A Wise Decision for Affirmative Action

By: Marc H. Morial

President and CEO

National Urban League

The Supreme Court's decision this week supporting the right of universities to consider race as one of many factors in admitting students was a historic victory for America and a reaffirmation of the nation's commitment to equality and diversity.

Although the Court, in effect, declared that the parameters for the use of affirmative action laid down in the Bakke ruling of 1978 were still valid, its decision carries a significant weight all its own.

For the Court rejected a concerted challenge by opponents of affirmative action to end nearly four decades' worth of policies that are the legacy of the civil rights victories of the 1960s. It stated again that government has a compelling interest in promoting diversity in education and the workplace and throughout American society.

The Court did strike down the university's use of a "point system" for its undergraduate admissions program because it believes that approach treated applicants as distinct groups rather than as multi-faceted individuals with many unique characteristics.

That, too, was a restatement of the fine line the Court has drawn regarding the care with which racial considerations must be employed.

But there's no question of the ruling's "bottom line:" The Court has declared that the policies developed to achieve the goals of the civil rights laws of the 1960s—policies which in no small way are the underpinning of the American society of today—are policies still needed in 21st-century America, too.

That in broad terms was precisely the argument the National Urban League, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference of Los Angeles, and the National Rainbow/PUSH Coalition made in the amici curiae brief we submitted to the Court to support the University.

Our brief noted that admissions policies like Michigan's "that consider race as one factor among many in the admissions process do not compromise quality," but instead "represent a balanced and nuanced approach that seeks to admit only students who have the qualifications to compete in, and contribute to, the learning environment."

Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, writing for the 5 to 4 majority in the law school case, explained why that is important for the society as a whole.

Stating that the Constitution "does not prohibit the law school's narrowly tailored use of race in admissions decisions to further a compelling interest in obtaining the educational benefits that flow from a diverse student body," Justice O'Connor went on to say that "[e]ffective participation by members of all racial and ethnic groups in the civic life of our nation is essential if the dream of one nation, indivisible, is to be realized."

That is the crux of the matter.

Voluminous statistics, and too many tragic incidents, underscore that, despite the considerable progress this country has made since the 1960s, the legacy of past discrimination and present-day circumstance still limit opportunity for many people of color.

For example, last year in our scholarly journal, The State of Black America 2002, Franklin D. Raines, chairman of Fannie Mae and a National Urban League trustee, cited a wealth of statistics to illustrate how great the "equality gap" between blacks and whites remains.

For one thing, Raines—whose own ascension to the top of a giant corporation has often been cited as a marker of the great progress made—pointed out that if blacks as a group had achieved equal opportunity with whites, there'd be 62 African-American chief executives of Fortune 500 companies, not the present 4; and there'd be 600,000 more black-owned businesses, generating nearly $3 trillion more in revenue.

He added that if America had achieved racial equality in education and jobs, African Americans would have 2 million more high school degrees, 2 million more college degrees, 2 million more workers in high-paying professional and managerial jobs, and $200 billion more in annual income per household.

The point is clear. First, African Americans lose out from the continued existence of the "equality gap." Secondly, America loses out from the continued existence of the "equality gap."

That's why affirmative action is vital. It has served America well in expanding opportunity. It must be allowed to continue to do so in the years ahead.

Mary Sue Coleman, the University of Michigan president, described the Court's approval of the law school admissions procedures as a "resounding affirmation that will be heard across the land from our college classrooms to our corporate boardrooms."

She and her predecessor, Lee C. Bollinger, deserve the nation's gratitude, as does the broad coalition of civil rights organizations, and such labor unions as the AFL-CIO, and also the Fortune 500 chief executives and more than two dozen of the nation's top former military officers who spoke up in the national interest.

I'm sure they will now do what we at the National Urban League will: continue to make it clear that diversity and excellence are not mutually exclusive, and that affirmative action is a critical tool in achieving a diverse, racially integrated, and high-achieving society.

Enviroshop is maintained by dedicated NetSys Interactive Inc. owners & employees who generously contribute their time to maintenance & editing, web design, custom programming, & website hosting for Enviroshop.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *