FIRST-PERSON: What should we do with affirmative action?

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. (BP)--The 1954 Supreme Court decision of Brown v. Board of Education altered forever the course of education in the United States. The decision nearly a half-century ago insured race as a valid method by which to justify leveling the field of equal access for African Americans into the mainstreams of the educational processes of the country.

And not since Brown v. Board of Education has there been such heated debate over whether race should continue to be used as a means of insuring equal access to education for minorities. That is, not until the recent decisions on affirmative action admissions policies at the University of Michigan.

The genesis of the Michigan decisions was the admissions policy in which scoring methods favored minority students on several points. Challenged by a student who had been denied admission to the law school though her admissions qualifications were stronger than those of some minority students who had been admitted to the school, the Supreme Court sided with the university on its law school admissions policy.

The court split its difference on the decision and allowed Michigan to use race as a factor in its law school while rejecting the university's undergraduate policy. The predicament of the student in question is the reason that the very mention of "affirmative action" elicits fierce indignation from opponents of affirmative action.

And the somewhat tenuous decision of the court acknowledged the complexities of affirmative action as well as the fact that the political motivations of affirmative action reveals how the nation has yet to come to grips with its unique historical legacy of race.

In the simplest terms, affirmative action gives some preference to those that have suffered from or have been severely impacted by acts of endemic discrimination. With such a definition, in fact, all of humanity could claim, to some degree, some form of discrimination and thus be entitled to some measure of affirmative action.

Of course, the real issue at hand is more concrete. With 83 percent of white students, 76 percent of Latinos, and 60 percent of African American students opposed to race as a factor in college admissions, what place then does race have at all in admissions to higher education?

According to Jamilah Evelyn in her June 20 contribution to The Chronicle of Higher Education, "The Michigan court cases are getting all the attention, but the bigger threat to campus diversity is state budget cuts, especially for community colleges."

Evelyn's idea becomes a rather significant argument in as much as large percentages of minority students are more likely to attend community colleges first rather than attend private or four-year public institutions of higher learning.

The nation has come a long way since the inception of affirmative action laws. Perhaps it is time that the courts rule that the country practice its best behavior and fully engage the constitution as the litmus for all its citizens to equally experience the ideals of freedom, liberty and justice.

There is really no need for the Courts, at least on this issue, to continue to rewrite the Constitution of the United States. America's poor citizens, its middle class citizens and its most wealthy citizens should all have equal access to all the privileges the country offers.

Statistics on affirmative action are from a survey conducted by The Chronicle of Higher Education of 1,003 adults in June 2003. Terriel R. Byrd, Ph.D., is assistant professor of religion and director of urban ministries studies at Palm Beach Atlantic University, West Palm Beach, Fla.

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