Michigan race policy is flawed, Bush says


Published: Thursday, January 16, 2003 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, January 15, 2003 at 10:01 p.m.
WASHINGTON - President Bush, stepping into a politically charged affirmative action case, asserted Wednesday that a program of racial preferences for minority applicants at the University of Michigan was "divisive, unfair and impossible to square with the Constitution."
Democrats and civil rights leaders swiftly attacked Bush's position in a Supreme Court case that could put a generation of affirmative action programs in jeopardy.
"The Bush administration continues a disturbing pattern of using the rhetoric of diversity as a substitute for real progress on a civil right agenda," said Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., a candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination.
Sensitive to such criticism, the White House said a brief being filed today on Bush's behalf is narrowly tailored to oppose the Michigan program. Though he called quotas unconstitutional, Bush did not say that any use of race is always unconstitutional in selecting a student body - leaving it to the high court to settle a question that could reshape affirmative action programs nationwide. The court hears the case in March.
Some conservatives, including senior members of Bush's own Justice Department, had urged Bush to take a firm stand against ever using race. In an unusual foray into domestic policy, national security adviser Condoleezza Rice participated in the discussions, but it was unclear which side she took.
Rice, who is black, is former provost of Stanford University.
"I strongly support diversity of all kinds, including racial diversity in higher education," Bush said in the Roosevelt Room to, announcing that his administration would file a brief. "But the method used by the University of Michigan to achieve this important goal is fundamentally flawed."
The Michigan program "amounts to a quota system that unfairly rewards or penalizes prospective students solely on their race," Bush said.
He said the undergraduate admissions program awards black, Hispanic and native American students 20 points, one-fifth of the total normally needed for admission. At the law school, some minority students are admitted to meet percentage targets while others with higher grades are passed over, Bush said.
"Quota systems that use race to include or exclude people from higher education and the opportunities it offers are divisive, unfair and impossible to square with the Constitution," Bush said. He declined to take questions.
The last Supreme Court case that addressed affirmative action in college admissions in 1978 banned the outright use of racial quotas but still allowed university admissions officers to use race as a factor.
The case, the 1978 Bakke ruling, involved a white applicant rejected from a public medical school in California.
Bush said that "racial prejudice is a reality in our country" and Americans should not be satisfied with the current numbers of minorities on college campus. But in trying to fix the problem, Bush said, "we must not use means that create another wrong."
As an option to quotas and preferences, Bush pointed to admissions programs in other states - including his home state of Texas - that promote diversity without giving students an edge based solely on their race.
In Texas, as governor, Bush proposed that students graduating in the top 10 percent of all high schools be eligible for admission to state schools. Supporters say that had the effect of continuing a stream of minority students because some public high schools are nearly all black or Hispanic.
Bush has called the program "race neutral" because no quotas or racial preferences were involved. But senior White House officials, seeking to cast Bush's approach as moderate, said race was at least an indirect factor in the Texas program because diversity was the primary goal of the program.
"Our government must work to make college more affordable for students who come from economically disadvantaged backgrounds and because we're committed to racial justice, we must make sure that America's public schools offer a quality education to every child from every background," Bush said.
The volatile issue forced the president to balance the desires of his conservative backers, who staunchly oppose affirmative action, against the potential reaction from the broader electorate if he is viewed as being racially insensitive.
Rep. Dick Gephardt of Missouri, a graduate of the University of Michigan Law School who intends to seek the Democratic presidential nomination in 2004, said he would file a brief in support of the university's program.
"I believe affirmative action is an essential tool in expanding educational opportunities to minorities," he said.
"The president's action represents a slap in the fact to all Americans committed to equal education and economic opportunity," said Wade Henderson, director of the leadership conference on civil rights.
Kerry said the Michigan program does not use quotas. Pressed on this point, White House officials said the Michigan program supports "de facto quotas."
Complicating the president's decision was the fallout from former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott's remarks that seemed to hold nostalgia for the days when segregation was accepted in parts of the nation. Bush condemned the comments last month, and the Republican Party has been trying to attract more minority voters.
In a sign of the White House's sensitivity to the issue, press secretary Ari Fleischer spoke of Bush's support of diversity while also discussing the president's plans to commemorate Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday, increase aid to Africa and funnel more money to black colleges.
The university's affirmative action question is one of the most-watched issues before the high court this year and could yield the court's most important statement on the use of racial preferences in a quarter-century.
The Michigan programs, like those of many public institutions nationwide, were designed to comply with the Supreme Court's last, somewhat murky pronouncement on the issue.
At Michigan, white students sued, claiming reverse discrimination.
States across the country are wrestling with ways to keep up minority enrollment in public colleges, and several are operating under court orders or negotiated agreements to end discrimination.

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