Earlier this year, the Supreme Court heard the case of Fisher v. University of Texas, a challenge to race-based Affirmative Action policies in the University of Texas system. The media neglected to mention that the plaintiff, Abigail Fisher, did not earn an automatic spot by being in the top ten percent of her class. They didn’t mention that her grades were not exceptional compared to other applicants, or that students of color with higher averages and SAT scores than hers were denied spots as well, and in greater number than underachieving white students. Instead, they focused on the common narrative that if a white student doesn’t get into his or her top choice, it’s the fault of minorities with low grades stealing spots. This narrative forms the basis of Suzy Lee Weiss’ highly-publicized op-ed “To (All) the Colleges That Rejected Me,” published in the Journal on March 29.
Of course, this sensational idea that some shadowy cabal of brown people and “politically correct” liberal white sympathizers are conspiring to hold down the white man is juicier and better at moving papers and keeping eyes glued to televisions than the truth that white students are still at a great advantage in the American university system. For all the hand-wringing about how white students can’t get scholarships because all the funding goes to students of color, you would never guess that white students—62% of the college population—receive 75.7% of all scholarship funding. Once you hear that number, you can almost hear Abigail Fisher, Suzy Weiss, and all the other Veruca Salts of America turn to the camera and belt, “I want the world! I want the whole world!” And yet even I, a black man who was involved in several clubs in high school—two of which I founded or co-founded—and got high SAT scores, am accused of being an Affirmative Action case at a wildly mediocre state school whose student body was something like 94% white when I arrived, at which I have met students who didn’t know that a kiwi was a real fruit (“I thought it was just an artificial flavor!”) or that the anarchist revolution sung about longingly in punk songs is hypothetical rather than historical.
What the Fishers and especially the Weisses of this country fail to realize is that universities are more than degree mills, and that being an exceptional candidate is about more than brute-force studying and SAT prep. They seem to be incapable of understanding that higher education is about learning—real, actual learning—not just marking the right answers on a few pieces of paper and then being handed another one on a stage after four years. Diversity of perspective is how people learn to function in the real world. Employers don’t care how well you were able to fill in the correct bubbles on a Scantron sheet. They want to know that you can work on a team, that you can lead, that you have new ideas and experiences to bring to the table. The university experience, unlike that of compulsory education, is designed to prepare you for that.
One of the greatest lessons I’ve learned through years of white parents breaking up relationships because they didn’t want their daughter dating a black man, of being passed over for leadership positions in favor of less-qualified white candidates, of doing five interviews at IBM only to remain jobless, of any of the other myriad disappointments I’ve faced because of my race or because I was not right for whatever it was I wanted, is that the world doesn’t just hand you things because you feel you deserve them or even because you have earned them. Things don’t always work out. I didn’t get into NYU. I thought my submission film was solid (for a high school student, anyway) and that my position as the founding president of the school’s film club would excite them. It didn’t go my way. I didn’t go to the Supreme Court or the Wall Street Journal. I went to my second choice school, the University of North Carolina Wilmington.
Here, I made the best of it. I got to know the brilliant faculty of the film studies and creative writing programs. I was an officer of the Flicker Film Society, the school’s film club, for three years. I was the founding vice president of the Screenwriter’s Club and have currently been its president for two years. I joined a fraternity and began to learn about feminist politics after a talk from its president. I was its talent show chair when we won second place. I got two feature films and a TV pilot produced starring major national talent. I wrote, directed, and acted in short films. I rapped at shows here and in New York City. I watched a celebrity basketball game in LA. I partied in many cities with stars and excellent people. Maybe the piece of paper I get on May 11 won’t say “New York University” at the top of it, but I have made the most of what I was given. And I learned so, so much.
So I say to Abigail Fisher and Suzy Weiss and all the other white students who feel that they deserve what they have failed to earn: quit whining. The world is full of possibility and opportunity, and maybe you’d see that if you put down the books, took a breath, and looked around.