Affirmative action is back before the Supreme Court, which means several left-leaning media outlets are doing what they can to defend the practice from its critics. To do so, these outlets are perpetuating a glaring factual error in order to discredit an anti-affirmative action plaintiff.
Fisher v. University of Texas concerns Abigail Noel Fisher, who applied to the University of Texas at Austin (UT) in 2008, but was rejected (she ultimately graduated from Louisiana State University instead). Fisher has sued, claiming her failure to be admitted was due in part to racial preferences given to black and Hispanic applicants.
In an effort to discredit her case (and undermine her claim to legal standing), several media outlets have aggressively attacked Fisher. The crux of their argument is that more than 150 black and Hispanic students had better test scores and grades than Fisher, but still failed to be admitted, thus invalidating Fisher’s claim she was sabotaged by affirmative action.
To make this attack, these outlets are relying on an article published by ProPublica back in 2013. In that article, author Nikole Hannah-Jones argued as follows:
It’s true that the university, for whatever reason, offered provisional admission to some students with lower test scores and grades than Fisher. Five of those students were black or Latino. Forty-two were white.
Neither Fisher nor Blum mentioned those 42 applicants in interviews. Nor did they acknowledge the 168 black and Latino students with grades as good as or better than Fisher’s who were also denied entry into the university that year.
The argument seems very bad for Fisher. How can she blame affirmative action for her plight if racial minorities with superior grades and test scores were also kept out of UT?
And several media outlets have eagerly cited Hannah-Jones’s analysis. ThinkProgress and Salon both did so Wednesday in pieces that explicitly defended affirmative action, as did Vox in a more “neutral” piece.
In fact, though, ProPublica’s claim that 168 black and Hispanic students with better grades and test scores than Fisher were rejected is totally unfounded, and is based on an erroneous interpretation of UT’s admissions process.
UT evaluates applicants on two scales, an Academic Index (AI) that measured grades and test scores along with a Personal Achievement Index (PAI) that factors in extracurriculars, socioeconomic background, and race. The two scales are merged for each applicant to create a combined AI/PAI score, which is used to influence admissions decisions.
As is made clear on page 16 of UT’s judicial brief regarding the case, the 168 black and Latino students who allegedly had better test scores than Fisher and were rejected actually had higher combined AI/PAI scores. In other words, they had higher scores than Fisher on a scale that gave them bonus points for their race. The students may have had better grades and test scores than Fisher, but they also may not have. Outside of reviewing their actual high school transcripts, there’s just no way to tell.
But ProPublica missed this critical fact, and now two years later Vox, Salon, and other outlets are continuing to pile on top of Fisher, using evidence of affirmative action to somehow claim Fisher wasn’t affected by affirmative action. Sometimes, the attacks have been vicious, with Salon using this point to claim Fisher’s case rests on “[the assumption] that people of color are inherently less worthy than white people.”
The mistake keeps being made even though it’s been spotted in the past. Last June, Slate cited ProPublica’s claim, but alater issued a correction, admitting the blacks and Hispanics who “outscored” Fisher had benefited from racial preferences.
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