Melissa Harris-Perry Breaks Down Affirmative Action for Justice Clarence Thomas

As the nation’s affirmative action wars heat up once again as the U.S. Supreme Court considers a case involving the University of Texas, MSNBC co-host Melissa Harris-Perry crafted an “open letter” to Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas.

Harris-Perry is disturbed by Thomas’s staunch opposition to affirmative action, especially considering the fact that he benefited from the policy in his admission to Yale Law School. Harris-Perry has read quite a few of these open letters on her show—her opportunity to cleverly express her opinions without the restrictions of interviewing guests.

“Now, I know you’re pretty excited that you have a chance to end, once and for all, the practice of considering race in college admissions,” Harris-Perry says on her MSNBC show. “You’ve been waiting for this moment a long time, haven’t you? I bet you think about it every time you look at your Yale Law school diploma and the 15 cent price tag from a cigar box that you stuck on it to remind yourself that, as you say in your book, affirmative action made your law degree worthless.”

Harry-Perry tells Thomas that his interpretation of affirmative action is “all wrong”—as is the view of Abigail Fisher, the woman who filed the lawsuit against the University of Texas.

Fisher was an honor roll student who played the cello and was rejected from the University of Texas, ultimately enrolling at Louisiana State University. She said she “dreamt of going to the University of Texas ever since the second grade” but didn’t get in, she contends because she’s white. She says people in her high school class with lower grades and similar activities were admitted, and “the only difference between us was the color of our skin.”

After previous challenges to Texas’ affirmative action program resulted in minority enrollment plummeting 40 percent, the university—under the administration of then-Governor George W. Bush—adopted a policy guaranteeing admission to all students in the top 10 percent of their high school class. While that policy raised minority admissions somewhat, the levels were still below what they were before the affirmative action policy was ruled invalid by the courts. So in 2003 Texas added race as one of the factors that could be considered for applicants not automatically admitted through the top 10 percent plan. When Fisher applied in 2008, 20 percent of the incoming class was admitted under the plan that allowed race to be considered.

While University President Bill Powers argues that in academia and also the business world nobody would hire people based only on their class rank in college or high school, the school also contends that Fisher still wouldn’t have made the cut even without the race factor.

“Even if Abigail Fisher had received a perfect Personal Achievement Index score she would not have been admitted … because her Academic Index was simply not high enough,” says Gregory Garre, lawyer for the University. Garre, who served as U.S. solicitor general in the George W. Bush administration, says flatly that “Fisher would not have been admitted, no matter what her race.”

Fisher’s lawyers contend that any consideration of race is gratuitous and that the university was already achieving a diverse student body without the race policy.

“Consider this: It is possible that you didn’t get hired right out of law school because you just weren’t good enough,” Harris-Perry says to Thomas, who contends he didn’t get hired out of Yale because companies believed he got into the school only because of his race. “Just like Abigail Fisher. She was a good student, but she failed to clear the bar of UT’s academic achievement index. Abigail Fisher wasn’t admitted, but a black student didn’t talk her place. It was not her place. And so now Abigail Fisher and you, Justice Thomas, are poised to take the places of countless future students of color.”

Harris-Perry says that devaluing the accomplishments of black people is not a legacy of affirmative action—it’s a legacy of racism.

“We need generations to break down the barriers that divide us, and do you know one of the important places where that work begins? In college classrooms, diverse classrooms, the kind of classrooms that affirmative action has created,” Harris-Perry says. “And here’s something I’ve learned as a college professor. The measure of merit isn’t the test you take to get into school, it’s what you learn after you’ve been admitted and what do you with that knowledge once you’ve left.”

She asks Thomas to look at the African-American students who went to Yale Law School with him in the early 1970s.

“You remember them, the ones tainted by affirmative action,” she says. “Four are now federal judges. One became a college president. There are partners at the country’s top law firms and two professors of law, including Harvard Law’s first tenured black woman, Lani Guinier. And yes, even United States’ second black Supreme Court justice. Their accomplishments and yours are the real legacy of affirmative action. Contrary to what you believe, Yale’s admission policy was not a failure. It was an undeniable success.”

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