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Supreme Court Considers Affirmative Action Posted:03.30.03
The Supreme Court hears arguments over whether the University of Michigan's admissions policy, which adds points to the applications of underrepresented minorities, violates the constitutional rights of white applicants.
If applying to college wasn't stressful enough with SAT scores, deadlines and mounds of paperwork, things are about to get trickier.
The United States Supreme Court on April 1 is hearing two lawsuits against the University of Michigan's admissions practices. The university uses a point system - 3 points for a great essay, up to 8 points for tough classes - then tallies them up to see whom they'll admit. Being an underrepresented minority (black, Hispanic or Native American) scores 20 points.
Universities have been using similar forms of affirmative action for years to foster diversity, but the plaintiffs suing the University of Michigan say it's "reverse discrimination." They claim they weren't admitted because they're white.
The court's final ruling on Grutter v. Bollinger and Gratz v. Bollinger could revolutionize the way students get into college. (Lee Bollinger was the president of the University of Michigan Law School at the time of the 1997 lawsuits.)
Add in the fact that President Bush called Michigan's policies "unconstitutional" in January, and that Secretary of State Colin Powell publicly disagreed thereafter, and the subject has sparked a whole stew of controversy.
The debate over affirmative action is complicated, but there are two main sides. On one hand, supporters say schools need to diversify racially, giving the opportunity of higher education to those groups known to be historically disadvantaged.
Black students make up 11 percent of undergraduates nationwide, dipping as low as 2.7 percent at some universities. By comparison, 15 percent of the U.S. population between the ages of 15 and 24 identified themselves as black on the 2000 census. At the University of Michigan currently, blacks and Hispanics make up 13.1 percent of undergraduates.
On the other hand, opponents criticize affirmative action for focusing on race and not economic disadvantage. They argue that admissions policies should work to open opportunities to students who cannot afford tutors or music lessons, regardless of their race or ethnicity.
A January Newsweek poll suggested Americans looked upon admissions based upon race unfavorably -- 73 percent of whites opposed preferences for minorites, and most minorities (56 percent) opted not to support racial preferences. Of those Americans polled, 65 percent voted for preference based on income instead.
President Bush weighs in
President Bush said he strongly supports "diversity of all kinds, including racial diversity in higher education." However he added that the "method used by the University of Michigan to achieve this important goal is fundamentally flawed . 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 offers the University of Texas -- a school in his home state -- as a model example. The university is race-neutral, he says, accepting the top 10 percent of all graduating high school students.
Other schools use similar methods. Today, the University of California system takes applicants who are the top 4 percent of their class.
The goal of diversity
opponents point out that when California switched to what President
Bush calls a "race-neutral" process, the levels of minority
enrollment went down.
"Immediately after departure from the use of race as a selection factor in the University of California system we saw these precipitous and dramatic declines in the presence of black and Latino students, 50 percent, 40 percent," said Walter Allen, a University of California professor who was an expert witness on behalf of Michigan's policy when the cases were in the lower courts.
"It's just cynical as far as I'm concerned to pretend that race is not a factor or to simply talk about a valuing of diversity without building in mechanisms that will compensate for the mechanisms that operate in this society presently to disadvantage people of color," he added in a NewsHour debate.
Advocates of this system say admissions should be "colorblind" and judge students only on academics. They also point out that although there was a drop in minority enrollment, it rebounded.
"Today in Texas and California and Florida and Washington, every single institution of higher education has a minority enrollment equal or exceeding ten percent, which is the critical mass that Michigan says it needs to get these educational benefits," countered Terence Pell, president of the Center for Individual Rights, which is representing the white students in these cases.
The Supreme Court's record
Affirmative action has been hotly debated since the Supreme Court first tackled it in 1978. In Regents of the University of California v. Allan Bakke, student Bakke claimed he wasn't admitted to medical school because the university reserved 16 of its 100 spots for minorities. The high court found in favor of the university by a slim majority, but it also criticized the school's use of racial quotas, or trying to fill a set number of slots exclusively with minorities.
The effect of the public debate and the president's statement on the court remains to be seen. A decision in the case will most likely rest on the shoulders of two judges, Justices Sandra Day O'Connor and Anthony Kennedy, who have come down on various sides of the issue. Recent cases on racial preferences have split the court, 5-4.
-- By Irene Noguchi, NewsHour Extra
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