Diversity won't die

January 24, 2003|By Clarence Page

WASHINGTON - Reports of affirmative action's imminent death, as Mark Twain once said of his own, have been greatly exaggerated.

Beneath the storm and bluster from both sides of the debate over race as a factor in college admissions, it appears certain that affirmative action is here to stay. It just might not be called "affirmative action."

It will stay because we are an increasingly diverse society and, for a variety of reasons, responsible people in the business, academic and political worlds are looking for better ways for all of us to get along. In pursuit of this worthy goal, programs aimed at campus diversity will continue under such rubrics as "priority" admissions or "cultural traditions" or "geographic diversity" or "percentage plans" like the one Texas launched at its public universities while President Bush was governor.

The plan guarantees acceptance to students who graduate in the top 10 percent of each high school class, regardless of whether the school is urban, suburban, ghetto or barrio. Florida - where the president's brother Jeb governs - and California have similar programs. The elegance of that strategy is the way it broadens opportunities for lower-income kids in economically undernourished communities, regardless of race.

Unfortunately, it works to achieve its implicit goal of racial and ethnic diversity because America's high schools and neighborhoods are still mostly segregated.

In fact, the latest report card by the Civil Rights Project at Harvard University, released on the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, found public schools slipping back into more racial and ethnic segregation.

Growing numbers of black and Latino students in the 2000-2001 school year attended schools where the majority of students were minorities, said Gary Orfield, co-director of the Civil Rights Project, while white students were likely to attend schools where most of their classmates are white. If this trend continues, geography can increasingly be used as a proxy for race to achieve diversity.

Indeed, there's nothing new about colleges granting preferences to certain students; this was going on long before race was added to the mix. Yet, to the best of my knowledge, no one has talked about suing Yale for passing over students with higher SAT scores to admit young George W. Bush in the fall of 1964, when his 1206 was about 100 points lower than the average for students admitted that year, according to news reports during the 2000 campaign. He was assisted by affirmative action for the offspring of alumni.

But race is the only factor that troubles the Bush White House. In submitting his brief in the University of Michigan admissions case now before the Supreme Court, Mr. Bush said he "strongly" supports "diversity of all kinds, including racial diversity," but called Michigan's program "fundamentally flawed" by "a quota system that unfairly rewards or penalizes prospective students based solely on their race."

Well, if white and Asian kids are indeed penalized, it's not by much. For example, we do not hear any complaint from the plaintiffs about the white students admitted ahead of them, even though they had lower grade point averages and test scores than the white plaintiffs.

When lead plaintiff Barbara Grutter's application was rejected in 1996 by the law school, 23 other white applicants were admitted who had lower grade point averages and test scores than she did, according to the university. And, while the two undergraduate plaintiffs, Jennifer Gratz and Patrick Hamacher, who were B students at Michigan high schools, were rejected, as many as 42 whites or Asians were admitted with lower grades and test scores.

The University of Michigan receives about 25,000 applications for about 5,000 available slots. It's quite possible that the plaintiffs would not have been accepted even if race had not been used in the screening process.

On the contrary, that race was used now offers them a thread of hope in today's polarized political climate of leapfrogging over other qualified applicants, some of whom may be minorities, to get in anyway.

By any name, affirmative action will still be controversial. Even so, it is healthy for all of us in the long run to have the courts review affirmative action from time to time, see how well it is working - or not working - and modify it.

Affirmative action was never intended to be permanent, but I don't think America is quite ready to get rid of it yet.

Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing newspaper. His column appears Fridays in The Sun. He can be reached via e-mail at cpage@tribune.com.

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