A Public Non-Apology to Abigail Fisher

by April Gregory, ’13


The Fisher vs. UT Austin case has prompted me to revisit my experience with affirmative action. I’ll never know for sure how big of a role affirmative action played in my admission to Stanford, but I am certain that it was a factor.

I am about to put myself on blast in multiple major ways. Some friends and acquaintances have heard my story, but most people I meet have absolutely no reason to believe that affirmative action policies had anything to do with my admission to this elite institution. That’s because, for those who do not know the details of my heritage, I appear to be a white person with no legacy who was admitted to Stanford based on “merit” alone.

I sometimes wish that were true. The thing is, though, is that I’m not just white. My mother is one-quarter African American, which makes me one-eighth – an octoroon, if we want to get Jim Crow with it. My dad is white. I identify with black culture in many ways, but to be honest, that probably has more to do with the fact that my dad played in an all-black gospel band in the ‘70s than my mom’s blackness.

When I applied to Stanford exactly four years ago, I checked the white box and the black box. This was a major moral dilemma for me at the time. To ease my anxiety, I wrote my main Common Application essay about what being one-eighth black meant to me as a means of explaining my double check of the race boxes. The prompt was something along the lines of “Why is diversity important to you?” My essay talked about Plessy v. Ferguson (which legalized “separate but equal”) and the fact that the defendant, Homer Plessy, was one-eighth black – just like me. After discussing how I used to appreciate my one-eighth blackness as sort of a “fun fact” or quirk, I concluded with the following:

“I came to the unsettling realization that the little fraction of my heritage I was so fond of would have made me a second-class citizen had I been born a mere fifty years earlier.  In many states, my mother’s marriage to my father would have been illegal.  My brothers and I would have been considered illegitimate in those same states.  My very existence would have been frowned upon, as I would be seen as the unsavory result of mixing races in a world where the word ‘diversity’ held no value, no importance, and no meaning. I am so incredibly grateful to be alive during a time where diversity not only exists, but is encouraged.  My race does not define me; I define me.  The path my life will take is not dependent upon the fragments of my heritage, but rather upon the opportunities which I discover and take advantage of.  I have the privilege of choosing from an infinite wealth of diverse ideas, beliefs, people, and environments that can influence me as I continue to grow as a person.  I am free to live however I wish, knowing that any divergence I may take from the norm will only add to the diversity which gave me that freedom.”

Reading back over this essay, I am struck by two things, besides my pretentious wordiness. One is how grateful I am that Stanford has provided me with an opportunity to engage with “diverse ideas, beliefs, people, and environments” in ways I literally could not have imagined when I wrote those words in October 2008. The second is that I ultimately remain 100% okay with my decision to check the black box on my application.
The reason is that, as my mother told me four years ago, my maternal grandfather could have only dreamed of attending and excelling at a place like Stanford. I am the product of generations of resilience that include my mother, her father, and the African and African American ancestry that preceded him. I am where I am today because of them. I reap the benefits of the black freedom struggle and I can sit in any train car I damn well please. And if honoring my ancestors means checking a box on a college admissions form, then so be it. I’m not apologizing to anyone, and I am most definitely not apologizing to Abigail Fisher.

I am putting myself on blast because I am deeply bothered by the recent proliferation of anti-affirmative action literature that has taken over the internet and my Twitter feed in response to the Fisher case. As someone who has benefited from affirmative action directly in a rather unconventional way, I think I can safely say that for many of us, the attack on affirmative action feels like an attack on our personal character and integrity. How many times was I told by my peers in high school that I only got into Stanford because I checked the black box? Too many. When was the last time someone expressed a similar sentiment to me? Yesterday. Being a beneficiary of affirmative action often means being condemned to an exhausting, never-ending, circular defense of one’s intelligence. This is completely unacceptable, both for me and for my friends of color who have earned their place on this campus just as rightfully as anyone else.

My story might not be the usual one told about affirmative action, but I hope it is at least illustrative of the ways the policy benefits folks of diverse and multifaceted backgrounds, and why we are grateful for its existence. It is an absolutely necessary means of ensuring that higher education access is attainable to people of all races, income levels, sexual orientations, abilities, gender identities, and immigration statuses. And, for me, it is a way of ensuring that the struggles and sacrifices of those who came before us are honored and vindicated.

