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News ::
01 Jul 2003

By Julie Fry
Via Workers World News Service
Reprinted from the July 3, 2003
issue of Workers World newspaper


By Julie Fry

The Supreme Court issued landmark rulings in two cases on June 23 that
challenged the use of affirmative action programs at public universities and colleges around the country.

In a victory for students of color, the court affirmed the right of
universities to take a student's race into account when making
admissions decisions.

At the same time, the court severely restricted the ability of
universities to assert this right, by striking down the University of
Michigan's undergraduate "point system" admissions program.

For over a decade now, right-wing think tanks and reactionary
foundations like the infamous Center for Individual Rights (CIR) have
been pouring millions of dollars into campaigns to defeat affirmative
action. They have gotten referendums passed in California and Washington banning affirmative action in public universities and have used litigation to eliminate it in universities across the South.

In addition, they have launched a major media campaign in an attempt to create a racist, hostile climate in this country that would facilitate the destruction of these important programs.

This racist campaign culminated in two lawsuits filed by the CIR: one
against the University of Michigan law school and another against the
undergraduate school. CIR knew that these cases were likely to reach the Supreme Court. These ideologues were counting on the court to strike down affirmative action programs, emboldened by the reactionary climate of the Bush administration.

The Supreme Court, led by some of the most despicable, racist judges in the country, has been attempting to dismantle the tremendous gains of the civil rights movement for decades. From immigrants' rights to public education, this court has made it clear that it serves the ruling class, not the people.

But the Supreme Court also is aware of the tremendous rage and backlash it would spawn throughout the country by discarding one of the major gains of the civil rights movement. Students of color, who organized countless demonstrations to defeat this attack, made it clear that they would not go back to the days when universities were only for the children of the white and rich.

In this period of worldwide resistance to imperialism and to the
reactionary U.S. government in all its forms, when the Pentagon is
relying on lack of jobs to drive more people of color into the military, the Supreme Court was not willing to incite what would surely be a massive struggle to keep this most basic right.


The law school ruling allowing race-conscious admissions programs will
have an immediate effect on access to education for students of color,
especially in the South. In the Fifth Circuit of the federal courts,
which includes Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi, affirmative action has been banned since 1996, after CIR filed a successful lawsuit against the University of Texas. A similar lawsuit was won in the Eleventh Circuit, which includes Alabama, Georgia and Florida. After these lawsuits, enrollment rates for students of color in flagship schools across the South had plummeted.

The Supreme Court decision overturns both those cases.

This ruling also has the potential to reinvigorate campaigns to overturn racist referendums, such as Proposition 209 in California, which banned the use of affirmative action throughout the state university system. Students and faculty at University of California schools have been fighting Proposition 209 ever since it was implemented. Now students can renew their campaign to overturn the proposition knowing their goal will not be pre-empted by a countrywide ban on affirmative action.

CIR and its supporters sought a complete elimination of all affirmative action programs for people of color. Its supporters spent millions to create a climate hostile to affirmative action. CIR, and others like it, have been waiting for years to get to the Supreme Court, where they were sure that right-wing justices like William Rehnquist and Antonin Scalia would help them wipe out affirmative action.

The fact that CIR lost, despite its bottomless pool of resources and
powerful supporters, is a testament to the tremendous power of the
movement, led by students of color across the country.

University of Michigan students recognized the threat posed by these
lawsuits as soon as they were filed. They organized and made a historic, legal intervention in the cases themselves. Students of color in both Michigan lawsuits were able to put into the legal record evidence of the racism and discrimination they face every day--through systemic inequality in public education--and the overt racism they experience on campus and in classrooms.

Students also organized countless demon strations, including a historic pro test on April 1 of this year, the day of oral arguments in the affirmative action cases. They came to Washington, D.C., from all over the country to demand their right to higher education, including access to the most elite schools. In what is a tremendous example of the strength of the people's movement, these youth of color can now claim victory over the powerful CIR and, even more significantly, the Bush administration which supported the lawsuit.


Much is still at stake, however, after the June 23 ruling. The court
struck down as unconstitutional the University of Michigan's
undergraduate affirmative action program. The program relied on a pre-
determined point system awarded to applicants for different
qualifications. An applicant with the minimum number of points was
offered admission. One of these point factors was race.

The Court said that this system was unconstitutional, but at the same
time upheld the University of Michigan law school's "critical mass"
system--a system that is incredibly vague, and purposely so. The law
school says it is looking for a "critical mass" of students of color--
something above a token number but not any amount that it is willing to define. The school authorities say they don't have any objective way of measuring an applicant's credentials; they just look at the "total package" and take race into account--in some undefined way--when making an admission decision.

While touted as some sort of feel-good, "holistic" or "individualized"
approach to affirmative action, the law school's model could prove to be extremely detrimental to students of color. By its own terms, this model provides no standard for measuring whether or not students of color are getting equal access to these elite schools.

Instead, students are left to the mercy of the bureaucrats who make up
college admissions boards. Students of color, who have fought for their right to a decent education against racist school administrators for decades, know full well that most of these college administrators don't care about their interests.

This second ruling gives license to these universities, and in fact
demands that these colleges discard any pretense of an objective
standard measuring the progress in admissions of people of color.

While activists should be proud of the important victory they have won, they should also stay vigilant and be on guard against universities that will undoubtedly use the undergraduate decision as an excuse to replace affirmative action programs with totally meaningless "subjective" systems that decrease the enrollment of students of color in colleges and universities.

[Fry is a former University of Michigan student.]

- END -

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