During a class discussion on the novel The Color Purple, Cortney Sanders, a junior at the University of Texas at Austin, used it as an opportunity to talk about the African-American experience and stories her grandparents had shared about life under Jim Crow.
"The [white and Latino] students appreciated what I had to say and offer and after class told me after class, 'Wow, Cortney, I can't believe your family was able to relay such a powerful message through all of the things you've experienced as a race," she recalled in an interview with BET.com.
These types of eye-opening and often mind-expanding experiences are part of what's at risk as the U.S. Supreme Court considers Fisher vs. University of Texas at Austin. In the case, plaintiff Abigail Fisher, a recent graduate of the University of Louisiana, is arguing that she is a victim of racial discrimination and that UT rejected her application because she is white.
Speaking on the steps of the Supreme Court Wednesday, Rev. Al Sharpton argued that "there are no victims when you have racial diversity. There are only victims when you stop racial diversity."
He also said that when students who represent the American population learn together on campuses across nation, they go on to earn, decide and govern together.
"But the minute we start acting like people become victims when we open the door of inclusion for everyone, that's when we bring America backwards rather than going forward," Sharpton said.
Rev. Jesse Jackson Sr. noted that institutions of higher education consider many factors when reviewing applications, including gender, socio-economic status and ability to pay tuition, whether the applicant is a legacy and nationality.
"To make it race neutral is a kind of ethnic cleansing," he said. "In America, racial justice matters."
Debo P. Adegbile, acting president and director-counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, told BET.com that the justices had difficult questions for both sides, but the court continues to recognize the importance of diversity in higher education … and hopefully won't waver from the course that we've set ourselves to bring everybody together in the classroom."
Barbara Arnwine, who heads the Lawyers Committee for Justice Under Law, said that the plaintiff's attorneys offered a weak argument and were unable to prove that any real damage had been done. She predicted that the court will deliver a split decision, which would allow the University of Texas and other institutions to continue to consider race as just one factor in a student's application.
Sanders' white classmates and friends were surprisingly unaware of the Fisher case until she and other minority students discussed it with them, which perhaps underscores the argument for diversity.
"Talking to our caucasian friends about the situation is exactly what we foresee in the future — the notion of spreading cultural wealth amongst each other," said Bradley Poole, a senior at UT. "Just us talking about this case [helps them] understand why affirmative action is important to minority students and on this campus and its climate and diversity."
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(Photo: AP Photo/Susan Walsh)