There’s still a place in America for affirmative action

The debate over affirmative action, much like the debate over abortion, has to be one of the most divisive issues Americans have struggled with over the last 40 years. Now, once again affirmative action is in the news with the Supreme Court set to hear arguments on cases involving two University of Michigan entrance applicants one to the law school and one for general entrance to the university with a likely ruling by June. At stake, simply put, is the very existence of affirmative action in higher education.

The two cases involve Barbara Grutter and Jennifer Gratz who were both denied entrance into the University of Michigan Grutter from the law school and Gratz from general entrance back in 1995. In both cases, the university said it had the right to consider qualified minorities to reflect the “educational benefits of diversity.” This case is essentially only the second of its kind brought to the high court and the ruling could cause a domino affect on affirmative action, not only in higher education, but in other areas as well. So important is this matter, that a group of bipartisan Latino organizations have sent a letter to President Bush urging him to come out and endorse affirmative action in higher education. For the Bush Administration, this is a particularly prickly issue for several reasons. For one, you have the Republican Party looking for ways to make up ground with minorities since the Lott incident. Then, you have conservatives pushing for a more conservative slate of judges, who will be appointed by the Senate, that will likely enforce any reversals in affirmative action laws by the high courts. Lastly, there is a possibility of having to replace a Supreme Court Justice, with this issue looming, only a year and a half from a Presidential election. The Latino organizations, including Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund, the Cuban American National Council and the National Council of La Raza, have said this will play a large role in the 2004 election. I’m glad to see a large number of Latino organizations and women getting involved in the debate over affirmative action, because it elevates the issue past the usual discussion between black and white.

To me the debate over affirmative action is really more about symbolism than substance. Why? Because in no cases can the person suing ever show any undeniable proof they have been discriminated against because of the acceptance of a specific person. For instance, if asked, neither of the two young ladies mentioned above could point out exactly who at the university took their place. That’s because affirmative action policies are only one of many criteria that determine entrance. Neither woman could either point to a specific person or say whether they had superior academics to the person selected. By the way, affirmative action programs are also meant to consider women as a part of that “educational benefit to diversity,” so I find it curious that they would take such a stand simply because they were supposedly denied because of their race.

Unlike the bad and unnecessary idea of reparations, affirmative action does have a place in American society. Unfortunately, the courts have not been a big help in deciding where that place really is. When the Supreme Court listens to Grutter and Gratz’s case, it will be the first such hearing on college admissions since 1978. Loose definitions from lawmakers and their unwillingness to deal with the whole issue of affirmative action has left defining the policy up to talk show hosts and pundits. As a result, affirmative action debate usually boils down to one word racism and that is unfortunate. When you inject racism into the discussion, valid pros and cons on the policy get thrown out the window and are replaced with meaningless accusations.

Let’s be honest, affirmative action is not a perfect concept. It is, however, an attempt to promote the general welfare, increasing overall economic prosperity based on fairness of access and personal effort, not a guaranteed final outcome. If the person selected doesn’t do the work in college or on the job, they won’t be there long. Everyone in America should be for that.

Davon Gray works as a lobbyist in Washington, D.C., and resides in Woodbridge. He can be reached at [email protected]

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