National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  July 4, 2003

Imperfect solution deserves support

Correcting historic injustice is not an easy matter, as the United States’ ongoing tussle with racism and the remnants of slavery clearly shows. It is impossible for one generation to “correct” the actions of ancestors; impossible, really, to “pay back” a race for the brutality of slavery.

At the same time, it is impossible to acknowledge the injustice and do nothing. So the Supreme Court ruling last week, narrow as it was, upholding affirmative action comes as a welcome show of support for one measure of redressing a historic wrong.

The court backed, by a 5-4 vote, the University of Michigan’s law school admission policy that considers race as a positive in making admissions decisions.

At the same time the court struck down, in a 6-3 vote, the affirmative action policy used in undergraduate admissions, a policy that assigns a certain point value to race.

In her majority decision, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor wrote that the law school uses a “highly individualized, holistic review of each applicant’s file” as different from the more “mechanical” process used in the undergraduate admissions.

The decision was widely praised by college administrators, many of whom saw it as a clarification of how colleges could continue to consider race in creating more diverse campuses. James O. Freedman, a former president of Dartmouth University and former dean of the University of Pennsylvania Law School, told The New York Times, “This legitimates legally what we all thought was educationally appropriate.”

At the University of Kansas, chancellor Robert Hemenway applauded the decision, saying, “Affirmative action has had a bad name for the last 10 years. I thought they should call it something different, like maybe ‘practicing democracy’ or ‘establishing equal opportunity.’ ”

Overall, the decision seemed to signal that though an imperfect solution, affirmative action benefits the common good and the health of democracy.

The ruling further recognizes that education on campus happens in many ways beyond the classroom and that students benefit the most from college experiences that are enriched by student bodies of diverse colors and ethnic and racial backgrounds.

For the moment the majority decision, written by a Reagan appointee, rejects the assertion of the brief submitted by the Bush White House that called for a “race-neutral” policy.

The decision, however, could be a short-lived victory for those supporting affirmative action. It became apparent when the decision was announced that there is no shortage of opposition ready to spring into action. Conservative groups, deeply angered by the decision, have vowed to push hard, should a vacancy occur as expected during the Bush presidency, for a court appointee who would openly repudiate affirmative action.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who wrote a concurring opinion, and others in the court majority voiced hope that sometime in the not-too-distant future affirmative action programs would no longer be necessary. Until then, however, Americans will have to exercise diligence both in monitoring nominees for the high court and in pressuring their legislators if the benefits of affirmative action are to be preserved.

National Catholic Reporter, July 4, 2003

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