One Year Later, Affirmative Action Ruling Solves Little
by Tom Florip
Last June marked the first anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court's
Grutter v. Bollinger decision, which upheld the use of racial
preferences at the University of Michigan (U-M) but struck down
an "admission points" system quantifying those preferences.
U-M President Mary Sue Coleman called it a victory for that ever-trusty
buzzword "diversity," and speculated that the ruling
"will go down in history as among the great landmark decisions
of the Supreme Court."
Maybe so, but it's not turning out to
be the type of landmark President Coleman had in mind. Grutter
v. Bollinger is neither a symbol of equality nor a beacon of
hope for minorities. It's a tombstone marking the burial of integrity
and acceptance. One year later, evidence shows the cheerleading
should have been tempered. While administration bigwigs gloated
about their "victory," I'm now more interested in the
decision's impact for U-M students like me. Was it our victory?
When I return to Ann Arbor this fall
along with 40,000 other students, we might notice the campus
is a little bit whiter. Surprise! With 2004's freshman class
the first affected by the decision, one has to ask: How can a
ruling upholding affirmative action lead to drops in minority
applicants and enrollment? Black, Hispanic and American Indian
applicants - those favored by admissions standards - are down
a combined 23 percent from a year ago. Enrollment deposits (essentially
confirmed acceptances) are down 13 percent for black students
and up eight percent for whites.
Didn't U-M rest its entire defense of
racial preferences on the need to preserve a "diverse"
U-M officials have a wealth of excuses.
They cite a weak state economy for shifting admissions numbers,
saying minorities aren't applying due to cost. They are quick
to note that the number of white applicants also are down, albeit
not as much as for blacks (down a full 25 percent). But Michigan's
manufacturing-dependent economy has been asleep for four years.
Why is the number of minority applicants down significantly only
Another excuse is the new application.
Admissions officials say more essay questions scare away minority
applicants. This implies, of course, that black college applicants
are lazier or less ambitious than their white counterparts. More
essays accounted for a 25 percent drop? Try again.
U-M spokeswoman Julie Peterson also said,
"What students are worried about is, 'Will I be welcomed
and will I be going to a campus where I'm valued?'" Bingo.
White and black students alike want others to know they belong.
This is the heart of the issue. The controversy
the Grutter v. Bollinger decision generated meant U-M students
- and, more significantly, prospective students - learned all
about the school's preferential admissions policy. The sad reality
is that the policy ensures students can judge each other based
on skin color - white students belong and are qualified, while
some minorities might not be. This is the kind of environment
racial preferences are supposed to promote? No wonder minority
candidates didn't flood the admissions office with applications.
Criticism of affirmative action has thus
far largely revolved around the injustice to a qualified white
applicant passed over for a lesser-qualified minority. There
is a second victim: The minority applicant who is admitted and
qualified. I've talked to countless black students at U-M who
lament they can't help but feel uncomfortable when they walk
into a classroom full of whites. They worry their peers will
assume they are only there because they got 20 free admissions
points (back when they were legal) simply for having black skin.
The U.S. Supreme Court did nothing to
remove this stigma. Points no longer give a numerical edge to
minorities in the admissions process, but the "Black/African-American"
and "White/Caucasian" boxes are still checked and preferences
remain. Having black skin at U-M is like having two scarlet letter
As - for affirmative action - sewn onto your backpack. Maybe
you're qualified and belong, maybe you aren't and don't - but
all minorities must wear them.
Perhaps the declining minority applicant
numbers this year means blacks just can't stomach that branding
anymore. Grutter v. Bollinger is a landmark, indeed.
Tom Florip is a research associate
with the African-American leadership network Project 21. Comments
may be sent to [email protected].
Published July 2004 by The National Center for Public Policy
Research. Reprints permitted provided source is credited. New
Visions Commentaries reflect the views of their author, and not
necessarily those of Project 21.
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