The past matters. We might have a black president in the White House, but let’s not forget how affirmative action helped ensure his application would be read by Harvard admissions officers (1) in the first place and (2) with careful consideration of both his merit and the meaningful, diverse experiences he would bring to the campus. Without affirmative action, the admissions policies of Harvard, Stanford, and other diversity-committed institutions could not be truly tailored to the holistic approach they utilize today. It takes more than 40 years to undo nearly 400 years of oppression. Affirmative action policies are not perfect across the board, and universities should be careful to ensure the academic readiness of each and every student before admission. But the point remains that the Justice Scalias of the world are threatening to do away with affirmative action policies altogether. Before you dismiss affirmative action, consider how many other policies are in existence with the explicit purpose of making our nation more just and our education system more equitable. There aren’t many.

Regardless of whether or not you agree that I deserve to be at Stanford, and regardless of if you think I’m living some sort of fraudulent, dishonest existence, I’m here, and I’m succeeding. More important, though, is that the means by which I arrived at this incredible place have instilled in me a drive to secure a more socially just world for my own children and grandchildren. I know I am far from the only affirmative action beneficiary who feels that way.

The history we have all inherited as Americans is a collective responsibility. Sometimes sacrifices must be made to give someone a chance their parents or grandparents never had. Sometimes an Abigail Fisher will have to go to LSU while I get to go to Stanford. The funny thing is, we will probably end up leading strikingly similar lives, despite the fact that she holds a grudge so big against UT-Austin that it merits a landmark Supreme Court case.

It is my deep, sincere hope that the Court will preserve affirmative action by recognizing that its benefits far outweigh its costs. Despite my better judgment, I am choosing to be optimistic because I have faith in the power of progress. “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”


April Gregory is a Senior majoring in American Studies. She urges you to read Ira Katznelson’s
When Affirmative Action Was White for a far more compelling, historically-based, pro-affirmative action argument than the one you just read.

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17 thoughts on “A Public Non-Apology to Abigail Fisher

  1. Makshya says:

    your title is fabulous.

    check your e-mail in a bit for my REAL thoughts, because I refuse to write a substantial comment in a space that is slowly (or quickly) losing sight of many parts of what you were saying in an (undermining) effort to squeeze in their own narratives and frustrations without actually responding to many of your own sentiments.

  2. Anonymous says:

    The objection to accepting minority applicants is based on the feeling that they have benefitted from an academic double standard. But why is there never any discussion of a “lowering of academic standards” in the acceptance of talented athletes or “legacy” candidates by colleges? Colleges use subjective criteria all the time in considering which applicants they will accept. The incoming freshman class is considered in its totality across a broad spectrum of criteria including, but not limited to, academic achievement. As a parent of a Stanford student, I find this refreshing and very wise. As Ms. Gregory clearly demonstrates, minority students bring a much-needed point of view to this academic community. This can only strengthen Stanford as an institution of higher learning.

    • Anonymous says:

      The fact that other factors than academic merit can be used in admissions doesn’t have any bearing upon the legitimacy of using race or not…

      Minority students and their points of view would still exist on college campuses without affirmative action. One might note that at the UCs, which disposed of affirmative action in 1996, minorities comprise a substantial majority of the student body at most campuses.

  3. Annoyed says:

    What even is the argument that your life story is supposed to give weight to here? That affirmative action should exist so some lucky students can honor their disadvantaged ancestors?

    People who write these pro-affirmative action articles always preach equality and justice for all, and remark how certain groups of people have been institutionally discriminated against in the past. How about the effect affirmative action has on Asians and other “over-represented minorities” RIGHT NOW? How can you just conveniently overlook the fact that it is QUANTIFIABLY more difficult for an Asian student to get into a university than other races, JUST because they happened to be born a certain color. REGARDLESS of the horrendous social and economic obstacles they and their family may have had to overcome. THAT is where the real racism and injustice lies, and that’s why affirmative action needs to be reconsidered. Do you think it’s fair that a poor Asian child of refugee parents, who has worked tirelessly all their life despite being raised in poverty, should face more rigorous admissions standards than a potentially privileged student who happened to have one great-grandparent who was racially discriminated against? And all this in the name of racial equality??? Oh, the hypocrisy!

