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A socialist newsweekly published in the interests of working people
Vol. 67/No. 24July 14, 2003


International Socialist Workers Conference,
Oberlin, Ohio, July 10-12.
Find out more.

lead article
Supreme Court upholds
affirmative action plans
Ruling affirms there is ‘state interest
in diversity’ in higher education
Militant/Sam Manuel
More than 50,000 marched in Washington, D.C., April 1, 2003, to defend affirmative action. The U.S. Supreme Court ratified use of affirmative action programs in university admissions, ruling on two University of Michigan cases.

In a significant victory for the struggle for Black and women’s rights, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a ruling June 23 that upholds affirmative action in higher education as the law of the land.

The case involved student admissions programs at the University of Michigan, but is expected to have a broader impact on private colleges, government institutions, and businesses.

UM president Mary Sue Coleman called the ruling “a tremendous victory” for the university and other schools. “The court sent a clear message today that affirmative action may be used in our admissions policies,” she said at a press conference. Student organizations celebrated with rallies on campus.

“I think today’s opinions, taken together, constitute a strong endorsement of the constitutionality of affirmative action,” said Theodore Shaw, associate director-counsel of the NAACP.

Voting 5-4, the Supreme Court upheld the University of Michigan law school’s affirmative action policy, which “allows consideration of race as a factor in admissions.”

In a 6-3 vote, the Court ruled against the University of Michigan’s undergraduate admissions policy for using a point system that awarded extra points for applicants who are Black, Latino, or Native American. The rulings were sweeping enough, however, for school admissions programs to be tailored in such a way as to maintain affirmative action.

The mass civil rights struggles of the 1950s and 1960s led to demands for affirmative action—special measures to combat pervasive discrimination and expand the number of Blacks, Latinos, other oppressed nationalities, and women in employment, education, and other aspects of society. Over the past four decades, affirmative action programs have been won in struggle in all these areas. The strongest gains have been those where affirmative action quotas have been established as a tool to force compliance by bosses and government officials.

In its 1978 University of California Regents v. Bakke ruling, the Supreme Court declared racial quotas unconstitutional for admission to colleges and universities. At the same time it held that “the goal of achieving a diverse student body is sufficiently compelling to justify consideration of race…under some circumstances.”

After the Bakke decision, many schools like the University of Michigan adjusted their affirmative action programs to use race and “diversity” as considerations.

The June 23 ruling noted that the Bakke case had produced six separate opinions by the justices, none of them commanding a majority of the court. Justice Lewis Powell, who announced the 1978 decision, submitted an opinion, not joined by the other judges, stating that there was “a compelling state interest” in racial diversity in university admissions.

In the latest decision, the Court went considerably further than Bakke, placing Powell’s statement at the center of its ruling. “The Court endorses Justice Powell’s view that student body diversity is a compelling state interest in the context of university admissions,” O’Connor wrote for the majority.  
Fortune 500, military brass file briefs
The University of Michigan case, as the first Supreme Court decision on affirmative action since Bakke, drew nationwide attention that highlighted the sea change in social attitudes that has taken place in the United States over the decades, with overwhelming support for affirmative action among working people, the middle classes, and among the majority of the U.S. ruling class.

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported June 24 that “a raft of universities…filed briefs in support of the University of Michigan, arguing that the only way to make sure campuses do not become bastions of white privilege is to include race and ethnicity as a factor in admissions. They were joined by a number of U.S. corporate and military leaders, who warned the court that overthrowing affirmative action entirely would undo years of progress in providing minorities economic and leadership opportunities formerly closed off to them.” Briefs supporting the UM affirmative actions programs were filed by 20 Fortune 500 companies, including General Motors, Dupont, Texaco, Dow Chemical, Bank One, Eastman Kodak, Eli Lilly, and Procter and Gamble.

A brief was also submitted by 30 U.S. generals and admirals of the Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marine Corps, including Adm. William Crowe and Generals Wesley Clark, Norman Schwarzkopf, John Shalikashvili, Hugh Shelton, and Anthony Zinni. In the 30-page document they argued that the government’s “compelling national security need for a cohesive military led by a diverse officer corps of the highest quality” requires race-conscious admissions policies for officer training programs.

