Affirmative Action Redux: Who Is Behind the Latest Effort to End the Consideration of Race in College Admissions?

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The homepage of the Project on Fair Representation (POFR) features a smiling photo of Abigail Fisher, the young White woman at the center of Fisher v. the University of Texas, which could end race as a criterion in university admissions.

Edward Blum, founder of POFR, a conservative advocacy group, connected Fisher with Wiley Rein LLP, the Washington, D.C. law firm that will argue her case before the U.S. Supreme Court. Fisher claims that UT discriminated against her because she is White. But the closely-watched case is more than one young White woman's challenge to UT's admissions policy because she was rejected. ]he lawsuit is part of a concerted effort toe end race-conscious policies from universities to the workplace.

The website for the Project on Fair Representation reads: "For the next few years, POFR will devote all of its efforts to influencing jurisprudence, public policy, and public attitudes regarding race and ethnicity in four arenas: voting, education, contracting and employment" Such efforts aren't new challenges to expanding voting rights and educational opportunity have been bitterly fought throughout American history, through recent times with 2003's Grutter v. Bollinger, which allowed race as a factor in admissions. But at a time when most universities have reached a consensus about the merits of racial diversity, both how it enhances students' educational experience and prepares them to succeed in a global work force, the Fisher case appears out of step with the prevailing ideas in academia.

"There are two levels on which [the law suit] is happening. One is a level of objection to civil rights, an aggressive defense of the status quo and an effort to try and make sure nothing changes in terms of segregation--whether at UT or voting power" says Ian Haney-Lopez, who is the John H. Boalt professor of law at the University of California-Berkeley, where he teaches in the areas of race and constitutional law.

"It's also part of a larger right-wing movement to tarnish liberalism and break up the coalition that supported the New Deal," Haney-Lopez says, through encouraging a small section of Whites to view non-Whites as a threat to their status.

High court appeal

Historically, civil rights organizations have relied on the U.S. Supreme Court to expand access to education. In 1950, the Sweatt v. Painter decision opened professional and graduate programs to Blacks at UT and other Southern universities. In 1954, Brown v. Board of Education ruled that separate but equal schools were unconstitutional.

Today, conservative groups seeking to undo race-conscious policies are pushing cases all the way to the high court.

People borrow strategies, says Dr. Eric McDaniel, an associate professor of government at UT. "The same strategy that you used can be the same strategy that beats you.

"They look for the perfect candidate ... the NAACP did the same thing;' he says, citing Rosa Parks' strategic positioning by the NAACP to ignite the Montgomery Bus Boycott.

Picking a good client is "just good lawyering,' says Haney-Lopez. What opponents of affirmative action are doing isn't the same as what civil rights strategists did, he adds.

"They are not in the same institutional position as the civil rights lawyers. [The civil rights lawyers] were representing a disempowered, impoverished community;' Haney-Lopez says. "If Ed Blum is working with the American Enterprise Institute, he is working with some of the powerhouses of American society."

Blum's name appears multiple times in 2003'S The Assault on Diversity: An Organized Challenge to Racial and Gender Justice by Lee Cokorinos. The book explores the network of conservative think tanks, foundations and legal advocacy groups--funded by wealthy Americans--working to end affirmative action and civil rights-era laws. …

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