    I’ll tell you what would have prevented you from having to defend your legitimacy at Stanford constantly to yourself and others. If there was no affirmative action, you and other “under-represented minorities” would never have any question about whether or not you were “really” qualified, or whether or not you only got in because you happened to be born a certain color.

    And really, as if getting rid of affirmative action would mean qualified black/hispanic candidates would be denied admission because of their race like in pre-civil rights days. If we got rid of affirmative action, you don’t think admissions committees would still be falling over themselves for an applicant like young Barack Obama? You think they’d reject him because he’s black?

    The answer is no. And, again, that’s the kind of discrimination that Asians and some others face RIGHT NOW because of affirmative action. I’m not saying that was the intent of AA, but it’s the result. If you wanna help the disadvantaged, use socioeconomic factors, not race. Racially-based affirmative action simply no longer makes sense in this generation.

    • Anonymous says:

      *snaps*

    • April says:

      Let me be clear. I would be outraged if an Asian student was denied admission to a university for the singular reason that they are Asian. That is indeed racism, as you point out. I also think the anecdote you offered is illustrative of why Stanford’s policy is especially effective and should be emulated as much as possible by other universities. Stanford (and many other institutions) would view that type of candidate as utterly deserving of a college education, and moreover, as someone who would unquestionably enhance the student body through their experiences, provided they also meet the academic readiness standards that serve as the basis for all Stanford students’ admission. It is unfortunate that not all universities can abide by these same standards.

      I also want to make it exceedingly clear that I am absolutely a proponent of taking into account socioeconomic factors when considering a candidate. Socioeconomic status has been definitively proven to be the single most influential factor in determining a student’s education outcomes. I am acutely aware of this fact and believe socioeconomic affirmative action can and should exist alongside race-based affirmative action. I refuse to believe that the two are mutually exclusive. Race and socioeconomic status are also quite clearly conflated with one another, and often ensuring racial diversity contributes to ensuring socioeconomic diversity as well. The point remains, though, that low-income students of all races should have the opportunity to benefit from affirmative action, as I mention in my article, along with students representing other historically and contemporarily oppressed groups. One more time, for emphasis, being an advocate of race-based affirmative action should by no means imply that one is an opponent of other forms of affirmative action.

      As I wrote, affirmative action policies are not flawless across the board. However, my greatest concern about this case — and what prompted me to write this piece — is the precedent that would be set by a ruling in Fisher’s favor. The illusion that we live in a post-racial society is simply not true, and I fear that this point of view would find a way to use a ruling in favor of Fisher as evidence that race no longer matters in this country. Gloria Ladson-Billing’s concept of the “education debt” (http://edr.sagepub.com/content/35/7/3.short) illustrates that the idea of post-race is false in the context of public education quite clearly. I urge you to consider this perspective in light of your remark that race-based affirmative action no longer makes sense for our contemporary moment.

  4. April says:

    Anonymous friend — you’re right that private institutions likely wouldn’t be affected, as Ta-Nehisi Coates explains here: http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2012/10/the-supreme-court-cant-kill-affirmative-action/263638/

    My concern is more with the precedent that would be set by a ruling in Fisher’s behavior. The slope could become quite slippery if Texas is found to be in the wrong for abiding by a perfectly legal, and, in my opinion, admirably equitable admissions policy. If the highest court in the land were to say “affirmative action is unconstitutional,” it would be devastating both in principle and in practice for folks like me who have already benefited from it and other folks who might benefit from it in the future.

  5. Anonymous says:

    “Without affirmative action, the admissions policies of Harvard, Stanford, and other diversity-committed institutions could not be truly tailored to the holistic approach they utilize today…. But the point remains that the Justice Scalias of the world are threatening to do away with affirmative action policies altogether.”

    No, not quite. This case concerns affirmative action at public university, not private like Stanford and Harvard. And there’s a good reason that racial discrimination (in the differential sense) is subject to strict scrutiny.

    • esqg says:

      I daresay April is more qualified to do that scrutiny than Scalia is.

