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Affirmative action
Myth and reality

February 28, 2003 | Page 8

AFFIRMATIVE ACTION hangs in the balance--and the Bush administration put it there. Just before the Martin Luther King holiday, the administration announced that it planned to file a brief with the Supreme Court, arguing that affirmative action policies at the University of Michigan were unconstitutional. The case will be heard next month and could have a major impact.

Preserving affirmative action--policies that take into account racial and sexual discrimination in college admissions and job hiring--is a critical step toward challenging segregation in schools and workplaces.

When George W. Bush announced that the White House would file a brief with the Supreme Court, he used many of the same arguments that the right wing has used to vilify affirmative action programs--from charges of "reverse discrimination" to talk of "preferential treatment." Here, ELIZABETH SCHULTE debunks their arguments.

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MYTH Affirmative action policies, like those at the University of Michigan, give preferential treatment to minority students over whites.

REALITY "At their core, the Michigan policies amount to a quota system that unfairly rewards or penalizes prospective students, based solely on their race," Bush claimed in his speech announcing that his administration was going after the University of Michigan's admissions policies. "The motivation for such an admissions policy may be very good, but its result is discrimination and that discrimination is wrong."

With these words, Bush is attempting to turn the concept of discrimination on its head. The lawsuit against the University of Michigan argues that three white applicants rejected by the university's law school and undergraduate program were victims of "a race-based two-track admissions system" that denied them the constitutional right to "equal protection." It charges that Black and Latino students with similar or lesser academic records were admitted to the university.

Michigan does take race into account when it admits students. During the undergraduate admissions process at Michigan, like most big universities, applicants accrue "points"--the vast majority of which are awarded for academic factors, 110 out of the 150 total. Just 20 points are allocated for racial and socioeconomic factors.

Bush's worries about "what's fair" for whites masks the reality of what has long been tolerated as "fair" enough for Black and Latinos, who are acutely underrepresented at the University of Michigan.

Before affirmative action programs were implemented there in 1966, Michigan's law school was virtually all white. In fact, the school still has a long way to go to achieving racial diversity. Even with affirmative action intact, Blacks and Latino represent about 11 percent of the Michigan law school, while they make up 17.5 percent of the state population.

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MYTH Maybe we needed affirmative action 30 years ago, but we don't really need it today. Hasn't U.S. society overcome its racist past?

REALITY It's true that conditions today are better than they were during the days of Jim Crow segregation. However, it would be wrong to claim that racism and discrimination are no longer problems in U.S. society--and not just the pro-segregationist remarks made by cracker politicians like Republican Sen. Trent Lott.

Racial inequality has a very real effect on the day-to-day lives of most African Americans--from housing to education to job discrimination to racial profiling. And while a minority of African Americans have succeeded, this masks the fate of the vast majority who have not.

In 1999, median income for African Americans was $31,778, compared to $51,244 for an average white family. Even at the height of the 1990s economic boom in 1999, 40 percent of Black and Latino children lived in poverty.

A study released in January by the Harvard University Civil Rights Project revealed that public schools are, in fact, re-segregating. On average, a white student attends a public school that is 80 percent white, the report showed. And one-sixth of Black students attend schools that are nearly 100 percent non-white. For many students, college is the last chance to learn in an integrated environment. And when affirmative action is gutted, that chance is snatched away.

Look at Bush's home state of Texas. In 1995, the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals banned the use of affirmative action at the University of Texas (UT) School of Law. The effects were devastating. In 1997, the first year that the law school was banned from using affirmative action, first-year Black student enrollment dropped from an already low 7 percent to 0.9 percent. Mexican-American student enrollment dropped from about 11 percent to 5.6 percent.

Likewise, the future at the University of Michigan is a grim one if Bush gets his way. The law school projects a 73 percent drop in Black student enrollment if affirmative action is eliminated.

Racism is a part of the very fabric of U.S. society, and programs that consciously address this racism are absolutely critical. Affirmative action seeks to lessen the effects of what is a grossly unfair playing field.

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MYTH Shouldn't those students who have worked the hardest and are the most qualified get spots at universities?

REALITY First of all, by what measures do universities decide who are the most "qualified" students? For the most part, standardized tests, like the SAT, play a huge role. But these tests have been proven to be culturally, racially and class biased. In well-funded schools, students receive classes on how to take the tests and succeed.

When you get down to it, the one thing standardized tests consistently measure is wealth. And for a tiny minority out there, the only test they need to pass is the test of lineage.

Take George W. Bush. Bush's low grades and drunken performance as an undergraduate at Yale may have gotten him a refusal letter from the UT Law School, but his powerful family got him an MBA at prestigious Harvard University.

In all the debates over "fairness," no one is questioning a common admission policy that guarantees "legacies," the children of wealthy alumni, a spot in the hallowed halls of higher education.

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MYTH What we really need is affirmative action policies based on class, not race.

REALITY Sounds like a fair enough idea: If the problem is that poor students, many of whom are Black, have less access to higher education, then wouldn't it be "fairer" to give special consideration to working-class and poor students?

However, to suggest that this type of plan is an alternative to affirmative action is to fail to understand what racial inequality is about. Poor Blacks don't just suffer from economic oppression but racial oppression as well. And while middle-class Blacks may escape the worst effects of racism in society, they are still the targets of racism.

This is why programs specifically designed to combat racism, like affirmative action, are necessary to begin to address these inequalities.

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MYTH The problem is that many affirmative action policies, such as quotas, go too far.

REALITY Under the Clinton administration, the U.S. government's defense of affirmative action boiled down to the phrase "mend it, don't end it." In this way, the Democratic administration could claim to minorities that it was for affirmative action--while gutting its effectiveness by eliminating programs that it described as "quota systems."

The truth about "quotas" is that in order to measure the success or failure at integrating schools and workplaces, one must have a method to measure it. So during the Clinton years, state governments went on the attack against "quotas," and affirmative action programs were gutted across the country

The problem isn't that affirmative action has gone too far. On the contrary, it hasn't gone far enough. Any strides that were made in fighting racial discrimination, like affirmative action, were only made because people organized and fought to gain attention from the federal government.

It took a civil rights movement to win the integration of U.S. society, and activism will be key to defending it from attack.

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