Last week, I asked you to tell me about your experiences of affirmative action. The Supreme Court will hear a potentially blockbuster case on Wednesday about how the University of Texas takes race into account in admissions, and I wanted to hear personal stories, from all over the spectrum, before the legal arguments begin. The amazing responses I got underscore the power of affirmative action to soothe and to enrage. This issue is the opposite of abstract: It can make all the difference in how you see the course your life has taken.
I’ll start with the anger. J.R. Constable writes that after taking the community college courses he was told were required, he tried to transfer to California State University at Fresno, only to be told by a counselor there off the record: “ ‘We can’t admit you, because we have too many white males enrolled in your major.’ ” He says, “I was enraged,” and continues:
I wish I could say that within a few weeks I got over it, but I still find myself once in a while having the thoughts that I missed a promotion because of my gender, or race. Or that because I'm white I don't have as much potential, or ability. That I was being viewed as a failure. If life is supposed to be so much easier for me, why do I have to struggle so much?
Immediately after the incident, I was at the worst of my self-loathing, I was constantly hating myself for what I was, a white man. I hated myself for what I was becoming, a bigot. Race and gender went from being a non-issue, to being the only issue. I was crushed, and I dropped out of school. I settled in to the fact that because of something that happened to me at conception, that I had no control over, that is an insignificant part of the larger sum of me, I’d been doomed to being at the bottom.
J.R. says he was rejected from Cal State in the early 2000s, after California voters passed a referendum that barred the state from considering race, sex, or ethnicity in public employment, contracting, or education. He says he was told that the school needed more minorities in his major because of a federal funding mandate, and that trumped the state law. He also says he grew up poor, taking care of his disabled mother, and that he’s sure being on the losing side of affirmative action, as he sees it, was a terrible turning point for him.
An email from a man from Austin had the same flavor. When he didn’t get into the University of Texas at Austin law school in the mid-1970s, he was told that he’d met the minimum standard for test scores and grades, “but because of affirmative action and the fact that the University was trying to increase minority enrollment, there were not enough places for me. Tough luck.” He didn’t have the money to attend another law school, since he was living and working in Austin. “I never became an attorney,” he continues. “ I don’t harbor any ill will, but I guess just regret and sadness.”
I checked on UT’s affirmative action policy in the ’70s. According to a 1994 court ruling, the law school had a separate admissions committee that considered applications from minority students and disadvantaged white students. In 1977, out of 500 applications, the committee admitted 68 minority students and three white students. So it’s true that the law school was trying to increase minority enrollment, and it’s possible that these efforts could have edged out a white student on the margin. For the man who wrote to me, that possibility is enough for a life’s worth of complicated emotion.
Robert Grant, who went to law school at the University of Mississippi in the 1990s, feels bitter about the scholarships he saw go to minority students. He’d just come out of the Air Force, the GI Bill didn’t cover graduate school, and he was working the graveyard shift at a local hotel to pay for school when he ran into a black classmate parking her fancy car. She was on scholarship; he was not. “This is justified as a remedy for past discrimination. Fine,” he writes. “However, I currently have over $100,000 in student loans. ... I wouldn’t be human if it didn’t leave a bad taste in my mouth.”
On the other side of the divide are people of color who are grateful for the leg up they got. “I have no doubt that affirmative action played a part when I was accepted to Boston College back in the 90's,” Catherine Casiano writes.
As a Mexican-American from Texas, I was definitely in the minority. The majority were wealthy white kids from the New England area. ... Yes, I faced a lot of challenges, such as discrimination from professors and racial comments made by other students, but I looked past all of that and became a very active member of the Boston College community and graduated with my Communications degree in 1997. I'm now an attorney in Texas and I still count my days at Boston College and some of the challenges I faced as experiences that made me who I am today.