FCN Editorial: America refuses to repair the damage
WASHINGTON (FinalCall.com)–With the issue of racial diversity in higher education heading to the Supreme Court in March, President George Bush stepped into the hotly contested University of Michigan affirmative action debate on Jan. 15, calling the university’s admissions program for Blacks and Hispanics in the undergraduate and law schools unconstitutional.
The comments, announced on the birthday of slain civil rights leader Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., ignited the most politically charged affirmative action debate in a quarter century. “This decision indicates that President Bush’s commitment to his right-wing political base outweighs his professed commitment to educational opportunity,” said Ralph Neas, of People For the American Way.
“The president’s decision to throw the full weight of the federal government against the University of Michigan’s efforts to create a diverse learning environment could unfortunately have a far greater impact on people’s lives than all the press conferences about outreach and all the promises of a ‘new day’ in the Republican Party,” the leader of the civil rights group added.
Mr. Bush called Michigan’s affirmative action plan “fundamentally flawed.” He admitted racism remains an issue but said “quota systems” using race to include or exclude people from higher education was divisive, unfair and impossible to square with the U.S. Constitution.
“At their core, the Michigan policies amount to a quota system that unfairly rewards or penalizes prospective students, based solely on their race,” the president said in his afternoon address. “So, tomorrow (Jan. 16) my administration will file a brief with the court arguing that the University of Michigan’s admissions policies, which award students a significant number of extra points based solely on their race, and establishes numerical targets for incoming minority students, are unconstitutional,” he said.
“We do not have–nor have we ever had–quotas or numerical targets in either the undergraduate or the law school admissions system. By far the overwhelming consideration is academic qualifications,” countered Michigan University president Mary Sue Coleman. The university looks at the whole student and its admissions process gives highest points for top grade point averages, while offering points for factors like talents, leadership, geographic location and race, she explained.
“Although critics of affirmative action have painted Michigan’s admissions processes as extreme over these past few years, in fact, ours is a moderate approach, carefully considered under the guidelines of the 1978 Bakke decision. Our policies are similar to most other selective colleges and universities across the country–public and private,” Ms. Coleman noted.
And, she warned, the Supreme Court decision from the University of Michigan cases could affect all of higher education. The decision could impact everything from admissions to financial aid to mentoring and enrichment programs, said Ms. Coleman.
The administration’s position, expressed in a lengthy legal brief, prepared the night before the announcement, sides with three White students who are challenging the university’s admissions system.
In the landmark “Bakke v. Board of Regents” decision of 1978, the Supreme Court allowed race to be used by public universities as a factor, but not the only factor in deciding which students to accept. Those watching the debate believe Mr. Bush’s position might, in effect, lead to the overturning of the ruling. The White House brief did not ask the court to overturn the Bakke decision.
Some condemned the president’s position, calling it part of a disturbing pattern in which code words such as “diversity” are used to avoid progress on civil rights.
“Look at what we’ve had to take in just a few weeks,” D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton told reporters. “First, the Trent Lott controversy; then the resubmission of Judge Charles Pickering and Judge Priscilla Owen and other judges who could send chills through civil rights throughout the country; followed finally by the president’s statement opposing the civil rights position in the University of Michigan affirmative action case. That’s a lot of negative racial response all at one time,” she said.
On Jan. 17, an unprecedented coalition of Southern California’s diverse religious community leadership, representing Baptist, Methodist, Episcopalian, Christian, Catholic, Muslim and Jewish faiths joined forces at a news conference to denounce the Bush position.
Spearheaded by the National Conference for Community and Justice/Los Angeles Region, faith and community leaders gathered at the Holman United Methodist Church to publicly address the issue.
“It is painful and demoralizing that the leadership of our country would choose to take this action on the very day on which we are celebrating the anniversary of the birth of Dr. Martin Luther King, one of the most venerated civil rights leaders in our nation’s history,” said Fran Spears, NCCJ executive director.
“This issue is: Who will receive an education and the lifetime of benefits and privileges that flow from it and who will not?” she asked, echoing the coalition’s joint statement of condemnation.
“The issue is: Do we value a diverse student body, one that reflects the diversity of our nation and our world, because we believe that a diverse student body better prepares students to work with and alongside of people who are different from them?” Ms. Spears asked.
Her group contends the White House ignored important academic, social and political issues. In an analysis of the White House brief, it said the administration failed to acknowledge that admitting students with the best grades or the best SAT scores are not the most important indicators of a student’s ability to succeed or benefit from an education, or whether they will go on to become successful members of society.
“The president characterized the University of Michigan’s affirmative action program as a ‘quota,’ which it is not. His use of the word ‘quota,’ with all its overtones of supposed preferences to allegedly unqualified persons, is an attempt to disguise his failure to support justice,” said Julian Bond, chairman of the NAACP board of directors.
Bush’s preferential treatment
Democratic leaders said on Jan.17 that they plan to confront Republicans over the Bush decision. Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle, of South Dakota, requested a Senate resolution supporting the university in the Supreme Court case. Sen. Carl Levin (D-Michigan) is preparing a motion that calls for diversity at the nation’s military academies as well.
Republicans should get behind these efforts, said Sen. Daschle. “Nothing would provide a clearer opportunity to show a commitment to diversity in education and a commitment that is more than just rhetoric,’’ he said.
Pennsylvania Senator and third-ranked Republican leader Rick Santorum challenged the Daschle position and announced a resolution in support of the president.
National security adviser Condoleezza Rice, the highest-ranking Black in the White House, admitted race could play a role in college admissions, apparently endorsing the very concept opposed by President Bush. Ms. Rice insisted that she supported the president’s announcement.
“I believe that, while race-neutral means are preferable, it is appropriate to use race as one factor among others in achieving a diverse student body,” Ms. Rice said, in a written statement.
“The policy that won the president admission to college was a preference for legacies and wealth, a preference that has disproportionately helped Whites, yet today he opposes allowing universities to consider race as a factor, one factor, in making admissions decisions,’’ observed Rep. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), president of the House Democratic Caucus.
Mr. Bush, an admitted “C” student, benefited from a “grandfather” admissions clause at Yale University. The fact that his father and grandfather were both Yale graduates, and members of the secret Skull and Bones society, gave him leverage for admission.