Abigail Fisher’s Legacy Lives on at Texas as Conservative Alumni Fear Black Students Have Too Much Power on Campus
Once the battleground for anti-affirmative action legal efforts, the University of Texas at Austin is once again confronting white panic over its Black student population.
From Vietnam to Occupy Wall Street, American college campuses have long been at the center of left protest movements. In recent years, however, conservative activists have set their sights on college campuses in an effort to push back against what they see as creeping left-wing authoritarianism in the form of critical race theory and the suppression of conservatives speaking out against it.
This sense of campus political persecution by the right recently found its way into the controversy over “The Eyes of Texas,” the alma mater song of the University of Texas at Austin. According to an investigation by the Texas Tribune, university President Jay Hartzell had received dozens of angry emails from university alumni and donors last fall after a photo surfaced of Texas quarterback Sam Ehlinger standing alone on the field for the traditional singing of the song after a loss to Oklahoma in the Red River Rivalry game. Following the George Floyd protests that summer, some Black players on the football team had decided not to participate in the traditional postgame singalong with the fans.
Despite the song having a clearly racist history— it first debuted at campus minstrel shows and was inspired by stories told about Confederate leaders — conservative alumni immediately saw the backlash to the “The Eyes of Texas” as part of a broader, overreactive, hypersensitive, left-wing-driven cancel culture. As one angry alumni wrote to President Hartzell in an email published by the Texas Tribune, “I do not support UT anymore (even though my family has 3 generations of graduates) because it has become a bastion of far liberal indoctrination and only teaches one point of view…liberalism. Sorry, but it is clear at UT that the white male is totally screwed unless you are ‘woke’.”
In response to Black football players demanding UT-Austin change the school’s alma mater song entirely, another alumni questioned why these students should have any say in the matter when “less than 6% of our student body is black.” The email continued, “Nothing forces those students to attend UT Austin. Encourage them to select an alternate school ….NOW!”
The racist backlash to Black football players who protested “The Eyes of Texas” contradicts the image of campus life put forward by those ringing the alarm bells about cancel culture, one in which Black student activists have overwhelming power over the administration. In reality, the donor backlash at UT-Austin was successful: not only did President Hartzell reject the football players’ demand to change the alma mater song, the Texas Tribune discovered that players were told during a team meeting following the Red River Rivalry game that they must remain on the field during the traditional postgame singing of the song in order to appease donors.
But the image of college campuses being overrun by “woke mobs” is not unlike the narratives of loss and long-suffering by whites that conservatives have used for decades to oppose efforts to make predominately white institutions more racially diverse.
Nearly a decade ago the University of Texas at Austin was at the center of a national debate over affirmative action after a white applicant, Abigail Fisher, sued the university alleging that its race-conscious admissions policy discriminated against white applicants. Opponents of the school’s admissions policy essentially argued that there is no longer a need to make colleges more diverse because non-whites have the option to go to college anywhere they want. Whites, in contrast, are automatically at a disadvantage whenever colleges consider race in admissions decisions.
The Supreme Court remanded the case to a lower court’s ruling in 2013, and upheld the lower court’s ruling in 2016, narrowly keeping UT-Austin’s affirmative action policy in place. The two most conservative justices on the Court at the time, Justice Antonin Scalia and Justice Clarence Thomas, were strikingly candid in what little normative value they saw in school diversity or in the expectations Black students should have while attending predominantly white institutions.
For instance, during oral arguments for the second Fisher case in 2015, Justice Scalia caused a firestorm on social media when he stated that he was not bothered that UT-Austin might have fewer Black students if the Court were to strike down the school’s affirmative action policy. He claimed that diversifying predominately white schools “does not benefit” Black students who can’t succeed in the advanced environment and concluded that Black students would be better off attending “less-advanced” and “slower-track” schools where they do well.
Justice Thomas had similarly argued during the original Fisher case in 2013 that there is “no principled distinction” between using race to create diversity and using race to segregate because the use of race is inherently discriminatory. In Justice Thomas’ view, Black students aren’t helped by race-conscious admissions policies because “seeing” race in any capacity is racist — even when the purpose is to redress past racial harms.
Although seeming to argue for racially-neutral college admissions policies, Scalia and Thomas provided an ideological foundation for the sort of white identity politics that would consume the Republican Party over the next decade, culminating in the election of Donald Trump. The Supreme Court may not have abolished affirmative action in the Fisher cases, but the conservative wing made it clear that white people had good reason to feel threatened by conscious efforts to get more Black students into white schools — and they should fight back.
The emails telling President Hartzell to push out Black students who do not support the school’s traditions are the epitome of fighting back. But whereas Abigail Fisher appealed to white grievance through the courts, conservatives today are taking tactics from left protest movements and going straight to the source of their rage — Black people shifting the balance of power in white institutions — and they don’t care if anybody calls them racist.