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Lott Fallout Has Implications for Higher Education

Lott Fallout Has Implications for Higher Education
Affirmative action discussions may influence Supreme Court’s review of Michigan case
By Charles Dervarics

The uproar over remarks by Sen. Trent Lott, R-Miss., and his ensuing resignation as Senate majority leader is beginning to affect another high- profile race issue — the Supreme Court’s review of the University of Michigan affirmative action case.

The court has agreed to review the university’s policy to promote diversity in admissions. But some say Lott’s remarks make it tougher for the Bush administration to take a stand in that case for fear of alienating minority voters at a time when the GOP is under criticism.

The Lott flap “shows that politicians should not be playing racial politics,” says Curt Levey, director of legal and public affairs for the Center for Individual Rights in Washington, D.C., and an attorney for plaintiffs seeking to overturn the admissions policy.

The Bush administration was expected to join conservatives in seeking to overturn the program, but Levey told Black Issues he is now unsure of the administration’s position. In fact, when apologizing for his remarks on Black Entertainment Television, Lott also endorsed affirmative action.

Supporters of the Michigan admissions policy were quick to pounce on Lott’s comments in making their case. Lott’s statement is “a welcome voice of support,” says Shirley Wilcher, executive director of Americans for a Fair Chance, a pro-affirmative action organization.

“As a result of Sen. Lott’s disclosure, we hope more members of the GOP and the administration will join us in promoting equal opportunity through affirmative action.”

The government has until mid-January to file a brief if it plans to oppose the Michigan plan.

“It’s unlikely the administration would support the (affirmative action) policy,” Levey says. But even though some administration leaders want to file a strong brief against the program, it is possible that the Bush White House will file a more general brief or file nothing at all.

The university’s admissions policy goes “over the top” in promoting diversity by granting undue benefits to applicants of color, Levey says. In effect, he argues, a student of color with a B average would have the same chance of admission as a White student with an A average.

“It dwarfs most of the other factors,” the attorney says. Federal law only permits affirmative action in admissions if such policies are “narrowly tailored” to promote diversity, he adds.

Meanwhile, supporters of the Michigan policy are presenting a unified front to state their case before the court.

“This issue is nothing less than whether the doors of opportunity remain open for students of color at highly selective institutions,” says Ted Shaw, associate director-counsel at the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund.

About two-thirds of Americans support affirmative action in college admissions, based on a survey by Americans for a Fair Chance. With America becoming increasingly diverse, affirmative action in college admissions “is a national imperative,” Wilcher says.

Lott is under criticism for his remarks at a party celebrating the 100th birthday of Sen. Strom Thurmond, R-S.C., who ran unsuccessfully for president in 1948 on a segregationist platform. At the birthday celebration, Lott said the nation would have been better off had Thurmond won that election.

In the wake of the Lott flap and the Michigan case, the Congressional Black Caucus also is seeking to refocus national attention on equal opportunity issues.

“The danger in Sen. Lott’s comments is not simply that they are offensive as a characterization of our national past. The danger is that Sen. Lott’s words imply an intention or acceptance of racial segregation as the continuing reality of America’s future,” says Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., incoming CBC chair.

The nation has not eliminated segregation, according to Cummings, as long as Americans of color have inadequate access to quality education, housing and health care.

“For Americans of color, segregation remains a cruel, unjust and offensive reality in our lives. It is not simply a terrible memory from 1948,” he said. In particular, he added, children of color “are less likely to receive an empowering education” due to poorly funded public schools.

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