December 12, 2003

Group faults Bush administration’s affirmative action policy

By Laura Withers
Scripps Howard Foundation Wire

WASHINGTON — Six months after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in favor of affirmative action procedures at the University of Michigan Law School, civil rights activists argue that the Bush administration has done little to support the decision.

According to a report released Tuesday by the Citizens’ Commission on Civil Rights, a bipartisan civil rights organization, the Bush administration has neglected its obligation to provide guidance interpreting the court decision.

“Given the clear language of the opinion, the administration would seem to have little choice but to approve race-conscious policies,” said William Taylor, chair of the commission, in a press release. “But the Bush administration is pretending the Michigan decision never happened.”

The report, “Bush Administration v. Affirmative Action,” cites key Department of Justice figures who, according to Taylor, have let a history of hostility toward affirmative action trump their responsibilities to uphold the Constitution as interpreted by the court.

For example, Attorney General John Ashcroft has long supported eliminating affirmative action programs in federal employment and federal contracting, said Taylor, a lawyer and former staff director at the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights.

“The Bush administration has fought that policy tooth and nail,” he said at a news conference. “President Bush has difficulty putting the words ‘affirmative’ and ‘action’ together.”

The Justice Department did not respond to a request for comment on the report.

In June, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the right of universities to consider race for each applicant individually in admissions by upholding the University of Michigan Law School’s policy. The court overturned the university’s undergraduate affirmative action admissions policy of adding points to a minority applicant’s overall score.

The Michigan decision raises many questions about when race-conscious policies are permissible, Taylor said.

The report attempts to answer questions about how the Supreme Court decision should be applied in public schools, government programs, military programs and scholastic and internship programs.

In the past, the federal government has played an important role in implementing court rulings, Taylor said, making the Bush admin-istration’s lack of involvement even more alarming.

“This administration hasn’t said a mumbled word,” he said. “The federal government has an obligation to protect these programs from attack.”

Roger Wilkins, a commission member and assistant attorney general for legislative affairs in the Johnson administration, said the Bush administra-tion’s actions reminded him of former President Eisenhower’s reluctance to support the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education school desegregation decision.

“By silence … the president made it possible for the flowers of anti-black politics to bloom,” he said.

A University of Michigan Law School graduate, Wilkins, who is black, said he would have benefited from race-conscious policies when he was in college. He said all his professors during seven years at Michigan were white.

“The surround-sound message of segregation is you are an inferior being and an unwanted person,” Wilkins said. “Intonations of inferiority diminish [students’] capacity to learn. I believe I was affected by that at the University of Michigan.”

He added, “our educational experience would have been much richer” if the university had recognized the importance of having black faculty members as mentors.

“That is the lesson that this Justice Department could be teaching all over the country,” he said. “But it does not choose to do so.”

Some interpret the Bush administration’s lack of action as an indicator that universities should take it upon themselves to implement race-conscious practices.

But without any guidance in interpreting the law, universities are wary, Taylor said.

The Washington-based American Association of University Professors works with university officials to enhance minority students’ educational goals.

Ann Springer, an associate council at AAUP, said the nonprofit group is distressed at how the Bush administration has dealt with affirmative action practices.

“I think it’s important to be balanced and flexible when one considers issues of race,” she said. “But I think to say that we’re not even going to consider the issues … is a huge mistake.”

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