Alamo of Affirmative Action, the

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3% to 1.4% from 1996 to 2000. Berkeley, despite scrutinizing each application for evidence of "talents that were not identified by test scores or other standardized measures," suffered a similar decline, from 9% to 3.2% (Staff Editorial, 2003).

After affirmative action was outlawed in Texas, the University of Texas system adopted a plan to admit the top 10% of students from each high school. This policy has almost brought enrollment at UT-Austin back to previous levels, but it has not had nearly the same success at Texas A&M or at UT-Dallas, and at UT-Austin minority enrollment still is not proportionate to minorities' overall representation in the student population.

It is politically smart for President Bush to avoid declaring that he is unequivocally opposed to affirmative action. But in this case, his actions speak louder than his words. Bush's conception of "affirmative action" would outlaw universities' only proven, effective way of achieving the crucial value of diversity in their student bodies (Staff Editorial, 2003).

Powell's Stance

In his address to the 2000 Republican National Convention, Colin Powell touted George W. Bush as a different kind of conservative. He said the then-GOP presidential candidate was someone who could "help bridge our racial divides." Powell's praise for Bush came in a speech in which the hugely popular former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff chastised those Republicans who "miss no opportunity to roundly and loudly condemn affirmative action." His embrace of Bush as a racial healer, no doubt, persuaded a lot of people -- who, like Powell, consider themselves "a fiscal conservative with a social conscience" -- to help hoist Bush into the White House (Agence France, 2003).

But in January 2003, instead of bridging the nation's racial gap, Bush widened it. "The Supreme Court will soon hear arguments in a case about admission policies and student diversity in public universities," Bush said of a University of Michigan case. "I strongly support diversity of all kinds, including racial diversity in higher education. But the method used by the University of Michigan to achieve this important goal is fundamentally flawed. (Wickham, 2003)"

While craftily worded to disguise its full intent, Bush's statement makes no allowance for the use of race as a factor in college admissions. Inevitably, the president's position is a big disappointment to Powell, who supports affirmative action and has defended Michigan's admissions policies.

Powell is the Republican Party's bridge to black America. He is the lone member of the Bush administration who commands the respect of a broad cross section of blacks -- 73% of whom view him favorably, according to the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies' 2002 National Opinion Poll. Only Bill Clinton (81%) was rated more favorably. Jesse Jackson finished a distant third with a 60% approval rating. But while Powell is well regarded by blacks, the Republican Party is not. When asked which party has the better approach to dealing with race relations, 58% of blacks said Democrats, and just 13% gave the GOP the nod, according to the Joint Center poll (Wickham, 2003).

Instead of trying to turn his secretary of state's popularity among blacks to his advantage, Bush kept Powell out of the loop as he forged a position on the Michigan case, which could produce a watershed decision on the use of affirmative action in higher education. "No, Secretary Powell was not part of the decision-making process in the University of Michigan case," Jo-Anne Prokopowicz, a State Department spokeswoman, said in January as the backlash to the decision spread.

Julian Bond, chairman of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, accused Bush of coming down "on the wrong side of the struggle over justice in higher education. (Wickham, 2003)"

Wade Henderson, executive director of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, said Bush was playing to his "right-wing, anti-affirmative action base." And a long list of other black leaders attacked the president's position, which Bush announced on the 74th birthday of Martin Luther King Jr., the nation's most revered civil rights leader.

Powell's strength with the masses of Americans is his weakness within the Republican Party: He's not an ideologue. Powell is cut from the same mold that produced George C. Marshall, the World War II military leader who went on to become secretary of state and architect of the Marshall Plan. Once when he was asked which political party he belonged to, Marshall had said: "My mother was a Republican; my father was a Democrat, and I'm an Episcopalian. (Wickham, 2003)"

In his 1995 autobiography, My American Journey, Powell voiced a similar political ambivalence. "I have found my philosophy, if not my political affiliation," he said. "Neither of the two major parties fits me comfortably in its present state. Granted, politics is the art of compromise, but for now I prefer not to compromise just so that I can say I belong to this or that party."

While Powell has since aligned himself with the GOP, there is little to suggest in the wake of the position Bush has taken on affirmative action that he finds it a comfortable fit (Wickham, 2003).

Ford's Stance

Yes, the University of Michigan could be the Alamo of affirmative action, the place where they make their last stand. Michigan's affirmative-action programs, especially at its prestigious law school, are recognized as among the best in the country -- designed not only to produce diverse student bodies but also to withstand the sort of right-wing onslaughts, in the courts or at the polls, that have outlawed the use of racial preferences in California, Washington and other states. That is why so much is riding on two lawsuits filed by whites who claim that they were denied admission to Michigan because of their race, pointing out that some black applicants with lower test scores and grade-point averages were admitted. If affirmative action at Michigan cannot survive these assaults, it is probably doomed at every other state campus in the nation (White, 1999, 48).

Enter former President Gerald Ford, a Michigan alumnus who wrote an extraordinary opinion piece for the New York Times, defending the race-conscious admission policies that are at the core of the Michigan cases. Ford warned that if the courts forbid Michigan to use race, along with other factors that the school employs to select its student body -- including economic standing, geographic origin, athletic and artistic achievement -- they would turn back the clock to an era when minorities "were isolated and penalized for the color of their skin...or national ancestry." He recounted a revolting incident in 1934 when his black teammate, Willis Ward, voluntarily benched himself because the visiting Georgia Tech football team objected to competing against an African-American. Ward's sacrifice, Ford wrote, "led me to question how educational administrators could capitulate to raw prejudice."

Ford's surprise declaration was part of a strategy by Michigan's president, Lee Bollinger, to recapture the moral high ground that affirmative-action supporters have lost to the likes of California's Ward Connerly. Bollinger insists that for a university, racial diversity is "as vital as teaching Shakespeare or mathematics." Under a color-blind admissions system, Bollinger fears, the proportion of black undergrads would nose-dive from 9% to just 1% or 2% (White, 1999, 48).

A few prior to this, Bollinger and William Bowen, co-author of The Shape of the River, an influential book about affirmative action on campus, briefed Ford about Michigan's affirmative-action procedures, which have been reviewed to ensure that they comply with Supreme Court rulings. For example, Michigan's law school does not set numerical targets for minority students. Instead, in addition to grades and test scores, it relies heavily on letters of recommendation, the applicant's essay and evidence of leadership ability. The number of minority students who enter the law school varies greatly from year to year. Surveys show there is no significant difference in job satisfaction or the passage of bar exams between minority graduates and their white counterparts. The minorities have become part of the mainstream. That kind of inclusion is precisely what affirmative action is supposed to accomplish (White, 1999, 48). If enough people like Gerald Ford can be convinced that Michigan's way of achieving it is not only effective but fair, the Alamo of affirmative action might result in victory -- for the defenders.

References

Agence France Presse English. (2003. January). Powell disagrees with Bush on controversial race case.

Commonweal. (2001. March).…