Patt Morrison for October 18, 2011

Is our quest for diversity racist?

Temple University Holds 2003 Commencement

Don Murray/Getty Images

Enewan Adjah of Piscataway, NJ celebrates receiving her degree in Public Relations as graduates of the Class of 2003 at Temple University's commencement ceremony in The Liacouras Center May 22, 2003 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Abigail Fisher is white and was denied admission to the University of Texas in part because of the color of her skin. That didn’t sit too well with her, so she sued. And now it appears her case may be headed to the highest court in the land.

If it makes it there, the Supreme Court could, and some say very likely will, either put an end to affirmative action programs in our nation’s public universities or severely limit them.

Erwin Chemerinsky, dean of the school of law at the University of Irvine, spoke to KPCC’s Patt Morrison about the difficulty of the case.

"There’s no neutral way to define what merit means. No college, no professional school, has ever looked at just test schools and grades in determining merit. [...] It’s always been easy to get into, say, the University of Southern California with lower test scores and grades if you’re a great football player or to get into Duke if you’re a great basketball player because so many things go into merit,” he said.

The Supreme Court’s 5-4 decision in Grutter v. Bollinger in 2003 allowed states the opportunity to use race as a factor for admission. Vikram Amar, professor of law at the University of California Davis, defended the past ruling, saying that affirmative action should be up to each state, not the Supreme Court.

"The real question is whether the U.S. Supreme Court, in the name of the Constitution, has any right to shutting this down. And for a court that purports to care about the original text and the original framers of the Constitution, I think it’s very odd that a conservative majority of the justices would say that the Constitution is completely colorblind, when the very people who wrote and ratified the 14th Amendment and the equal-protection clause of the Constitution themselves engaged in race-based affirmative action,” Amar said.

Amar went on to say that, since the state of California put an end to affirmative action with the passage of Prop 209 in 1996, fewer black students have been admitted to higher education. He said African Americans used to account for 5 to 7 percent of University of California students, and now the number is around 3 to 4 percent.

Claudia Magana, student and president of the University of California Students Association, said that affirmative action is necessary to make up for legacies of discrimination. She told KPCC’s Patt Morrison that "legacies are still very much alive in our experiences today. Many communities of color, many students of color, don’t have parents that will push them, that are too busy at work, that don’t have [the knowledge] of what higher education is like and what it can do for you.”

Peter Wood, president of the National Association of Scholars, disagreed that affirmative action is an effective solution. Wood argued that "trying to repair the faults of our public education system by handing out preferences in college admissions is not in itself fair and usually backfires.” He said that the risk is that minority students may be matched with schools that don't fit their abilities.

WEIGH IN:

Is affirmative action necessary to level the playing field for minorities that have faced, and may still face, discrimination? Or will the inequalities diminish on their own? Is gaining diversity, at the expense of merit, worth it?

Guests:

Erwin Chemerinsky, dean of the school of law at the University of Irvine

Peter Wood, president, National Association of Scholars; author “Diversity: The Invention of Concept”

Vikram Amar, professor of law, UC Davis

Claudia Magana, president of the University of California Students Association


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