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A Case for Affirmative Action
January 29, 2003
By Eric Munoz

Recently the University of Michigan has come under scrutiny as it prepares to defend its admissions policy in front of the Supreme Court. The op-ed pages of papers nationwide have been filled with positions supporting and attacking the university's admissions policy. Even the White House has weighed in by filing an amicus - a "Friend of the Court" - brief criticizing Michigan's program while several prominent universities and corporations, including Stanford University, Microsoft and General Motors, have filed briefs in support of Michigan's program.

It is important to consider the university's race based policy in the context of its overall admissions process. Every year the University of Michigan, one of the best schools in the country, receives far many more qualified applicants than it can accommodate. The university has developed a "selection index" to help sort out the applicants. The index is designed to help admissions counselors form a quality, diverse student body. According to the University of Michigan, there are up to 150 points available in their selection index, 110 of which are based on purely academic achievements. The other 40 points can be awarded based on any of a number of factors. Up to 20 points can be awarded to an applicant based on race, socio-economic background or athletic ability, up to 16 points may be awarded to an applicant from Michigan's Upper Peninsula, and up to four points can be awarded for alumni relationships.

Opponents have claimed that the 20 points that may be awarded based on race is unconstitutional and unfair (interestingly, opponents to the Michigan system neglect to mention the other non-academic points awarded for legacy connections, athletic prowess or geographic characteristics). However, in 1978 the Supreme Court ruled in Regents of the University of California v. Bakke that using race as a factor for admissions was in fact legal, and that "the State has a substantial interest that legitimately may be served by a properly devised admissions program involving the competitive consideration of race and ethnic origin." The controlling opinion in that case as issued by the United States Supreme Court is the ruling law of the land, meaning that the use of race as a factor in admissions is constitutional.

Furthermore, the petitioners in the current suit have conceded that the University of Michigan does not admit minority students that are not qualified over non-minority students that are qualified. The University has also accepted white students with lower scores and GPA's than minority students that were rejected.

While it is clear that the constitutionality of race as a factor among several factors can be used in admissions, the fight over the University of Michigan's admission policy is a really just a proxy for the fight over the larger questions of whether or not race still matters in today's America and whether or not affirmative action is necessary and fair.

If our society were indeed race-neutral, we would expect that the social characteristics across race would be about even. In other words, in a truly color blind society, we would expect that Black and Hispanic Americans would be about as likely as White Americans to be poor, unemployed or to be a high school graduate.

However, a look at several demographic statistics shows that indeed race is still relevant, much to the misfortune of minorities. According to statistics from the U.S. Census Bureau, the poverty rates-the 3-year average from 1999-2001-among blacks (22.9%), Hispanics (21.9%) and Native Americans (24.5%) is three times the rate among non-Hispanic whites (7.6%). The US Department of Education statistics show that high school drop out rates in 2000 for Blacks (13.1%) and Hispanics (27.8%) were much higher than for white students (6.9%). And statistics issued by the Bureau of Labor for November 2002, show that Blacks (11.5%) and Hispanics (7.9%) are much more likely than Whites (5.1%) to be unemployed.

Clearly race matters when it comes to poverty, educational attainment and unemployment. As for fairness, it hardly seems fair that a baby born to black or Hispanic parents is three times more likely to be born into poverty than a baby born to white parents.

Affirmative action sought to level the playing field and eliminate the wide discrepancy in poverty, educational attainment and employment levels between the races. While much progress has been made, it is clear that much more remains to be done.

While no one would condone a system that awards positions or admissions solely on race, a system that uses race as a factor among many factors in accepting, hiring or promoting qualified applicants is a necessary tool in reaching racial equality. Until race is no longer relevant in a child's chances to be born into poverty and until educational resources and attainment is roughly equal across races, affirmative action programs like the one used at the University of Michigan are still needed.

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