      • Anonymous says:

        First, April’s experience are sort of tangential to the Fisher case, and no matter the way the Court decides Fisher, April’s experience would not have been affected since Stanford is private. And while I’m not a big fan of Justice Scalia’s opinions either, until April graduates from law school, has experience practicing law and/or being a judge, and is a Supreme Court Justice, I think I’ll leave it to the current 9 Justices to interpret the Constitution and to apply strict scrutiny in an appropriate way. I’m not saying she shouldn’t speak her opinion; I’m simply saying that the 9 are more qualified than her (or me).

      • esqg says:

        @Anonymous

        Scalia got his law degree from Harvard in 1960. That is to say, he studied legal cases when explicit racial segregation in schools was still legal, among other things, and he was on the privileged side. I would hardly regard that law degree as a qualification when it comes to “strict scrutiny” about racial discrimination. Moreover, Scalia in particular seems to think traditional oppressive laws are a great precedent: witness this month’s quote, “…Homosexual sodomy? Come on. For 200 years, it was criminal in every state.”

        It’s not about being “fans” of Scalia, it’s about recognizing that no matter how many years of practice he has had writing careful arguments, he is not qualified in the slightest to make judgments about the legal side of social justice. One can argue about why Supreme Court justices have tenure in general, but that should not be confused with viewing Scalia himself as competent.

        Of course let’s not lump all 9 justices in with him. Sonia Sotomayor got her law degree in 1979, but by that time she had already been an anti-racist activist both in college at Princeton and in law school at Yale. If you check out that history of volunteering and advocating for changes, and her successes, it’s impressive. She is much better prepared to judge what laws are fair or unfair in our current society.

      • Anonymous says:

        Again, to clarify, I agree with almost none of Justice Scalia’s or Justice Thomas’s opinions (I can’t believe I’m defending them!). That said, Justice Scalia does not support the segregation of public schools. Furthermore, Lawrence v. Texas is kind of irrelevant to Fisher and did not use strict scrutiny. You’re right that Justice Sotomayor has had much experience with this issue. But so has Justice Thomas. And hey-they (will probably) disagree! Simply having experience with this issue does not mean you support affirmative action by public institutions. That’s why we have multiple Justices! And to imply that white men, no matter their legal skill and qualifications, are not competent to hear such cases undermines the foundation of the judiciary – that independent 3rd parties are competent enough to hear another case and make their best judgment to a fair decision.

        Furthermore, if you’re going to argue about how Justices rule, you should probably quote their opinions themselves, not news articles. If you read them you’ll notice that Justice Scalia is actually quite sharp, despite being radically conservative and hard-bent on originalism.

      • esqg says:

        to imply that white men, no matter their legal skill and qualifications, are not competent to hear such cases

        All right, I didn’t expand on that last time, but now I will. The point is not that white people can’t hear such cases; it is that judges who get their legal training in a racist country have to work to find the biases in that system and themselves. This is all the more necessary if they were on the privileged side when the system was explicitly, legally racist; the evidence does not show Scalia doing any such work. He may not support segregation, but that doesn’t mean he has learned how to work against the racism that let it stay legal for so long.

        if you’re going to argue about how Justices rule, you should probably quote their opinions themselves, not news articles

        Why is that? What a person says off the cuff is a lot more indicative of what they actually believe, and how they think, than are the words they are willing to commit to paper. Legal arguments are often just careful rationalizations of a decision already made. Scalia is “sharp” when he wants to be, but it would take all day to patch the gaping holes in his written opinions on affirmative action.

        It doesn’t look like Thomas has ever taken much anti-racist action, though perhaps more than nothing. In any case it is not that Sotomayor isn’t white, it’s that she has worked against, and thus demonstrated an understanding of, the real alienation of people of color in systems that but perpetuate biases whether they’re made explicit or not. I would think she can judge how and when laws can be used to fix those problems.

        I’m not sure why you’re defending Justices Thomas and Scalia either, but if that is what it takes to show that the judiciary branch is working well, it’s not convincing.

        This discussion has got too far off topic, and I’m afraid we may detract from some really interesting parts of April’s article, about how diverse perspectives really benefit a university, and how race isn’t half as simple as many people imagine. So I’m done; have a good day.

      • Anonymous says:

        Justice Thomas was helped by affirmative action and he says it has hindered him since, which is why I say that Justice Thomas has personal experience in this matter.

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