In a section titled “The lesson of history,” they detailed some of the problems faced by the U.S. military before the percentage of oppressed nationalities in the officer corps was increased, particularly during the Vietnam War when “racial tensions reached a point where there was an inability to fight.” The brief noted that the U.S. military was forced to take affirmative action measures to recruit Blacks and other oppressed nationalities into the officer training program and that such conscious steps have proved necessary for the morale and cohesion of the U.S. armed forces and its officers.

The Bush administration filed a brief asking the Supreme Court to invalidate both University of Michigan programs as based on quota systems. At the same time it accepted the consideration of race as a factor, which angered right-wing groups.

The White House brief promoted what it called “race-neutral” alternatives to affirmative action quotas. It pointed to Texas, where students graduating in the top 10 percent of all high schools in the state, including majority-Black schools, are offered admission to a state university. The top-10 system was established after a court struck down the affirmative action program at the University of Texas. “Percentage plans” are based on the reality that high schools in the state are highly segregated.

The University of Michigan undergraduate admissions program used a point system to rate students seeking to be admitted. Points were awarded to grade-point averages and scores on college entrance exams. It also gave points for several other categories, including relatives of alumni, Michigan residents, and members of oppressed nationalities.

The lawsuits and the Bush administration opposed only the latter category. The Supreme Court ruling said the undergraduate school’s point system was too “mechanical” and not “individualized” enough.

Most supporters of affirmative action celebrated the court’s decision as a victory.

“Affirmative action has been upheld, Bakke has been deemed good and we move forward today knowing that we are moving in the right direction,” Michigan student assembly president Angela Galardi said. “The Court upheld the principle while critiquing the process.”

Students Supporting Affirmative Action and the Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action by Any Means Necessary (BAMN) rallied on the Ann Arbor campus on June 23 to celebrate the Supreme Court ruling.

In an opinion piece in the Michigan Daily, the newspaper of the University of Michigan, BAMN members Agnes Aleobua and Kate Stenvig wrote that “we have saved Brown v. Board of Education and are now in a stronger position than at any point in the past 30 years to realize the promise of Brown—integration and equality in American education.”

At the rally BAMN spokeswoman Shanta Driver said the undergraduate school could achieve “the exact same thing that it achieved with the point system” by using a more “nuanced and individualized” system.

Recent law school graduate Brandy Johnson praised the court’s decision while also reminding fellow students that the struggle for equality is not yet over.

“The court’s ruling today acknowledges what communities of color and their allies have known all along—that race still matters in America, and that color-blindness is irrelevant in a society where race continues to shape the distribution of resources in wealth, education, housing, the criminal justice system, and beyond.”

Bush issued a mild statement, praising the Supreme Court “for recognizing the value of diversity on our nation’s campuses.”

Some members of the Bush administration had publicly defended affirmative action. In a January 17 statement, National Security Advisor Condoleeza Rice said, “I agree with the President’s position, which emphasized the need for diversity and recognizes the continued legacy of racial prejudice, and the need to fight it.” She added, “I believe that while race neutral means are preferable, it is appropriate to use race as one factor among others in achieving a diverse student body.”

The brief submitted by the military officers quoted a 1996 statement by Gen. Colin Powell, currently U.S. secretary of state, who said, “In the military, we…used Affirmative Action to reach out to those who were qualified, but who were often overlooked or ignored.”  
Right-wing anger
The Supreme Court ruling dismayed opponents of affirmative action. Terrence Pell, president of the Center for Individual Rights, which represented the plaintiffs, said, “Today’s ruling is a mixed decision.” Trying to put a good face on it, he said it “signals the beginning of the end for race-based admissions.”

Some right-wing groups were furious over the University of Michigan ruling. That outrage was magnified by a subsequent Supreme Court decision that struck down an anti-gay rights Texas sodomy law. Jay Sekulow, legal director of the right-wing American Center for Law and Justice said he “deplored” the two rulings.

“It’s outrageous that the majority in favor of these racial preferences was formed by Republican appointees,” sputtered Clint Bolick of the Institute for Justice, another rightist group.

The ruling is expected to have an impact on university admissions programs at other universities. Officials of the University of Texas have said they will now move to reincorporate the use of race as a factor in university admissions within the framework of the court ruling and the existing “10 percent” admissions law.

Osborne Hart in Detroit contributed to this article.
Related article:
Celebrate high court rulings

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