a leg down, can we?

If it's illegal even to consider race as a factor in achieving diversity, then we need to go ahead and outlaw all the other stuff that drives college admissions apart from true merit. We need to get all those other thumbs off the scale.

Does anybody even contend that we don't suffer from a brutal disparity in educational opportunity in this nation? And does any of us doubt that the huge differences in primary and secondary school education wind up being a big fat thumb on the scale? Aren't those inequalities tantamount to their own social gerrymander?

Forget about private school versus public. Maybe we'll get to that thumb in the 22nd century. Let's just start with public versus public -- the difference between the kind of hand-up a kid gets in a rich suburban district versus the slap-down the same child gets if cruel destiny causes him or her to be born into an urban public school education. Doesn't that make a huge difference? What did the baby do, in getting born, to deserve that kind of guaranteed disability?

Oh, wait. No, I hear you. You want to tell me something about "it's the parents." OK. It's the parents. Tell me again, what did the baby do, in getting born, to deserve those parents?

To hell with the baby? Really? That's how you think we build a stronger America? You want to take all the babies born into urban public school circumstances and say to hell with them? Where do you think that social policy brings us in the 22nd century?

Get one thing straight. Giving the urban student of color some points toward admission at UT does not mean that UT turns put less accomplished graduates. The university has shown again and again that all of its efforts toward diversity have raised, not lowered achievement levels.

But the fact is that there are goals other than simple test scores for our society to seek. Let's say we do wind up with this whiter college-educated population that the Fisher case envisions. The Texas Tribune recently published a guest column by Kenneth Jastrow, the former head of Temple-Inland packaging company, in which he said, "Diverse leaders are better able to understand, anticipate and penetrate diverse markets. As the world shrinks, the need for diverse leaders grows even more acute."

That quote was especially interesting to me, because of a phenomenon I think I have observed in our own politics here in Dallas. Over the years, it has been corporate leaders in national and international companies here who have tended to push the city forward on matters of race, in everything from electing our first black mayor to going after meaningful school reform.

Why? Do we think maybe they know something? And if they do, what would that be? Could it be that they get out and about more, face to face with a globe growing smaller and more diverse every day. And is it a globe that will only be more hostile to an America that still looks like a 1960s Sidney Poitier movie?

Imagine for a moment that we really do want to level the playing field, all of us, and it's not just pissed off white people trying to regain their cheat. And imagine we are prohibited from doing it by granting any points at all to minority kids for being minority.

Then we will need to level the field from the other end, by stripping away the unearned advantages of privileged birth. How? Oh, I'm sure we can figure out an algorithm. Say we take the average SAT scores from school districts all over Texas and re-weight them to cleanse them of the birth bias. A perfect score on all three segments of the SAT gives a kid a 2,400. This is easy.

If that kid comes from a rich suburban district where students regularly score 1,000 points higher than students from poor urban districts, you simply knock the rich kid's score down by that many points. Now he has a 1,400. Hey, this is a crude mechanism I propose here, and I'm sure that smarter people could come up with more sophisticated and more equitable mechanisms for leveling out the unearned birth bias.

Why bother, you ask?

Well, if nothing else, you have to go back that smaller globe and what the rest of the world sees when it shows up here at the table. Do we want them to look across the table and think, "Yeah, these are the same white yahoos we thought they were." Or would it be better for them to think, "Wow, this really is the land of opportunity. And equity."

Everything we do is a social gerrymander. Every court decision, every law passed, every presidential address is a statement of what this nation expects of itself, what it wants to be and how it intends to get there.

Let's take the Fisher plaintiffs at their word. The social gerrymander they seek is a shift toward what they think is a more equitable playing field. They want to bulldoze race-based barriers. Great. But if Fisher wins at the Supreme Court, we sure don't want to shut down the bulldozers. In fact they will have even more work to do down at the other end of the field.

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Jim Schutze has been the city columnist for the Dallas Observer since 1998. He has been a recipient of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies’ national award for best commentary and Lincoln University’s national Unity Award for writing on civil rights and racial issues. In 2011 he was admitted to the Texas Institute of Letters.
Contact: Jim Schutze