The US Supreme Court is poised to review Texas' affirmative action law, which allows colleges and universities to consider race in some admissions decisions, in its upcoming term, which starts in October. The outcome of the case could have an impact on affirmative action programs at colleges and universities across the nation.
The conservative court (with likely affirmative action proponent Elana Kagan recused) seems almost certain to overturn the law, which seeks to promote diversity in the classroom. (In fact, Justice Antonin Scalia's entire raison d'être on the Court has been overturning affirmative action---ironically, given that President Reagan appointed him, in part, because he would be the Court's first Italian-American.)
The case, Fisher v. University of Texas , was brought by a girl in Sugar Land, Texas, who claims that she was denied admission to the University of Texas because she is white. An earlier affirmative-action program at UT was shut down because it made race an explicit factor in admissions; the current system, the "top ten percent rule," automatically admits the top ten percent of students in high schools across the state, regardless of race. The policy has had the effect of increasing minority admissions at UT. The plaintiff was not in her high school's top ten percent of students.
Like the plaintiff, I'm a white girl who grew up in Sugar Land and applied to (and graduated from) UT. Unlike the plaintiff, I don't kid myself that my upbringing didn't include a hell of a lot of privilege. I doubt I would have had as easy a time gaining admission to (and studying at) UT had I not benefited from a stellar public school system, a heavily involved two-parent household, tons of test prep classes, help with college applications, and plenty of time for extracurricular activities and studying.
That privilege, fundamentally, is what affirmative action is about. Well-educated, wealthy white kids start life on second base. They're more likely to be middle-class, more likely to graduate high school and college, less likely to end up in the prison system, less likely to become single parents, and more likely to have family members who can support them financially while they transition to adulthood. Affirmative action is about improving the odds for those who don't have all those privileges. You have to really tie yourself in rhetorical loops to argue that the plaintiff in this case, a privileged, white girl from Sugar Land, is on the wrong end of that playing field.
Some stats about Sugar Land. Its median family income is over $113,000. Nearly 70 percent of its residents are married---far above the national average. It has the most master-planned communities in the nation. In a state that is 12 percent black and 38 percent Hispanic, Sugar Land is 5 percent black and 8 percent Hispanic. It's ranked as the fifth-safest city in the nation. Its reading test scores are 9.3 percent above the state average, and its math test scores are 14.8 percent above average. Two of its public high schools were ranked among the best schools in Texas by Texas Monthly, and among the best 1,000 schools in the US by Newsweek.
Oh, and one of those top-ranked high schools was the school the white plaintiff in the Supreme Court case attended.
I could go on, but you get the idea. White residents of places like Sugar Land make a very poor case for affirmative action: Effectively, they argue that despite having every possible advantage in life, if they don't get into the college of their choice, it's because some undeserving black or brown kid got the slot that was meant for them.
I'm not saying high school (and college) doesn't involve a certain amount of bootstrapping; you're not going to pass if you don't do the work. But compared to poorer, browner counties and cities across the state and country, Sugar Land is an enclave of privilege. Any of the privileges the plaintiff enjoys---racial privilege, educational privilege, wealth privilege, etc.---would give her an advantage over the vast majority of minority UT applicants, especially if (as is statistically likely) that applicant came from a city that was lower-income, from a poor family, from a school district with failing schools, or from a single-parent household.
Even if you don't believe that racism remains a factor in US society, it's hard to deny that privilege is a huge advantage---and it's privilege, ultimately, that affirmative action is intended to address.
P.S. If you don't believe that privilege confers an advantage in life, by the way, ask yourself why the US' two most prominent bastions of privilege, Harvard and Yale, have collectively produced 12 US presidents, including George "Born with a silver foot in his mouth" W. Bush?