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Despite the Supreme Court's recent decision, affirmative action is alive and well -- for the dominating elite.

Page Two
The first letters are appearing in the daily papers; the predictable news conferences are being held. Last week's Supreme Court decision, which offered a tepid endorsement of race-based affirmative action in university admissions, is being condemned as a giant step backward. The stated reason is an unqualified devotion to constitutional principles -- the supposed goal a truly colorblind society, a level playing field available to all. Affirmative action, on the other hand, is not considered a partial cure for any modern racism -- instead, it's the main cause. Most of those decrying the decision are white and have themselves benefited from hundreds of years of an unspoken and unacknowledged affirmative action that privileged certain Americans by race and class.

Some random responses:

  • College admission is not a science; no matter how formally codified, it is subjective. The dominant model in a remarkable number of such judgment situations, especially at any college where there are more applicants than available places, is the bell curve. Some applications are shoo-ins; others require only quick consideration to make the merits obvious. At the other end, some are very easily dismissed, and others need only the briefest consideration before they are discarded as well. The largest number fall into the middle, the group that requires the most deliberation.

    Affirmative-action opponents would have us believe that there is a clear, objectively numbered line of accepted applicants. The decision is then made that numbers 700 through 715 of that group are rejected, replaced instead by minority applicants.

    The truth is much more complex. Toward the end of the selection process, many candidates share roughly the same qualifications. Even with a system assigning numerical values, at the very bottom of the bell curve are the greatest number of applicants -- all roughly equally qualified. At this point, subjective distinctions must be made. Think of the range of possible factors: The institution needs more students from rural areas or urban areas or with blue-collar parents or whose strengths are more in science than in arts and on and on. A diversified student body is a desired goal, but achieving one is difficult and may often seem arbitrary. It is certainly not "objective."

  • Anyone who regards being denied admission to a particular institution of higher learning as inherently an "unfair" decision needs to calm down. Almost every college applicant I have known over four decades has been turned down by one or more of the schools he or she applied to, often for reasons that weren't obvious. At least one anti-affirmative-action plaintiff recalled that this was the only college (or law school) she had applied to -- when turned down, she was devastated and decided not to attend school at all. This is ridiculous. Welcome to the real world. There is no guarantee of getting into college, or certainly any particular college. Acceptance is usually a privilege, rarely a right (currently in Texas, if you're in the top 10% of your high school class you're admitted -- precisely because affirmative methods of ensuring racial diversity had been outlawed by Hopwood). Many factors are considered in determining college admission, not just race, nor raw numbers based on a value system. Admission factors are not only different at each institution but always evolving. Influences can range from current events, the makeup of the existing student population, the composition of the admissions committee, the qualities and number of applicants, to the goals of the institution's administration or its faculty, not to mention federal mandates.

    Despite all the anti-affirmative-action bluster, for example, there has never been a hue and cry against preferences for athletes, surely not certain candidates for academic success. That objection would offend too broad a constituency, one more likely to celebrate sports victories than constitutional nuances. Even the most conservative anti-affirmative-action foundations are aware that some major contributors are ideologically pure only to a point. For often-fanatical and fanatically involved alumni, the line of constitutional equity ends at the door to the sports arena. But such preferential considerations, across the board, are ignored because admissions committees are loath to acknowledge them, and they are often hard to discern. Race is easy, especially because this country's history of discrimination has led to an often-dramatic inequality beyond heritage or skin color.

  • It is generally, though not often too publicly, acknowledged that even with minorities removed from the mix, most of the major anti-affirmative-action plaintiffs still wouldn't have been accepted by the schools to which they had applied. These suits are socially devastating sour grapes often solicited by ideologically driven attorneys -- e.g., Austin lawyer Steven Wayne Smith, who rode that reactionary wave all the way to the Texas Supreme Court.

