What does President George W. Bush think about affirmative action?
In the third presidential debate in 2000, an audience member asked then-Governor Bush what role affirmative action would play in his administration. After Bush discussed some race-neutral policies he had pursued as governor of Texas, moderator Jim Lehrer asked him if he was opposed to affirmative action. Bush answered, “If affirmative action means quotas, I’m against it. If affirmative action means what I just described what I’m for, then I’m for it.” At that point, former Vice President Al Gore ’69 asked Bush if he approved what the Supreme Court had declared “a constitutional way of having affirmative action.” Bush refused to reply, and he has been largely silent on the issue ever since—until he filed two briefs against the University of Michigan’s affirmative action admissions policies.
In the briefs, Bush does not argue that the court should overturn Regents of the University of California v. Bakke, the 1978 Supreme Court decision permitting some race-conscious policies in university admissions. But he does say that Michigan’s undergraduate admissions policy—which assigns points to applicants based on a wide variety of factors including GPA, SAT scores, demonstrated leadership, legacy status and race—is effectively a racial quota and is impermissible because Michigan hasn’t tried race-neutral alternatives.
Michigan’s undergraduate policy is avowedly race-conscious, but Bush’s argument that it amounts to a racial quota is thoroughly unconvincing. In Bakke, the Supreme Court rightly invalidated an admissions system that set aside a certain number of seats each year for “disadvantaged” and minority students, who were evaluated independently of other applicants. But it upheld the ability of universities to consider race as one factor among many in admissions decisions, specifically approving of Harvard’s undergraduate admissions policy, which evaluates each application individually and gives a “plus” to some racial and ethnic backgrounds.
If Michigan annually manipulated the number of points it awarded to minorities in order to assure the admittance of a minimum number, then its system would be “the functional equivalent of a quota.” But it doesn’t, and so presumably if one class of applicants had very few qualified minority students, then very few would be admitted that year. While we do not necessarily agree with the way Michigan assigns its points, this system clearly does not set a quota.
But Bush’s second argument is even more troubling. If he believes that race-conscious policies can only be employed after an institution has exhausted all conceivable race-neutral policies to promote diversity, then he is against any meaningful interpretation of affirmative action. Even Harvard’s admissions policy would be unconstitutional because the University has not searched out all imaginable ways to achieve the desired diversity by other means.
The race-neutral policies in Texas and California that Bush lauds as permissible alternatives to Michigan’s system have in fact been largely unsuccessful in increasing minority enrollment, as Professor of Education and Social Policy Gary A. Orfield testified in the district court case.
After California outlawed the use of any racial classifications in public university admissions, the percentage of black and Hispanic students admitted to the best law schools in the UC system declined precipitously—in spite of these schools’ efforts to recoup minority enrollment by supposedly race-neutral means such as socioeconomic class. At UCLA law school, the percentage of admitted students who are black declined from 10.3 percent to 1.4 percent from 1996 to 2000. Berkeley, despite scrutinizing each application for evidence of “talents that were not identified by test scores or other standardized measures,” suffered a similar decline, from 9 percent to 3.2 percent.
After affirmative action was outlawed in Texas, the University of Texas system adopted a plan to admit the top 10 percent of students from each high school. This policy has almost brought enrollment at UT-Austin back to previous levels, but it has not had nearly the same success at Texas A&M or at UT-Dallas, and at UT-Austin minority enrollment still is not proportionate to minorities’ overall representation in the student population.
It is politically smart for President Bush to avoid declaring that he is unequivocally opposed to affirmative action. But in this case, his actions speak louder than his words. Bush’s conception of “affirmative action” would outlaw universities’ only proven, effective way of achieving the crucial value of diversity in their student bodies.
Dissent: The Soft Bigotry of Racial Preferences
During the 2000 presidential campaign, then-Governor George Bush criticized the “soft bigotry of low expectations.” The University of Michigan’s race-based admissions policy offers a clear example of what Bush was referring to. A point system that automatically starts black, Hispanic and Native American applicants 20 points ahead of all others is not only grossly unfair and illogical; it fosters pernicious racial stereotypes.
The Michigan system tells, for example, a black high school student who has written a first-class essay and scored a perfect 1600 on the SATs that both of those achievements combined are less important than the color of his or her skin. It assumes that regardless of that student’s diverse life experiences and individuality, he or she must have certain character and personality traits that go along with being black. This line of thinking, in and of itself, is racist.
The legal arguments against Michigan’s policy are quite obvious. As President Bush argues, the equal protection clause of the Constitution outlaws racial quotas, and it prohibits the use of race-based policies when race-neutral ones are available. There are many other methods that admissions officers could use to diversify the ethnic makeup of their campuses—enhancing minority outreach programs would seem to be a good first start. Ultimately, illegal and illegitimate racial preferences only serve to increase racial consciousness and fuel racial antagonisms.
—Duncan M. Currie ’04