Friends of the court

February 20, 2003

WHEN THE Supreme Court gave a green light to affirmative action in college admissions nearly a quarter-century ago, 58 individuals and groups weighed in with briefs. Forty-two backed the admissions policies of the University of California, 16 sided with Allan Bakke, who claimed reverse discrimination after he was denied admission to the university's medical school in Davis. Never in its 189-year history had the nation's highest court attracted so much unsolicited advice in an education case.

Until now. The volume of briefs in the case involving race-conscious admissions at the University of Michigan has eclipsed the Bakke record. If you're keeping score, it's a 4-1 edge for the university, which is defending its undergraduate and law schools' admissions practices that give points to minorities.

But scoring isn't the point here, especially when it's the U.S. Supreme Court that will decide the winner. What is remarkable is the variety of support for Michigan, a variety that demonstrates the importance of racial diversity in American society. Among the people who say they depend on affirmative action are those who make cars and those who make war.

The higher education community and civil rights organizations generally supported the university in the Bakke case, although some Jewish groups argued for race-neutral admissions policies similar to those backed by the Bush administration today. The national Chamber of Commerce supported Bakke. So did the Fraternal Order of Police.

In the Michigan case, the leaders of 300 organizations are supporting the university. Some were solicited, but many were not. Among the signers: leaders of 64 Fortune 500 companies, including Banc One, Boeing, Shell and General Motors, which said that "only a well-educated, highly diverse workforce, compris[ing] people who have learned to work productively and creatively with individuals from a multitude of races ... can maintain America's global competitiveness."

Another brief came from more than two dozen of the nation's best-known retired military officers. Gen. Norman Schwarzkopf and others argued that ROTC and the military academies need race-sensitive policies to maintain a highly diversified officer corps.

Lawyers for the plaintiffs in the Michigan case dismissed the volume of briefs, saying the justices are to decide what the Constitution requires, not run a popularity contest. But the justices read newspapers, and the news this week is that in the quarter-century since Bakke, a segment of the business and military establishment has learned to appreciate and even come to depend upon the results of affirmative action.

Michigan and other institutions should be supported as they recruit a diverse student body.

Racial diversity creates stronger companies - and a stronger nation.

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