Whose Victory? One Year Later, Affirmative Action Ruling Solves Little, by Tom Florip

Last June marked the first anniversary of the U.S. Supreme Court’s Grutter v. Bollinger decision, which upheld the use of racial preferences at the University of Michigan (U-M) but struck down an “admission points” system quantifying those preferences. U-M President Mary Sue Coleman called it a victory for that ever-trusty buzzword “diversity,” and speculated that the ruling “will go down in history as among the great landmark decisions of the Supreme Court.”

Maybe so, but it’s not turning out to be the type of landmark President Coleman had in mind. Grutter v. Bollinger is neither a symbol of equality nor a beacon of hope for minorities. It’s a tombstone marking the burial of integrity and acceptance. One year later, evidence shows the cheerleading should have been tempered. While administration bigwigs gloated about their “victory,” I’m now more interested in the decision’s impact for U-M students like me. Was it our victory?

When I return to Ann Arbor this fall along with 40,000 other students, we might notice the campus is a little bit whiter. Surprise! With 2004’s freshman class the first affected by the decision, one has to ask: How can a ruling upholding affirmative action lead to drops in minority applicants and enrollment? Black, Hispanic and American Indian applicants – those favored by admissions standards – are down a combined 23 percent from a year ago. Enrollment deposits (essentially confirmed acceptances) are down 13 percent for black students and up eight percent for whites.

Didn’t U-M rest its entire defense of racial preferences on the need to preserve a “diverse” student body?

U-M officials have a wealth of excuses. They cite a weak state economy for shifting admissions numbers, saying minorities aren’t applying due to cost. They are quick to note that the number of white applicants also are down, albeit not as much as for blacks (down a full 25 percent). But Michigan’s manufacturing-dependent economy has been asleep for four years. Why is the number of minority applicants down significantly only now?

Another excuse is the new application. Admissions officials say more essay questions scare away minority applicants. This implies, of course, that black college applicants are lazier or less ambitious than their white counterparts. More essays accounted for a 25 percent drop? Try again.

U-M spokeswoman Julie Peterson also said, “What students are worried about is, ‘Will I be welcomed and will I be going to a campus where I’m valued?'” Bingo. White and black students alike want others to know they belong.

This is the heart of the issue. The controversy the Grutter v. Bollinger decision generated meant U-M students – and, more significantly, prospective students – learned all about the school’s preferential admissions policy. The sad reality is that the policy ensures students can judge each other based on skin color – white students belong and are qualified, while some minorities might not be. This is the kind of environment racial preferences are supposed to promote? No wonder minority candidates didn’t flood the admissions office with applications.

Criticism of affirmative action has thus far largely revolved around the injustice to a qualified white applicant passed over for a lesser-qualified minority. There is a second victim: The minority applicant who is admitted and qualified. I’ve talked to countless black students at U-M who lament they can’t help but feel uncomfortable when they walk into a classroom full of whites. They worry their peers will assume they are only there because they got 20 free admissions points (back when they were legal) simply for having black skin.

The U.S. Supreme Court did nothing to remove this stigma. Points no longer give a numerical edge to minorities in the admissions process, but the “Black/African-American” and “White/Caucasian” boxes are still checked and preferences remain. Having black skin at U-M is like having two scarlet letter As – for affirmative action – sewn onto your backpack. Maybe you’re qualified and belong, maybe you aren’t and don’t – but all minorities must wear them.

Perhaps the declining minority applicant numbers this year means blacks just can’t stomach that branding anymore. Grutter v. Bollinger is a landmark, indeed.

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