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Affirmative action faces a showdown

Feb 23, 2012 - By The Philadelphia Inquirer

Apprehension, trepidation, fear -- those words may best describe the emotions of many affirmative-action supporters in response to Tuesday's news that the U.S. Supreme Court will again take up that issue.

This court leans further to the right than the panel that in 2003 ruled the University of Michigan School of Law could consider race as one factor in admissions decisions. Even that ruling was close, 5-4, and it came with the assessment of Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, who voted with the majority, that within 25 years the use of "racial preferences" should no longer be needed.

Affirmative action's foes had no intention of waiting that long. And given the right-wing Bush appointments to the court, and the fact that Obama appointee Elena Kagan must recuse herself, affirmative action's lifeline appears to be severely threatened. Kagan is disqualified because she filed a brief in this particular case while serving as U.S. solicitor general in 2010.

The court has been asked to look at the University of Texas undergraduate admissions process, which was adopted after the 2003 Grutter v. Bollinger decision. A suit filed by Abigail Noel Fisher contends she was denied admission because she is white. Fisher, who instead attended Louisiana State University, says minority students with lower grade averages were admitted into Texas.

Affirmative action's critics haven't changed their tune.

"It creates resentment," said Roger Clegg of the Center for Equal Opportunity. "It stigmatizes the so-called beneficiaries in the eyes of their classmates, teachers, and themselves, as well as future employers, clients, and patients; it fosters a victim mind-set, removes the incentive for academic excellence, and encourages separatism."

That point of view adheres to stereotypes of minorities as underachievers who, having been given a boost once, become addicted to set-asides and preferences. There's no evidence of that. But there are countless examples of successful men and women in this country who, given assistance to escape the lingering legacy of past barriers, felt obligated to prove their worthiness.

It's not wrong to crave a post-racial America, where skin color has absolutely no bearing on a person's ability to succeed. But there are too many signs -- disparities in education, poverty, and health -- that we're not there yet.

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