As racism pervades the body politic, A new civil rights movement grows

Trent Lott’s racist remarks earlier this month may have served to strengthen a growing civil rights movement to defend affirmative action. The Supreme Court agreed on Dec. 2 to hear Grutter v. Bollinger and Gratz v. Bollinger, which have been described as the most significant civil rights cases since Brown v. Board of Education in 1954. The cases’ outcome will decide whether or not the nation’s colleges and universities can continue to use affirmative action in their admissions policies.

Determined students, civil rights activists and lawyers are organizing based on the belief that the overwhelming majority of the country will not 'turn back the hands of time' and allow a resegregation of institutions of higher learning. That belief holds up in the wake of condemnations and calls for Lott’s resignation as Senate Majority leader by a large number of organizations and elected officials. Lott, in his remarks to a 100th birthday party for unapologetic segregationist Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.), professed a longing for the days of legal segregation, known as Jim Crow.

The cases before the high court are based on two separate lawsuits, one brought by a white student, Barbara Grutter against the University of Michigan (U-M) law school; the other was brought by Jennifer Gratz against the U-M undergraduate school. Lee Bollinger was U-M’s president when the suits were filed.

Both Gratz and Grutter claim they were denied entrance because of 'racial preferences,' which according to their legal strategists, violates the Constitution’s guarantee of equal protection. The Center for Individual Rights (CIR) is the main legal force representing Grutter and Gratz.

U-M undergraduate admission policies are based on a 150-point scale. The school awards 20 points for applicants in an underrepresented racial or ethnic group, specifically African Americans, Mexican Americans and American Indians. They also add points for students of any race if they come from an economically strapped family.

Whites are not discriminated against as a racial group, while African Americans, Latinos American Indians, Asian American and other people of color are. That fact was reflected in a 1995 USA Today/CNN/Gallup public opinion poll that asked white Americans whether they had ever been negatively impacted by affirmative action; 98 percent of the respondents said they had never been denied admission to a school as a result of any affirmative action program based on race. (The American Council on Education has this and many other articles debunking reverse discrimination charges on its website, www.acenet.edu)

The Sixth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati handed down a 5-4 decision in May that the U-M law school policy of considering race in admissions is constitutional. The court has not yet issued an opinion in the undergraduate case.

CIR has a long history of legally challenging affirmative action and other civil rights policies. CIR has challenged admissions policies at the University of Michigan, the U-M Law School, the University of Washington Law School and the University of Texas Law School. A self-described 'nonprofit public interest law firm dedicated to the defense of individual liberties,' CIR provides 'free legal representation to deserving clients who cannot otherwise afford or obtain legal counsel and whose individual rights are threatened.'

But according to the People for the American Way, CIR is part of a right-wing network of think tanks and centers funded by the Olin Foundation. 'The Olin Foundation grew out of a family chemical and munitions manufacturing business. It routinely has funded ultra-conservative organizations such as the Heritage Foundation and the Manhattan Institute for Public Policy Research. Other organizations on the far right that have received support from Olin are the Center for Individual Rights, Citizens for a Sound Economy Foundation, Phyllis Schlafly’s Eagle Forum, Focus on the Family, the Free Congress Foundation, the Independent Women’s Forum and the Institute for Justice,' according to its report.

Many see their challenge to affirmative action not as a matter of upholding so-called individual rights, but part of a larger ultra-right program to roll back any civil rights gains made in the past 50 years.

A team of lawyers representing the university and student defendants will argue race still matters in society and therefore must be a factor in order to guarantee a racially and ethnically diverse student body. An expert testifying for U-M said that a race-neutral admission policy would have reduced the percentage of minority students from nearly 14 percent to 4 percent.

Theodore Shaw, an attorney for student defendants in Gratz v. Bollinger and counsel for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, said the cases 'represent the most significant civil rights cases the Supreme Court will have decided in the last quarter-century. This issue is nothing less than whether the doors of opportunity remain open for students of color at highly selective institutions.' The Supreme Court heard the famous Bakke case in 1978, where racial 'quotas' were struck down, but considering a student’s race in the interest of diversity was upheld.

U-M President Mary Sue Coleman told the press, 'This is a moment of great significance in our nation’s history. We stand at the threshold of a decision that will have a profound impact on our nation’s higher education system and on our race relations broadly.

'Now is not the time to turn back the clock. Race still matters in our society,' she said. A ruling rejecting the use of affirmative action 'could result in the immediate resegregation of our nation’s top colleges and universities.'

In a press release the Michigan AFL-CIO stated its support of the U-M admission policies. President Mark Gaffney and Secretary-Treasurer Tina Abbott said, 'We in Michigan have seen the results of the MERIT scholarship, wealthy families’ kids do better on the test and are more likely to receive the state aid. That is unfair. Our state and its educational institutions must be forces for equalizing society …We recognize that the greatest economic equalizer in American society is education.'

The Michigan State AFL-CIO will support a march on Washington in conjunction with the Court’s hearing date, expected in late March or early April, the press release stated. 'Americans must go to Washington, D.C., this spring to protect equal access opportunity for all. The labor movement works every day for justice and dignity on the job. We must raise our voice to the Supreme Court to protect these American standards and America’s future in college admissions.'

Affirmative action is high on the agenda of many women’s groups. National Organization for Women (NOW) President Kim Gandy said in a press statement, 'If it weren’t for affirmative action programs like the ones at the University of Michigan and at virtually every selective university across the U.S., diversity on campus would be an empty promise. Every day for more than 30 years, affirmative action has opened doors for women and people of color – in school and on the job.'

Student groups like the U.S. Student Association (USSA) are part of this rising civil rights movement to defend affirmative action and diversity on the nation’s campuses. USSA, along with the NAACP’s Youth, College and Young Adult Division, is mobilizing to increase access for 'underrepresented' students on campuses and to defend affirmative action policies. They formed 'The National Student Coalition,' comprised of 180 NAACP college chapters and members of USSA, which represents student governments at over 400 colleges.

'Race should be a factor in admissions because racism is a factor in educational opportunity,' said Jo’ie Taylor, USSA president. 'An admissions process that does not recognize racism as a barrier to college perpetuates racial inequalities in society.'

The Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action and Integration and Fight for Equality by Any Means Necessary (BAMN) is hosting a summit and conference Jan. 20-26 at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, under the theme: 'Saving Brown v. Board of Education – building the march on Washington to defend affirmative action and integration.'

Rev. Jesse Jackson from Rainbow/Push, Hector Flores, president of the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), Terry O’Neill, a vice president of NOW, Gaffney and Professor of Law from Howard University Frank Wu are among the featured speakers, which starts with a march and rally on the Martin Luther King, Jr., birthday holiday.

The author can be reached at talbano@pww.org