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US Supreme Court Hears Arguments in Key Race Discrimination Case - 2003-04-01

The Supreme Court has heard arguments in two highly-publicized cases in which three students accuse the University of Michigan and its law school of not admitting them because they are white, the majority racial group in the United States. The three students say the university's Affirmative Action admissions policies give unfair preferences to minorities and should be overturned.

Affirmative Action policies were introduced in the United States in the 1960s, as active measures to ensure that blacks and other minorities had the same opportunities for job advancement and school admissions that whites enjoyed.

The president of the United States at the time, Lyndon Johnson, saw these policies as a way to redress discrimination that had persisted despite civil rights laws and constitutional guarantees. These policies were especially aimed at helping black Americans, many of whom had ancestors who came to the United States from Africa hundreds of years ago as slaves.

More than 30 years later, the issue is once again in the spotlight. Thousands of Affirmative Action supporters, mostly students from colleges around the country, carried signs saying "Diversity Matters" as they demonstrated Tuesday outside the Supreme Court. Inside, justices heard arguments for and against a lawsuit challenging the University of Michigan's admissions policies. The school's system awards applicants up to 20 points for race, out of a total of 150 points that may also be earned for good grades and out-of-school activities. The more points applicants have, the better their chances of being admitted.

One of the students who brought the lawsuit, Jennifer Gratz, 25, who is white, accuses the University of Michigan of exercising reverse-discrimination when it did not admit her as an undergraduate more than six-years ago.

"I was treated unfairly simply because of the color of my skin. Court records show that if I had been black, Hispanic or Native-American, I would have had a nearly 100 percent chance of admission with my grades and my record," she said. "In comparison, white, Asian or Arabic students in my category had a 30 percent chance of being admitted."

The opponents of Affirmative Action at the university got their biggest boost in January, when President Bush publicly came out in favor of their case.

"At their core, the Michigan policies amount to a quota system that unfairly rewards or penalizes prospective students, based solely on their race," he said.

Mr. Bush acknowledged that racial prejudice is still a reality in the United States. "Yet, as we work to address the wrong of racial prejudice, we must not use means that create another wrong, and thus perpetuate our divisions," he said.

While the President criticized the university's Affirmative Action plan, a record number of people wrote briefs to support the school, including leading businesses, members of Congress, labor unions, civil rights groups, and U.S. military leaders.

Shirley Wilcher is executive-director of the non-governmental organization, Americans for a Fair Chance, which was formed specifically to provide information about Affirmative Action.

"Affirmative action is fair, it works, and it is still necessary to achieve diversity, prevent discrimination and ensure that all Americans have an equal opportunity to compete in the classroom, at the job site and in our businesses and corporations," she said.

Ms. Wilcher quotes President Johnson from 1965, when he announced the affirmative action plans. He said that although many black Americans are descended from freed slaves, simple freedom was not enough.

"You do not wipe away the scars of centuries by saying now you are free to go where you want and do as you desire and choose the leaders you please. You do not take a person, who for years has been hobbled by chains, and liberate him, bring him up to the starting line of a race, and say, you are free to compete with all the others, and still justly believe that you have been completely fair," she said.

Emily Russell, a University of Michigan senior, is white, but she feels one way she has benefited from the school's Affirmative Action policies is that they have created a diverse student body and a diverse faculty.

"The goal of Affirmative Action policies is that eventually, hopefully, they will not have to exist anymore," she said.

She says she does not know if the University of Michigan policies are the best way to level the playing field between whites and minorities. But she thinks it is the best way for the time being.

The Supreme Court ruling on the case is expected by the end of June.