A few years ago, right-wing pundits and activists rallied around the cause of Abigail Fisher, a white student with mediocre grades who was denied admission to the University of Texas at Austin. Fisher's grades and test scores fell below the admissions standards at the school, but there were a handful of students that year, as in most years, that had similar grades and got in anyway, due to their extracurricular activities or other standout qualities that earned them provisional admission.
Of the 47 students who got provisional admission into UT Austin when Fisher did not, 42 were white. But Fisher and her lawyer were outraged not about those 42 white students. Instead, in a case that got all the way to the Supreme Court, they argued that because five students of color got something that Fisher didn't, she was the victim of anti-white discrimination. While she lost in court in 2016, her case became a cause célèbre on the right during Donald Trump's race-baiting presidential campaign.
Two and a half years later, however, the same right-wing punditry that backed the "right" of white kids with middling grades to get into elite universities has changed its tune. And all it took was for something nice to happen to the survivor of a horrific mass murder.
David Hogg, who survived the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, last February, announced on Saturday that he will matriculate at Harvard in 2019. Hogg, who hid in a closet with other students while Nikolas Cruz murdered 17 people at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, spent the rest of 2018 being demonized by conservative pundits, who objected to Hogg's post-shooting work organizing young people to support stronger gun safety regulations.
Ironically, one of the favorite strategies of right-wingers -- most notably Fox News host Laura Ingraham -- to abuse Hogg has been to mock the shooting survivor for not getting into schools like UCLA.
Hogg's SAT score was 1270, so it's no surprise that he struggled, as Fisher did, to get into some of the more elite schools that he applied to before the shooting. Since then, he has certainly accumulated what Justice Anthony Kennedy, in Fisher's case, called "intangible characteristics," outside of test scores, that recommend students for joining the ranks of students at prestigious schools. He was one of the leaders of the #NeverAgain movement to advocate for stronger gun control. He wrote a book, with his sister, about fighting gun violence. He helped found a nonprofit, and has been instrumental in the remarkably successful fight to turn the public against the gun lobby and the NRA.
Even during the shooting, Hogg showed those "intangible characteristics", by having the awareness to tape interviews with other students, so that if they were killed, there would be a record of their final moments. That kind of sharp mind under pressure has a lot of value that isn't picked up by the calculus questions on the SAT.
In other words, Hogg has distinguished himself in ways that Fisher, who was an unremarkable teenager in every way, never could.
Now the same people who rallied to Fisher's side are outraged that another white kid with subpar SAT scores got an elite college admission. The right-wing site College Fix raised an alarm about it, complaining that the "bottom 25% at Harvard have an average SAT score of 1460". NRATV's Grant Stinchfield, along with other conservative pundits, accused Harvard of being biased towards the left, instead of the likelier explanation that the school is biased towards high-achieving young people.
The backdrop to all this is that Edward Blum, the lawyer who recruited Fisher as a plaintiff in his anti-affirmative action case, has yet another case in federal court right now, trying to destroy racial diversity initiatives at universities. Blum has been a longtime opponent of racial equality, and was successful in 2013 with a lawsuit gutting the Voting Rights Act, which helped pave the way for current efforts to deprive black Americans of their right to vote.
Blum lost Fisher's case, but now thinks he has a strategy that will achieve his lifetime goal of destroying even the slightest effort to promote racial diversity on campus, Instead of claiming white students are being discriminated against, Blum has turned his attention to Asian-Americans. The school he's suing is, of course, Harvard.
While Blum was defending a student with mediocre scores in 2016, his current case focuses on Asian-American students with high scores who didn't get into Harvard. But the basic argument remains the same. Blum is trying to legally force schools away from holistic admissions standards that allow schools to value racial diversity.
The grim reality is that black and Latino students continue to have lower SAT scores on average than white and Asian-American students. This is not due, no matter what Blum's supporters may insinuate, to lower aptitude. It's a reflection of continued racial inequality. Public school segregation may be technically illegal, but due to the way districts are drawn, black and Latino students still get pushed into de facto segregated schools that are likely to have fewer resources (and lower expectations) than predominantly white schools in more affluent areas. Black and Latino students are also more likely to live in economically stressed homes and to have significantly less access to outside help like tutoring, all of which contributes to lower SAT scores.
When colleges can take a more holistic approach, black and Latino students have a better shot. The same system that Hogg benefited from, in which a bright student who simply may not do well on standardized tests can demonstrate other abilities, gives a lot of students who don't come from privileged backgrounds an opportunity to get into good schools.
This isn't just about giving kids from diverse backgrounds an opportunity, however. The reductionist attitude, where test scores are everything, is bad for all of society. It discourages teaching kids creativity, critical thinking and community engagement, and focuses education on the singular goal of doing well on a standardized test.
To be certain, Hogg — as he would be the first to tell you — is a white child of privilege. But his case helps illustrate why it's so important for colleges to be able to look at factors other than test scores in admissions. It's about more than racial diversity and equality, though those things are important. It's about having a society where we keep valuing intangible qualities like creativity or activism. It's about telling our kids we value them for more than their ability to fill out bubbles on a standardized test.