February 14, 2013
Several weeks ago, our country celebrated Martin Luther King Jr. Day – some with reflection, others with service, all with the inauguration of a president. Here in Memphis, I spent the day pondering King’s legacy in my own way – marveling at his vision and leadership, even as I let my mind wander through too many local classrooms and schoolyards in which his dream of a just, equitable education for all remains a promise unfulfilled. Forty five years after King’s death, our education system stands as a glaring example of the enduring relevance of race in the pursuit of opportunity. Now, with black history month upon us, a case before the Supreme Court threatens to set us back further still.
The case, Fisher vs. University of Texas at Austin, centers on a complaint brought by Abigail Fisher, a white applicant rejected by the University’s admissions committee. Fisher takes issue with the UT Austin’s consideration of race in its admission process. In doing so, she asks the court to revisit its decision in Grutter v. Bollinger – a 2003 ruling allowing for the limited use of race in evaluating applications. An overruling of Grutter could end affirmative action at public universities in this country.
Last fall, Teach For America filed an amicus brief in support of UT Austin. After two decades spent working in the nation’s highest-need classrooms, we have come to believe deeply in central role of diversity on college campuses for realizing the vision for which King and so many others have fought and died. College graduates of color have been and will continue to be the vanguard of the diverse corps of future leaders our country needs to end educational inequity and its devastating moral and economic impacts. Without them, historically disenfranchised communities will remain just that. And for as long as they do, King’s dream will continue to languish.
In this context, committing to diverse college campuses emerges as a democratic imperative. Meanwhile, underlying all of this, Ms. Fisher’s complaint misses a critical point. At their foundation, institutions like UT Austin exist to expand educational opportunity for their students. Accordingly, admissions committees have an interest in selecting applicants with the potential to take full advantage of the tremendous opportunities afforded. As the statistics on poverty and educational attainment all too readily reveal, in this country, students of color often face barriers to academic excellence that their white peers do not. As a result, without the ability to consider race, admissions officers would risk chronically underestimating the potential of applicants of color. In doing so, they would overlook a group of students who bring a diversity of experiences and perspectives and have the potential to innovate and excel on campus.
When the justices issue their ruling on Fisher’s case, they’ll have an opportunity to uphold the unwavering commitment to justice that defines King’s legacy and the principles on which this country was built. As they look for the courage and vision to do so, we must commit more deeply than ever to what King knew – that all children deserve the opportunity to excel academically, to pursue their boldest ambitions, and to become the next generation of leaders on which our collective future depends.
Athena Turner is the Executive Director of Teach For America in Memphis. She is the graduate of the University of Tennessee in Knoxville and taught science at Kingsbury High School as a member of Teach For America’s first Memphis corps
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