Fate of Race-Based Scholarships

November 13, 1994

A recent federal court decision to strike down a blacks-only scholarship program at the University of Maryland College Park is binding only in Maryland and the four other states in the province of the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. However, the ruling has national implications.

It sets a precedent that other courts could follow when confronting the sort of legal challenge that led to the decision against the Benjamin Banneker scholarship program at College Park.

University officials said they might take the matter to the Supreme Court. They should. Maryland and other public schools need better guidance than they now have on what is and is not constitutional in such affirmative actions programs.

In fact, it is unlikely that a federal court would uphold any state action based solely on race, given the recent trend throughout the federal judiciary to set tougher standards for affirmative action efforts in areas ranging from education to voting rights. As for the Supreme Court, even with two Clinton appointees, it remains a largely conservative panel of jurists.

The propriety of Banneker-like programs was addressed, most famously, in the Supreme Court's 1978 finding in the case of Allan Bakke, a white man who sued the University of California over its policy of reserving college admissions slots for black students. The court's ruling, though, was a muddle of views.

The prevailing opinion was voiced by the swing man in the 5-4 vote, Justice Lewis Powell, who wrote that race should be considered as a factor -- but not, pointedly, the only factor -- in college admission policies that seek to correct decades of minority discrimination.

The University of Maryland's shameful record of racial prejudice, including the denial of admission to African-Americans until the 1950s, has been well documented. It is the aim of the Banneker program to right such past wrongs and to produce a diversified group of potential Maryland leaders through generous public financial aid for superior black students who might otherwise select out-of-state colleges. An institutional sense of justice is not the only force at work here; so is a 25-year-old federal order that Maryland's public colleges must create enrollments more reflective of the state's black population.

Significant strides have been made in that direction. But the question now is whether the mission needs to continue through the use of race-based scholarships. Or should. Or can. Considering the current tenor of the federal court system -- along with Justice Powell's admonition against race as the sole determining factor in anti-bias programs -- university officials ought to develop other methods for attracting minority students and then helping them become successful as scholars and contributors to campus life.

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