  • The very notion of a colorblind society or a "level playing field," under current social circumstances, is moronic. The most significant (not the only nor the guaranteed) predictor of economic, social, and scholastic achievement is family history. After a couple of hundred years of slavery and more than a hundred years of (continuing) segregation for African-Americans, as well as second-class status accompanied by pervasive discrimination for other minorities, to pretend the field has been leveled in a couple of decades is ridiculous. You're talking about a race in which one team is a few yards from the finish line, and the other is not only still at the starting line, but some runners are burdened with weights or suffering other social or economic handicaps. A healthy society is a diverse society. Laws can offer but not create equality. History is the oxygen of the present; we all breathe it every day. Social legislation is like steering a ship larger than any imagined through the roughest seas. The consequences of trying to change course are at best very, very slow and to a great extent unpredictable.

  • OK, we're told, history has proven unfair, but two wrongs don't make a right. Injustices visited on minorities in the past should not now be visited on Anglos. Given the importance of socialization, education, economic access, and personal opportunity, it has to be acknowledged that many minority students are disadvantaged not only in the context of history, but in current reality. Past wrongs pack a currently relevant wallop. Denying affirmative action continues discrimination against those who have historically been the victims of discrimination.

    (Although they're not really applicable to affirmative action, the arguments against two wrongs making a right certainly make sense in some contexts. I'm hoping that every Texas Republican who makes this argument against affirmative action is just as vehemently opposed to Tom DeLay's unprecedented, radical congressional redistricting plans, which have been routinely justified by the assertion, "This is just what the Democrats did." In fact, they didn't, but that's a subject for another column.)

    Where was I:

  • If Bill Clinton's last name had been Smith, his life would have been the same. The Clinton name opened no doors, created no opportunities.

    If George Bush's last name had been Smith, his whole life would have been different. He never would have attended an elite Houston prep school or been admitted to Yale University. His opportunity to be involved with the Texas Rangers, his sole success before being elected governor, would never have been offered. (A former Yale roommate pushing the project needed a politically connected Texan. Bush's contribution was his name; he was not deeply involved in planning nor funding the project.)

    Similarly, Al Gore wouldn't have had the same opportunities as "Al Smith" (except to bear the name of a former New York State governor). But that bipartisan effect of unearned privilege doesn't refute the argument in favor of affirmative action -- it confirms it.

    The fact that President Bush opposes affirmative action is as callous, as willfully ignorant of his privileged circumstances, and as basely politically motivated as are most of his positions.

  • Whatever the court had said, "affirmative action" would remain alive and well, determined by race, economic class, and family history. Beneficiaries' access is based not simply on performance and ability, but rather on existing social and academic prejudices. Imagine arguing that a long-trained, coach-conditioned swimmer was operating on a level playing field against one thrown in the water for the first time, weighed down with chains, and tethered to the bottom by ropes.

  • Over the last hundred years, the priorities and positions of conservative Southern Congress members, of whatever party, have been relatively consistent. Once they were Democrats, now they are Republicans, but their basic ideology has not changed. Similarly, most of the conservative foundations supporting the war against affirmative action boast no great history of civil rights activism, nor are they involved in trying to achieve social equity in any other significant way. Make no mistake, much of the anti-affirmative-action funding and strategizing is not in the quest of a truly equal, colorblind society.

  • With a few notable exceptions. The opposition to affirmative action is neither philosophically nor idealistically democratic. It is not driven by fanatical allegiance to the purity of the Constitution nor obsession with the basic principles of this country. In its motivations it is racist, in its passions it is reactionary, and its goals are to achieve as severe a de facto segregation as possible. Admire these people not at all; despite the nobility of their words, their souls are sheeted in white. Their vision is not of a future offering genuine equality of opportunity and access, but of a society more tidily arranged and conservatively defined -- the continuation of the dominating elite's access, privilege, and control into the future exactly as it has been in the past. end story
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    KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

    Supreme Court, affirmative action, U.S. Constitution, constitutional principles, racism, classism, class privilege, college admissions, college applicant, African-American, Caucasian, Anglo, minority, college diversity, societal diversity, economic disadvantage, Tom DeLay, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Bush family

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