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Renewed Debate Over Affirmative Action In The United States - 2003-01-22

The highly controversial case in the United States that alleges the University of Michigan has given preference to African-Americans and Hispanics in its admission process has sparked much debate on affirmative action as it relates to race and diversity. Those opposed to affirmative action say it discriminates against white and Asian students. Civil Rights activists say without affirmative action there would be no diversity in prestigious colleges and universities.

The Affirmative Action issue is one that goes deep. The University of Michigan case is not just about its admissions policies. Many politicians, including President Bush, are at odds with how Affirmative Action has been used to admit minorities and say it does not promote diversity. Roger Clegg, Vice-President of the Center for Equal Opportunity is opposed to Affirmative Action when it comes to addressing race.

He says, "The only kind of affirmative action that is controversial today is discrimination, in which I do oppose—people are treated differently because of their skin color or because of their ancestry. Of course that kind of discrimination was at odds with the ideals of the civil rights movement and remains at odds with the civil rights movement. Unfortunately, that kind of discrimination is very widespread, particularly in the admissions policies of colleges and universities."

Mary Frances Berry, is Chairperson of the Commission on Civil Rights in Washington DC. She is also a professor at the University of Pennsylvania. She explains how Affirmative Action has helped African Americans and other minorities in getting into universities.

She says, "Universities and private prestigious universities—students who graduate see that their children have an opportunity to be admitted just because their parents went to that school. Knowing that for years, most of the people who were admitted were white will make you understand that most of the people were the children of white parents—they are white. They are called legacies. Every prestigious private institution and public institution have provisions for legacies. Affirmative Action was designed as one tool in the civil rights movement for trying to balance the opportunities to attend prestigious higher educational institutions and to see to it that African Americans, who are paying taxes to help support these places, and now Hispanics, who will have the same opportunity."

Ms. Berry explains why the University of Michigan has sparked so much debate with its admission policies.

She says, "We had a case in the United States called the Bakki case in 1978, in which a white student claimed he wasn’t admitted to a medical school because blacks were admitted and there was a quota. The Supreme Court said that you could take race into account as long as it is one of the factors you use in determining admissions. So, today, and since 1978, most universities and colleges including the prestigious ones use race as one factor. They want to have diverse student bodies. They believe it is good for them, good for the students in becoming educated and it is their duty to educate everyone if possible. So they will look at things like geography. In the case of university of Michigan, they will see how many people come from the upper peninsula which is the least populated part of the state—who have an opportunity to go to that school. They will look at if there are musicians, legacies, and athletes and get a mix of people to go. They take test scores into account and race as only one of the factors. What this case is about is whether the University of Michigan was right or wrong in trying to see that a critical mass, percentage of African Americans were in the student body of that University which is the most prestigious one in the state of Michigan."

Roger Clegg, while opposed to Affirmative Action, says he and his organization are in favor of vigorous enforcement of civil rights laws to prohibit discrimination of African Americans. Mr. Clegg also says there is another problem facing African American students.

He says, "But you know that fundamental problem that confronts African Americans today in the college admissions process is not discrimination. The fundamental problem is that unfortunately a disproportionate number of African American kids get to be seventeen, eighteen years old and are not academically competitive with white kids."

Mr. Clegg mentioned in addition to white students, African American kids were also not academically competitive with Asian students as well. Mr. Clegg gave three major reasons that he sees as creating the disadvantage, failing public school systems, cultural peer pressure where he says many African American kids are taught by peers that academic excellence is quote “being white”, and he said seven out of 10 African Americans are born out of wedlock. The Supreme Court is expected to rule on the University of Michigan case within the next few months.