The University Of Texas At Austin Has Race Problems, But Affirmative Action Ain’t One

October 11th, 2012 | 3 comments | Posted by Jen

Two big stories involving the University of Texas at Austin emerged in the past week, and both of them center around race. The first is about a series of incidents that happened between June and September, in which black and Asian students at UT were “bleach-bombed,” i.e. hit with bleach-filled balloons, near campus. The attacks sparked a protest march last Tuesday, and both the campus and Austin police are currently investigating. The second is about a case that was brought before the Supreme Court Wednesday by Abigail Fisher, a 22 year-old recent graduate of LSU, who’s suing UT because she believes she was denied admission four years ago due to the school’s affirmative-action admissions policy, and because she is white.

Abigail Fisher, Reject

Texas state law requires its public colleges and universities to automatically admit Texas applicants if they’ve graduated in the top ten percent of their class, which Fisher did not. Roughly three-quarters of Texas applicants are admitted under this Top Ten program. In 2008, the year Fisher would have matriculated if she had been accepted, 81 percent of all incoming freshmen enrolled under it. The remaining in-state and out-of-state applicants who do not get in under this program are, according to the NY Times, “considered under standards that take account of academic achievement and other factors, including race and ethnicity.”

Fisher’s lawyers are arguing that the race-neutral Top Ten program at UT creates enough ethnic and racial diversity alone.  According to the AP, however, during a period in the 90′s when UT wasn’t practicing affirmative action, “diversity numbers plummeted.” The university is arguing that it needs to maintain its affirmative action program in order to achieve a “critical mass” of diversity. UT’s director of admissions, Dr. Kedra Ishop, told the Times that diversity “helps students overcome biases and make contributions to a diverse society,” adding, “The role of U.T. Austin is to provide leadership to the state.”

In comments following arguments Wednesday, Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Antonin Scalia sounded skeptical of the university’s diversity goals. Roberts wondered what the definition of “critical mass” of diversity is, saying, “I’m hearing a lot about what it’s not. I would like to know what it is.” Scalia, to the surprise of no one, appeared openly contemptuous of the idea:

“How do they figure out that particular classes don’t have enough [diversity]? What, somebody walks in the room and looks them over to see who looks Asian, who looks black, who looks Hispanic? Is that how it’s done?”

Good question, Justice Scalia! How IS it done? How do you gauge when a university–and not just any university, but the richest public university in the country, and third-richest university overall, behind Harvard and Yale–has achieved “enough” diversity?

This brings us back to the first story about race at the University of Texas making headlines this week. If reaching a “critical mass” of diversity “helps students overcome biases,” and UT has already reached that goal, as Abigail Fisher maintains, would black and Asian students still be getting bleach-bombed?

For those who might be inclined to think that the bleach-bombing incidents at the University of Texas are isolated, consider these other events that have all occurred within the last year at the school, making both national and international headlines:

  • NOVEMBER 2011

    After an Idaho man fires a semi-automatic rifle at the White House, Lauren Pierce, then-president of the UT College Republicans, tweets that shooting Obama is “tempting.”

    While this incident wasn’t, strictly speaking, racist, it’s important to note that people who have been caught calling for Obama’s assassination have very often been associated with racism and white supremacy (see here, here, and here). After receiving public criticism, Pierce later deletes her tweet and is called upon to resign, though she does not. Instead, elections are held, and the UT College Republicans VP, Cassie Wright, is named the new president.

  • DECEMBER 2011

    Newly-elected UT College Republicans president Wright broadcasts this racist tweet:

    Also in December, Wright takes to another social media site to broadcast stereotypes about another ethnic group, this time, Asians:

  • MARCH 2012

    The Daily Texan, UT’s student paper, one of the largest college newspapers in the country and supposedly the oldest in the South, publishes a Trayvon Martin cartoon drawn by a student that calls Martin “colored” and intimates news outlets trying to paint the unarmed and shot-dead teen as “innocent” are simply practicing yellow journalism:

    After inexplicably standing by the cartoon for two days, which Gawker dubbed “The Most Racist Trayvon Martin Cartoon,” the editorial staff at The Daily Texan eventually pulls it and fires the cartoonist. According to HuffPo, The Daily Texan’s editor-in-chief, Viviana Aldous, admits to a crowd protesting the paper, some holding signs that read, “The Daily Texan: Racist Since 1900,” that they hadn’t “made enough of an effort to reach out to the community for more diverse coverage.”


