Note: This article was written in 2001, but with recent University of Texas suit pending in the Supreme Court makes this article very relevant.
THE FUTURE of affirmative action in education lies in two cases involving the University of Michigan. Each are sure to end up at the U.S. Supreme Court.
Last month, a group of students lost a claim urging the university to use affirmative action to right the effects of past discrimination. The ruling did not, however, change an earlier decision by the judge that upheld the university’s admissions policy to include race and ethnicity as factors in admitting undergraduates. That was a major victory for advocates.
In another suit, now before a federal district court, two white applicants claim they were not admitted to Michigan’s law school because of their race. The students contend that they were held to higher admissions standards than those used for black and Latino applicants. Both cases are being fought by the Center for Individual Rights, a Washington-based public-interest law firm dead set on ending affirmative action.
Either case could result in taking away some of the last vestiges of affirmative action as appeals make their way through the courts.
It is possible, for instance, that the court could reconsider its 1978 landmark ruling-Regents of the University of California vs. Bakke, which allowed colleges and graduate schools to use race as a factor among many in their admissions policies. That ruling said that institutions could use race as a factor in admissions but could not set aside specific numbers of places for members of minority groups. Those arguing against affirmative action claim that many colleges are going beyond the use of race as a factor and implementing a quota system that favors students of color.
This was the issue in a 1996 Texas case, now known as Hopwood, where the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit ruled that the law school at the University of Texas at Austin illegally used racial preferences in admissions. In that case, the Center for Individual Rights argued that any use of preference violates equal protection under the law as guaranteed by the 14th amendment and the Civil Rights Act of 1954
Now, with the University of Michigan cases heading toward the Supreme Court, there is a real possibility that the Bakke decision will be overturned. If so, this will mean that every college in the country that receives federal money will not be able to take race into account as a factor in admissions. It will impact the very existence of outreach programs that are aimed at recruiting African- Americans, Latinos and Native Americans. This is already happening in California, where opponents of affirmative action have placed outreach programs in the same category as “programs of preference.”
These important cases are emerging at a time when many white students not sure about having a job in the future and are claiming that there is “reverse” discrimination in the admissions policies of numerous colleges. The cases are also coming when there is increasing competition for limited local and federal education funds and when racial discrimination is being written off as though it didn’t exist anymore. Memory is short, and some critics have forgotten how segregation divided this country only 30 years ago.
Today, there are those who argue that affirmative action has resulted in the development of a growing middle class among underrepresented minorities. They also argue that such policies don’t serve the needs of those who are stuck at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder. What they fail to point out is how affirmative action has helped in opening the doors to social mobility for some of these same individuals now in the “middle class.”
Critics also argue that we need “class-based” solutions such as full employment, national health care and quality education that can pull everyone up simultaneously. What they fail to point out is how people of color, even if they reach middle-class status, confront unequal resources and a glass ceiling that prevents them from moving into managerial positions.
Critics are hiding behind the argument that we need to strive for a “color blind” society, arguing that affirmative action only serves to divide working people by allowing one group to benefit at the expense of another. This logic leaves out that specific groups, because of racism and sexism, have been historically excluded or left at the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder. It leaves out the historical existence and use of special preferences for those who are more privileged, such as the children of large donors or alumni.
Affirmative action has not only resulted in diversifying our campuses with more women and students of color, it has been part of a movement to diversify the curriculum. Affirmative action has helped to pave the way for underrepresented groups to attend college, to graduate and to write the histories of individuals who have been excluded or left out. Affirmative action has been part of including these voices, to explain why one group got stratified at one level as compared to another and to interpret why some groups were institutionalized at the lowest levels of the society.
It is no coincidence that General Motors and 20 other multinational corporations publicly supported the University of Michigan’s stance on affirmative action. They realize that, as part of preparing students for participation in an increasingly global economy, there is a need for programs that are inclusive of varied cultures, languages and people.
There would be no need for affirmative action if every individual who wanted to attend college were granted that right.
In the meantime, we need to support efforts, such as those at the University of Michigan, that consider race, ethnicity, gender and economic status in admissions policies. Real unity among all those concerned will be brought about as we direct our energies to the policy-making arena and promote the idea that there is no contradiction in preserving affirmative action alongside “class- based” solutions.