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Lewis, Latif, Jones, Joyce, Black Enterprise
Supreme Court ruling on University of Michigan case could impact education for years to come
ON APRIL 1, THE UNITED STATES SUPREME COURT WILL HEAR arguments in one of the most significant cases this year as it relates to race relations and educational opportunities for minority students. The Court has been presented a landmark case that serves as the first test of affirmative action in college admissions since the 1978 Bakke decision.
Attorneys for three rejected white applicants to the University of Michigan are now challenging the historic Bakke decision, which allowed schools to consider race or ethnic background as a factor in determining admission. The briefs, filed late last year with the U.S. Supreme Court, charge that the school's admissions policies are unconstitutional. And to add fuel to the fire, on Jan. 15, President George W. Bush sided with the attorneys, declaring that the school's policies "amount to a quota system that unfairly rewards or penalizes prospective students, based solely on their race."
"The president characterized the University of Michigan's affirmative action program as a `quota,' which it is not," protests NAACP Chairman Julian Bond. (A "quota" system would be illegal in the United States.) "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," Bond says. "It is a poor way to honor [Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s] memory."
In contrast, Alvin Williams, president and CEO of the conservative-leaning Black America's Political Action Committee, says, "I did not walk away feeling Bush is anti-diversity. It is the means by which we reach this critical objective that is the debate." Williams adds that while his organization does recognize past injustices, it feels that the "same objective (equal opportunity and diversity) could be met if the consideration is based more on socioeconomic background, geography, and other factors, not just race."
Bush takes issue with the 150-point system (see chart) the university awards for various qualifications. He calls attention to the fact that students who are African American, Hispanic, or Native American receive 20 points, whereas students with a perfect SAT score receive 12. William Spriggs, executive director of the National Urban League's Institute for Opportunity and Equality and a member of the BLACK ENTERPRISE Board of Economists, believes the president is disingenuous in highlighting these numbers because he doesn't call attention to the number of points assigned to legacy students, or that students from underrepresented counties in Michigan--such as the overwhelmingly white Upper Peninsula--are given 16 points.
The Bush administration filed a "friend of the court" brief with the Supreme Court on Jan. 16. The Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) also filed a "friend of the court" brief in February, detailing its rationale for supporting Michigan's policies. "The University of Michigan is trying to be inclusive to citizens excluded in the past, and citizens who continue to be underrepresented today," says Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.), CBC chairman.
The NAACP Legal Defense Fund--representing student intervenors--and several corporations, including 3M Co., Microsoft Corp., Bank One Corp., Steelcase Inc., PepsiCo Inc., and Exelon Corp., are also voicing their support for the university's affirmative action policy to the Court. The corporations appear to be motivated by the desire to recruit talented women and minorities and to promote workplace diversity.
The end goal is to attract a student body that is "diverse in a rich variety of ways," University of Michigan President Mary Sue Coleman asserts. "We do not have, and have never had, quotas or numerical targets in either the undergraduate or law school admissions programs. Academic qualifications are the overwhelming consideration for admission to both programs. …