On December 9th Justice Scalia stated black students would do well at “a slower-track school.” To the man’s benefit, he was wondering if sending underqualified students to top schools would actually be a detriment to their future success from failing in classes to being ostracized socially. This concept is commonly called the mismatch theory.
Justice Scalia isn’t totally wrong. It is hard to succeed in university when you feel out of place or you’re not ready for the material. His ponderings were fair, but when framed in a more demeaning-to-minorities manner by Stuart Taylor, Jr., who wrote an amicus brief essentially promoting the mismatch theory with the comment “Martin Luther King didn’t go to a fancy college. Thurgood Marshall didn’t go to a fancy college. Colin Powell didn’t go to a fancy college,” implying they are still the face of black success (which makes them the ultimate minority).
To be crystal clear: King didn’t go to a top 20 university because Morehouse accepted him as a junior during WWII when classrooms were near empty. Marshall, a Baltimore native, didn’t even apply to Maryland’s law school because of their segregation policy. Powell went to the City College of New York prior to his immediate enlistment to the US Army. These men succeeded for a lot of reasons: determination, family support, being males. But they also all grew up in a time where some form of racial segregation was legal. They didn’t have the opportunity to even apply to top schools as easily as whites (because of the law, not just because they might have been underqualified).
I didn’t grow up in that time so my perspective is a bit different. Actually, my perspective is totally different. When I hear that Abigail Fisher (the reason for Justice Scalia’s comments—if you’re not up to date on that, read this) thinks she should have been accepted to UT Austin instead of underqualified black students, I can’t help but say “YOU were underqualified!” She wasn’t in the top ten percent of her class, and wasn’t offered automatic admission. There was nothing that screamed “qualified” about her (maybe it quietly murmured it, but nothing outright). Is it jaded hubris that keeps this girl going EIGHT years after she was rejected?
Universities in general are experiencing huge shifts in the way students approach social challenges and injustices. Black students are finally saying “that’s enough! We aren’t supported here!” That isn’t a sign they will go back to a place that “suits” them, as I suspect many whites hope it does. Students of all races are starting to see that the American university system was founded on the idea of white male success (if your argument here is about to be “what about HBCUs? those schools were founded with the sole purpose to fight that ideal during a time of legal segregation). America is a changing country. In two more generations, whites will live in a majority brown nation. I get that that’s scary—that has NEVER happened in America (on purpose… because slavery, internment camps, reservations, to name a few things).
This all seems to me like a system of white privilege on the verge of succumbing to its own imminent implosion. Being white is no longer synonymous with success—not because underqualified minorities are taking over the world, but because whiteness was a measurement American society applied to success to prevent others from achieving it. Universities across the nation are trying to make classrooms represent the world students will be entering into as adults. I think it is fair to say schools should be able to shape their classrooms to reflect that—and provide some different perspectives to white and brown/black students.
I didn’t know that I was a threat to white societal success until I applied to colleges. Being half-white, I didn’t even think about it. The daughter of a doctor, there was no doubt I would go to college and do well. I soared in my elementary school for high achievers (their words, not mine). My high school resume was one for the books. The diverse, county-wide magnet program I attended in high school pitted me against the best public school students, regardless of race. “Underqualified” to us wasn’t about skin color, but getting B’s. My upper-middle class existence was a protective blanket from the backlash I would get from getting into almost every college I applied to.
I won’t lie—I think my being a black had something to do with it. Of course, here is where many would say “But Leah, you aren’t even black,” as if my acceptance was even more insulting to them or wasn’t enough of the “Blindside”-plot to be encouraging and uplifting. At that time I didn’t consider myself black and I wasn’t forced to confront my racial identity until college. But the thing is, all of this doesn’t matter. The second someone thought about my race as a reason for my acceptance or even whispered it to a friend (“She got in because she’ll be good for the brochures”) they devalued my ability as a student. As a leader. As a woman of color.
Each time I hear Justice Scalia’s statements or people supporting Fisher, I have to close my eyes and remind myself that I am qualified. I have had multiple people attack my qualifications, wonder if I deserved the merit-based full-ride scholarship I received at a top private college or the acceptances to multiple Ivies. I hold my tongue (much of the time), when I’m quietly questioned. To bring up all my many successes makes me feel like an asshole. I shouldn’t have to list my resume in an article to be qualified to have an opinion. And even then, there is always the fear I will be labeled the angry, black woman for speaking up for myself.
Simply put: Abigail Fisher wasn’t qualified. But her argument doesn’t support the idea that she should have been accepted over equally underqualified blacks. Her argument says that black success (or acceptance from a university wishing to have a more diverse student body) will always be questioned. Even if that’s not why she ended up in the Supreme Court, that’s what I hear. That’s what millions of black and brown students will hear: no matter your success, someone will always question you because of your skin color.
So yeah, I might be big-headed for talking about my triumphs, but behind all the words are hours of work. Weeks of practice. Years of studying. I recognize that I benefitted from my environment, if not my skin color. I never worried about money or food or shelter. It was my parents’ determination, not my skin color, that set me up for success. I work hard to prove them right—not people who chalk my wins up to being brown.
It will be a long time before Americans (and I mean all of us) recognize the effect of being white has had on the minds of our country’s current racial majority. It’s complicated and awkward to talk about. But, much of what America has done in the past to maintain white privilege is awkward and complicated (and unjust). This is the true mismatch theory. Abigail is just one of millions having to face the reality that the world is not their oyster because they are white—it is their oyster because they are human. But that also means the playing field just got a whole bigger. Let’s see who is ready to play ball.