    Four UT students–black and Asian–are allegedly attacked in separate incidents, while walking near West Campus apartments, with balloons filled with bleach. It’s reported that on one occasion, a racial slur was yelled at the victim before the bleach-bombing occurred.

  • SEPTEMBER 2012

    Two of UT’s oldest sororities, Zeta Tau Alpha–of which President Lyndon Johnson’s daughter, Lynda Bird, was a member–and the Theta Zeta chapter of Delta Delta Delta, one of the world’s largest sororities, throw their annual “Zeta-Tri Delt Fiesta Party,” in which hundreds of partygoers come dressed in what the Burnt Orange Report calls “stereotypical Mexican garb.” Here are a few pictures of the Tri Delts from the event:

    Yes, kind of tame. (And, wow, those teeth! Any dentist would approve!) Then there are these guys, who showed up to the same party like this:

    The Burnt Orange Report has video of more partygoers. (Picture crowds of white boys in ponchos and giant sombreros.) It should be noted that, judging by each of the sororities’ websites, both Zeta Tau Alpha and the Theta Zeta chapter of Delta Delta Delta appear to be largely if not all-white in membership.

It’s not just that UT is having a bad year in race relations. Over at The Root, Harvard Law professor Lani Guinier and Penda D. Hair, co-director of The Advancement Project, have documented the university’s long history of racism and exclusion of people of color, demonstrating how the school is still a long way from reaching any sort of “critical mass” of diversity. Guinier and Hair write:

Today there are parts of the campus, including the West Mall, where black students, speaking to the university’s Task Force on Racial Respect and Fairness, have reported feeling that they are “not welcome” and “should keep out.” A Latina in her junior year reported in 2012: “It’s hard for me to speak up in class when it’s almost all white students around me.” A black student noted: “I have been the only black in a class of 100 … I’ve been overlooked during office hours … and I’ve been called ‘the n-word’ while walking on … [campus].” At UT, the past is still very much present.

The scary thing about the right-wing-leaning, anti-affirmative action Supreme Court possibly ruling in favor of Abigail Fisher in Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin isn’t just how that ruling will affect racism on that campus or in Texas alone, but how it will affect racism on all college campuses that aren’t held or don’t have to hold themselves to achieving some kind of diversity standard.

Put it this way, if a prominent school like the University of Texas, which has a hand in shaping many of tomorrow’s leaders, already has this many race issues when it’s trying to achieve diversity and tolerance, what happens when the highest court in the country tells it to stop trying?

[NYT: Race and College Admissions, Facing a New Test by Justices]
[HuffPo: Fisher v. University of Texas: Supreme Court Takes Up Affirmative Action]

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3 Responses to “The University Of Texas At Austin Has Race Problems, But Affirmative Action Ain’t One”

  1. vancity_canuck says:

    The US should just go with race-blind admissions like Canadian Universities.

    It’s more fun here. It’s better that way. The TRUE north strong and free!

    “We find the trend toward race-based admission policies in some American schools deplorable, as do many of our readers. Our article notes that Canadian universities select students regardless of race or creed. That, in our view, is the best and only acceptable approach: merit should be the sole criteria for entrance to higher education in Canada, and universities should always give preference to our best and brightest regardless of cultural background.”

  2. Snake Stabler says:

    I say we get rid of race based admissions and legacy admissions. Let’s have a true meritocracy when it comes to higher education. Affirmative action is a euphemism for mediocrity in higher education and the work place. Whatever happened to something called good old merit? Caltech, one of the top universities in the world, got rid of affirmative action and legacy admissions a few years back. You know what happened? The average test scores and GPA shot up at the university. Imagine that, a university using strictly merit to accept students to its university. Maybe other universities in America should follow suit.

  3. [...] of this case, and it is complex, but I am curious about the sense of entitlement that makes her so certain that it is the fault of others that she did not get [...]

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