McNair Scholar Eve Dunbar on the importance of affirmative action

June 24, 2013

As higher education institutions examine the legal ramifications of the Supreme Court’s ruling on the Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin case, Vassar College professor Eve Dunbar – who earned her doctorate at the University of Texas at Austin in 2004 with the help of the McNair Scholars Program – wrote a piece reflecting on the importance of diversity in the academic pipeline that appears at Colorlines today:

I’ve been watching Fisher vs. The University of Texas, which bears the 23-year-old’s name, partially because I’m a black, female tenured professor who earned my doctorate from the University of Texas at Austin in 2004. But mostly I’ve been watching because the case has the potential to dismantle the “academic pipeline” that we count on to deliver a steady flow of excellent candidates of color into the academic job pool.

The case reminds me that if I had come of age a decade later, my body and body of knowledge might have faded from the academy, because the higher education odds were never stacked in my favor. As a black woman from a working-class family, raised for the first 10 years of my life by a young single mother in Hartford, Conn., and later by my grandparents in the rural, small Pennsylvania town of Greencastle, my race, gender, class and even geography would have all but guaranteed my exclusion from the ranks of college graduates, English PhDs, and the tenured professorate. These historic odds would have had very little to do with me, my academic talent or my work ethic; I was born nerdy and come from a family of workers.

Dunbar goes on to write about the importance of the McNair Scholars program to her education:

The McNair Program introduced me to a possibility that I had never considered due to my race and caste—that I could actually earn a living through writing, reading and teaching others to think critically about the structures that limit us, and to imagine ways out of such limitations. From helping a black college professor edit the second edition of his book to pursuing my own research questions about blackness and colonialism, I learned the power of entering the historical archives. I learned I could tell the stories that lay hidden there.

Thanks to the McNair Program, I gained entry into graduate school at the University of Texas at Austin only two years after the Hopwood v. Texas verdict. Hopwood mandated that the UT Law School not consider race in any of its admission practices. There was a pall over the campus for the six years I attended. Being one of 1,616 (3.3 percent) black-identified students put me in the company of 5,619 (11.4 percent) Asian American students and 5,964 (12.1 percent) Latino students admitted to the 48,906-person, predominantly white student body.

In 1998, black and Latino students were a woefully underrepresented bunch in light of Texas’ demographics: blacks made up 12 percent and Latinos 32 percent of the statewide population.

To say the least, the shadow Hopwood cast reached far beyond the law school’s classrooms. Hopwood would haunt public institutions’ admissions policies for years. And that’s what these cases do: they leave people and institutions quaking and anticipating the death knell signaling affirmative action’s demise.

Although Hopwood was ultimately reversed—by the Supreme Court in 2003—it had done its damage to illustrate the sad reality that any system meant to foster equity for people of color is always at risk, always under scrutiny and always subject to revocation. Access to higher education is just a piece of what is and has always been at stake.  As President Johnson told Howard University’s graduating class of 1965,  equity “is not just freedom but opportunity—not just legal equity but human ability—not just equality as a right and a theory, but equity as a fact and as a result.”  The suite of civil rights decisions set to come from the Supreme Court this week may fundamentally change how the nation understands the equity Johnson articulated, and the tools at our disposal to achieve it.

You can read the rest of Dunbar’s piece here:

Colorlines has also published a great graphic on Affirmative Action. You can read an updated collection of Tweets, the Supreme Court opinion and more on our Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin Storify.


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