Affirmative Action on Trial Again

March 05, 1995|By C. FRASER SMITH

In 1978, the University of Maryland began a painful odyssey of reform and self-criticism that leads it now to the center of a rending national debate over affirmative action.

To help redress its historic hostility toward African-American students, the university established a blacks-only scholarship program, naming it after the 18th-century black scientist and astronomer Benjamin Banneker.

Sixteen years later, the university finds itself defending the program in court and opposing the growing national antipathy toward race-based remedies for discrimination.

Congress and the president are preparing to eliminate or trim whatever programs are now in place. Republican presidential candidates are rushing to declare their opposition. States are preparing to vote on abolishing preferences.

It is a movement that seems driven politically by the fears of so-called "angry white males" whose votes are coveted by both major parties.

Those who would abolish affirmative action are inclined to suggest that America has wiped away the stains of slavery, racism, bigotry and sexism, according to Sherrilyn Ifill, an assistant professor at the University of Maryland Law School and an expert on election laws and affirmative action programs.

"It's very much in vogue now to disconnect the history of discrimination with the present condition. You must do that if you are going to make the argument that we are a colorblind society. If the connection isn't there between past and present, then we don't need the programs. It's a wonderful fantasy. It happens not to be true," Ms. Ifill said.

One need only recall the recent turmoil at Rutgers University, where the school's president, Francis Lawrence, suggested that black students lack the "genetic hereditary background" to perform well on standardized tests. President Lawrence later apologized for his remark, calling it the opposite of what he believes -- and others hurried to point out that he had compiled an admirable record of expanding access to higher education for minority groups.

Given the atmosphere of resentment and recrimination on all sides, the University of Maryland's response to its own history seems more remarkable -- or lamentable, depending on your point of view.

Allegations of racial discrimination have been met typically with resentment and defensiveness: Fire departments, labor unions, city governments, private businesses and school systems search for evidence of racial right-mindedness.

The University of Maryland offered its record as an example of why affirmative action efforts like the Banneker Scholarships are needed.

The results of its actions, ironically, may now be working against the university as it defends itself in court. Its enrollment and retention of black students puts it ahead of many other institutions of higher learning.

In the early 1980s, the Board of Regents began to examine pools of applicants for virtually any job opening with hope of finding a black candidate, according to Allan L. Schwait, a former chairman. In 1982, Dr. John A. Slaughter, a black electrical engineer, was hired away from the National Science Foundation, where he was the director, to run the university.

Dr. Slaughter was recruited by the late Clarence M. Mitchell Jr., then a member of the Regents. As the congressional lobbyist for the NAACP, Mr. Mitchell had been a key figure in passage of the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964. He also was a true witness to Maryland's sorry record of segregation.

In the 1930s, to cite the most glaring example, the university's law school refused to admit Thurgood Marshall, the Baltimore native who went on to argue the most important civil rights cases of this century and to become the first black member of the U.S. Supreme Court.

Two years after he graduated from Howard Law School in Washington, Mr. Marshall successfully brought suit against the UM Law School on behalf of a black graduate of Amherst College, Donald G. Murray.

That battle solved Mr. Murray's immediate problem -- but left Maryland with a reputation as an unwelcoming place for black students.

The Banneker program was designed to recruit black students who were likely to remain at College Park until graduation, to build a base of supportive black alumni and to combat racial stereotypes. The university offered full scholarships to high-achieving black students who met certain academic standards.

The program appeared to be on course and prospering until 1990, when it was challenged by a Hispanic student who argued that his rights had been trampled: He was denied a Banneker grant, though he qualified for one in every way but race.

The plaintiff, Daniel J. Podberesky, is winning and the university's program is in jeopardy. A federal district court judge twice found the scholarships permissible under U.S. Supreme Court rulings, but an appeals court disagreed each time, finding an insufficient causal link between present conditions on the campus and past discrimination.

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