PRINCESS ANNE M-y Sitting on a bench on the bucolic campus of the University of Maryland, Eastern Shore, sophomore Jodi Ann Gordon didnM-Ft hesitate when asked why she had come to a historically black college.
"I personally wouldn't go to a predominantly white college." said the African-American student from Hartford, Conn. "It's a comfort-level thing."
That sentiment, a fairly common one at UMES, is now at is sue in the landmark affirmative action case before the U.S. Supreme Court. In an unlikely twist, opponents of racial preferences in college admissions have seized on historically black colleges to help make their argument against affirmative action.
Their reasoning goes: If racial diversity on campuses is as important a goal as proponents of affirmative action say it is, how does one account for the success of the countryM-Fs 105 historically black colleges? Does the fact that these schools educate thousands in a mostly homogeneous setting M-y and that many students such as Gordon prefer to attend them M-y undermine the claim that diversity is absolutely vital to higher education?
"There have been lots of instances where people have got ten a perfectly good education, even if the education they got was in a student body that might not have had racial diversity.M-v said Roger Clegg, general counsel for the Center for Equal Opportunity, a conservative think tank that opposes affirmative action.
The argument, which is rebuffed by defenders of affirmative action, goes straight to the complex issues before the court M-y and underscores how much the official rationale for racial preferences has changed over time.
The case, to be decided by July, involves two challenges of affirmative action, both by white applicants to the University of Michigan and its law school. In the precedent at issue, the 1978 Bakke case, the Supreme Court upheld the use of racial prefer ences in college admissions but gave a new legal justification.
Affirmative action in higher education could no longer be justified as a way to right past discrimination against minorities, the 1978 court ruled. Instead, it said racial preferences are permis sible because they help colleges reap the educational benefits of diversity.
ThatM-Fs where historically black colleges enter the picture. If campus diversity is so valuable as to justify racial preferences, critics of affirmative action argue, how does one explain the appeal of mostly black schools?
Justice Clarence Thomas raised this point during the April 1 oral arguments in the case. As an attorney for the University of Michigan extolled the merits of campus diversity, Thomas asked how that position squared with the environment at historically black colleges. "Would the same argument with respect to diversity apply to those institutions?M-F he asked.
The attorneyM-Fs response was that many historically black schools are not exclusively African-American anymore and so benefit from diversity, too.
More broadly, affirmative actionM-Fs defenders argue that just because some choose to study in a mostly black college that shouldnM-Ft keep schools such as Michigan from being able to craft a mixed student body if they believe in the merits of diversity.
Some defenders argue that diversity may be more important at selective, majority-white schools because white students are more likely than minorities not to have contact with those of other backgrounds. Students at historically black colleges, however, know diversity by living in a country where they are the minority.
"When we talk about students having a diverse environment in which to study, weM-vre talking about the need for predominantly white universities to have exposure to people of color, quite frankly.M-v said Freeman A. Hrabowski III, president of the diverse University of Maryland, Baltimore County.
That affirmative action is now justified as a benefit to white students baffles some who are not involved in the legal wrangling and who still assume that racial preferences are meant to lift minorities.
During a recent visit by a reporter to UMES, one of four his torically black colleges in Maryland, most students interviewed said they support racial preferences because they compensate for lingering racism. They were more ambivalent about the diversity argument.
But the students said they believe racial diversity on campuses is, in theory, a good thing because it prepares young people for life and work in a diverse country.
On the other hand, the same students said they chose UMES partly because they wanted to be in a relatively homogenous setting where they could feel at ease and learn about African- American culture. In general, they said, they are getting a good education despite the relative lack of diversity at the 3,500-student school, which is nearly 80 percent black.