Written by Pilar Padilla.
Graphic by Peyton Cabaniss.

Pilar Padilla is currently a junior at Westwood High School in Austin, Texas.

Over the past few weeks, Austinites were hit with the shocking news of the University of Texas at Austin’s ties to the academic cheating scandal that swept prestigious colleges across the nation. The school is being sued by several students in a lawsuit, which alleges the university failed to secure fair college admissions by allowing bribery and falsification of the racial demographics of potential students. As a junior at Westwood High School and Latina woman facing a daunting college application process—one that’s geared towards wealthier white people with privilege—this scandal and the charges that followed have hit home for me. They represented an attack on affirmative action and similar efforts created to help people like me overcome the racial barriers stacked throughout America’s education system. Even more, they underscored the increasing need for equity and inclusion within our college campuses.

All my life, I’ve been told both directly and indirectly that being a Latin woman put me at a disadvantage, that going to a great college and living life to the fullest would be all but impossible. At school, my white peers have joked about me being deported. In both social situations and in public settings, I’ve felt the icy stares of strangers and been reminded that I don’t look like many people who call Austin home. These experiences have become more and more prevalent since President Trump began advocating for U.S.-Mexico border wall to keep out people he considers nothing more than rapists, murderers, and thugs. Through all of this, I was taught that being a person of color was bad—until I heard the term ‘affirmative action.’ Suddenly, I felt like I had access to a level playing field. Suddenly, I felt like I had a pathway to respect, agency, and education. And yet, even that may soon disappear.

As many people now know, Michael Center, UT’s Tennis coach, was recently fired for taking over $100,000 in bribes to recruit a student to the tennis team and ensure their entrance into UT. William “Rick” Singer, the mastermind behind the scandal, orchestrated an expansive effort reliant on bribes, fake test scores, and shameless acts of cheating. While these acts are both illegal and immoral, Singer’s most egregious move was to falsify a number of students’ ethnicities in hopes of gaming the system to take advantage of affirmative action programs. Now, many anti-affirmative action advocates are once again beating their war drums. Somehow, brown and black people are once again the ones to blame here.

Some conservatives claim that affirmative action was an integral pedestal for the recent cheating scandal at UT, which I find to be a half-baked attack on programs promoting educational equity. This notion doesn’t just disregard the academic scandal’s blatant abuse of numerous other loopholes: it also ignores the need for admissions protocols that factor in race and overlooks the findings of recent cases, including Fisher v. University of Texas. Affirmative action isn’t the problem here: corruption in the college admissions process is. If we gut these vital programs, the playing field will only be tilted more towards privileged families, who already have access to expensive resources like private tutors and SAT test prep courses, as well as other advantages tied to their elevated socioeconomic status.

For once, this isn’t an issue about race. The college admissions scandal shows how greed, status, and privilege can buy you almost anything in this country. Using these crimes to attack affirmative action is disgraceful and reeks of partisan angling that has no place in education. Rather than using this topic as a launchpad against race-based admissions programs, we should instead use it as a platform to raise awareness about the need for equity in our country’s higher education system—including the vital role affirmative action plays in fighting privilege and racial discrimination. By raising awareness of  the positive impacts affirmative action can have, we can fight disinformation and deliver educational equality to future generations regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, or any other social stratifier.

America claims it’s the land of opportunity. It’s about time our higher education system reflects that.

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