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Affirmative Action in Texas

Racism 101 All Over Again

by GREG MOSES

The specter of race in Texas higher education was raised inside and outside the state as soon as the King holiday weekend was over. A campus task force at the University of Texas at Austin found new reasons to take race seriously. And a long-term study from Princeton dismissed highly racialized suspicions that have swirled around the Texas "ten percent plan."

As quoted by the Houston Chronicle’s Todd Ackerman, the task force at the Austin campus, found that, "people from various racial and ethnic backgrounds don’t understand each other."

Therefore, according to the chair of the committee, "Rather than just providing stopgap measures when issues arise, we hope to integrate racial respect and fairness throughout the UT community."

The bureaucratic neutrality of the findings, of course, fail to convey the fact that one must understand white folk as a survival skill in American today (can you say Iowa caucus?), so if different people are having trouble understanding each other, the problem is more likely to belong on the side of white folks who still think they have so little to learn about people of color.

The Houston Chronicle report also neglects the stormy history of past attempts to inaugurate "multiculturalism across the board" at the Austin campus. The English Department, once upon a time, tried to require a textbook for freshman writing that included critical theory in race and gender.

Hunter Thompson invented the term shithammer for the kind of politics that came down during the "Texas Comp. Controversy" of 1990. It is shamefully amusing today to re-read the complaints of stolid scholars complaining fourteen years ago about that, "highly politicized faction of radical literary theorists" who dared to make race everybody’s business.

And yet, some of the consequences of ongoing white ignorance about race could be read between the lines of this week’s Princeton report, which found that careful scientific analysis did not support popular prejudices, fed by media reports, that the state’s admissions laws were driving better qualified, white students, out of state.

The prejudicial suspicions were never quite uttered publicly as racist, but the demographics leave little question about the racialized nature of the allegations.

The "popular complaint" goes like this: since the state’s best universities have to admit the top ten percent of high school graduates under the "top ten plan", students from the worst high schools are taking places that ought to go to more students from "better" high schools.

As the complaint continues, many students from the high quality high schools, or so-called "feeder schools," are therefore having to leave the state, contributing to a Texas brain drain.

The racialized nature of the complaint may be found in the history of the top ten plan, which was explicitly devised to substitute for affirmative action during the Hopwood period in Texas history. In fact, to illustrate just how racialized the "ten percent plan" was, professors Lani Guinier and Gerald Torres argued at the time that the ten percent plan illustrated a brand new theory of race.

As the Princeton report points out, if the ten percent plan works as a sort of semi-substitute for affirmative action, it is because Texas high schools are still segregated.

In the words of Princeton authors Marta Tienda and Sunny Niu:

"The Texas school segregation patterns that enabled H.B.588 [the ten percent law] to restore some diversity at college campuses after 1996 imply disproportionate representation of blacks and Hispanics at high schools where large shares of students are economically disadvantaged. In fact, over 30 percent of black seniors and nearly half of Hispanic seniors graduated from a high school designated as poor, but only 2.5 and 3.9 percent, respectively, attended one of the "feeder" high schools. By contrast nearly 13 percent of non-Hispanic white students graduated from feeder high schools, as did 18 percent of Asian-origin students."

Between schools that are "feeders" and schools that are "starved" is a demographic of class and race, where vestiges of separate and unequal remain.

But as Dallas Morning News reporter Kent Fischer tells us in his Tuesday report, the results of the ten percent plan have not yielded much in the way of diversity as far as Texas A&M University is concerned.

Fischer introduced Texas A&M near the end of his story about the Princeton report, only to forget it precipitously as we shall soon see.

By interviewing thousands of students, the Princeton report is able to show us that more Texas youth would prefer to leave the state. It’s not the ten percent plan that’s "forcing" students out, rather it’s the rest of the country that’s attracting students away from the Lone Star State. If truth be told, more students would have gone out of state for higher education had they been more successful in meeting their goals.

As for the suspicion that the "poor" high schools were producing poorly qualified candidates, the Princeton report notes that many of these students landed some of the most competitive out-of-state offers.

And considering the number of "feeder" school students who eventually won admission to college, the Princeton report tells us that they do better than most students in the nation in terms of landing the schools they want.

Not surprisingly, the Princeton report suggests that black students from Texas tend to be more likely to set their sights out of state in the first place, and secondly are less likely to want to go to Texas A&M at all. These are problems well known in College Station, even if the Aggie solutions look more often like bad jokes.

Tienda and Niu raise questions about the purpose of public higher education, which still has a sort of populist legacy in Texas. The question of allocating seats is a serious public question, and they contribute to a tone of seriousness about it.

And so the Princeton researchers conclude that, "a modified percent plan combined with a narrowly tailored consideration of race would yield the optimal solution for Texas."

"That, in fact, has happened," reports the Dallas Morning News. Say that again? What has in fact happened. The Morning News, which had reminded us a few paragraphs back about the predicament of Texas A&M admissions, now completely moves on.

Ignoring its own recently published reports about Texas A&M’s decision last month to abolish its narrowly tailored considerations of race, the Morning News closes only with the example of the University of Texas at Austin, which will employ a constitutionally refurbished affirmative action plan. And never mind that the Austin campus still needs a fifteen member committee of presumably non-radical literary theorists to soberly recommend systematic racial understanding.

In their consideration of the Texas ten percent plan, Lani Guinier and Gerald Torres argued that a new theory of race was in the making, one that superseded old paradigms of affirmative action. Yet, the Princeton report and the outcry during the last month from Texas civil rights community indicates that old lessons may still have legs. Affirmative action by any other name, is, after everything has been carefully considered, "the optimal solution."

In light of these fresh reports, The Texas Civil Rights Review is especially eager to share with you the documentary evidence that Texas A&M used to adopt its anti-affirmative action policy… as soon as the Texas Open Records Law is obeyed. Please stay tuned.

GREG MOSES writes for the Texas Civil Rights Review, where this essay originally appeared. He can be reached at: gmosesx@prodigy.net