Bush Administration Mounts Attack on Affirmative Action Policies

The Washington Post’s Howard Kurtz asks: “Is anyone really surprised that George Bush came out against affirmative action yesterday? The only thing we couldn’t figure out is why it took him so long.” (See The Issue Bush Couldn’t Finesse.) As you’ve probably heard by now, the Bush administration has decided to weigh in against the University of Michigan’s undergraduate and law school admissions program currently under review by the U.S. Supreme Court. In the case of Gratz, et al., v. Bollinger, the Court will take a look at Michigan’s affirmative action policies designed to boost minority admissions to determine whether they are constitutional. (the 6th Circuit decision under review) On Wednesday, the President stated that he “strongly support[s] diversity of all kinds, including racial diversity in higher education,” but that “the method used by the University of Michigan to achieve this important goal is fundamentally flawed” and that the policies “amount to a quota system that unfairly rewards or penalizes prospective students, based solely on their race.” (full text of President Bush’s remarks)

The President’s remarks accompany the filing of a brief by the Solicitor General’s office today (1/16/03) in support of the white students challenging the university’s admission policies. While the text of the brief itself is not yet publicly available, an unnamed government official who briefed reporters says the brief will argue that universities should consider “race-neutral” factors, such as socioeconomic background and geography, that could have the effect of benefiting racial minorities, and that Michigan’s programs are unconstitutional because “they do not consider a race-neutral alternative first. . . . What the president has said is, we need to try, if at all possible, to promote the broadest amount of diversity without taking race into account.” (Washington Post article)

Civil rights groups quickly denounced the decision to join the attack on the Michigan admissions program. Wade Henderson, executive director of the Leadership Conference on Civil Rights (LCCR), stated that “[the Bush administration] is playing to its right-wing, anti-affirmative action base, yet trying at the same time to claim it favors diversity in education.” (LCCR press release) Rep. Richard Gephardt (D-MO), recently announced presidential candidate and University of Michigan Law School alum, announced that he would file a brief in support of the Michigan admission policies. (CNN article)

How important is this case? Commentators have noted that “[t]he decision that Bush announced carries enormous legal implications, if the Supreme Court agrees, and political ripple effects regardless. It has the potential to affect the makeup of college campuses at a time when minorities account for an increasing share of the nation’s young people.” (Washington Post article) While the brief in this case does not yet represent a full-frontal assault on all affirmative action policies, including those throughout all levels of government, if the petitioners (students challenging the policies) are successful, a more direct attack may not be too far away.

If you’d like to register your opinion on this issue, there are a couple of polls currently running online. AOL users may participate in AOL’s poll asking the question “should race be a factor in college admissions?” from the AOL home page. (This poll is only open to AOL subscribers.) Anyone can participate in available at FindLaw’s poll, which asks the question “do you support President Bush’s decision to challenge a program of racial preferences for minority applicants at the University of Michigan?” As of mid-afternoon Thursday, opponents of the Michigan policies and affirmative action were prevailing–by a 87% to 9% margin in the AOL poll.

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Madeline Messa

Madeline Messa is a 3L at Syracuse University College of Law. She graduated from Penn State with a degree in journalism. With her legal research and writing for Workplace Fairness, she strives to equip people with the information they need to be their own best advocate.