The last time the U.S. Supreme Court heard a major affirmative action case involving higher education, it exposed a deep rift between African-Americans and Jews. Because of Jews having been victims of quotas that limited their presence at the nation’s most elite universities during the early 1900s, major Jewish organizations were unwilling to support an affirmative action program at the University of California-Davis Medical School that specifically set aside 16 of the 100 admission slots each year for people of color.
In “Regents of the University of California v. Bakke,” the court outlawed quotas but ruled that race can be a “plus” factor in the college admissions process. That was 25 years ago. Since then, however, there have been similar cases that pitted African-Americans against Jews, the group that has traditionally supported Black causes more than any other segment of White America.
A pair of suits against the University of Michigan, which will be argued before the Supreme Court on April 1, do not involve quotas and many coalition-builders had hoped that this would be the perfect opportunity to bridge the gulf that has grown between Blacks and Jews.
By the time last week’s deadline arrived for filing friend-of-the-court briefs, it was clear that the Jewish community was divided over whether to support affirmative action at Michigan. They have remained divided while three former chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, two former defense secretaries, 200 veterans of the Southern Civil Rights Movement and a corporate Who’s Who—including General Motors, Microsoft, Coca Cola, Nike, American Airlines, General Mills and Johnson and Johnson—have gone on record in support of the University of Michigan.
The Anti-Defamation League (ADL), one of the most uncompromising pro-Israel voices in America, argued against the University of Michigan programs while professing to submit a brief “in support of neither petitioners nor respondents.”
Like President Bush, ADL gives lip service to diversity yet argues for dismantling one of the strongest tools that could help diversify the nation’s campuses.
“In the context presented here, ADL agrees with the University of Michigan and its Law School that diversity in higher education is an appropriate and legitimate educational goal,” the group says in its brief. But a few lines later comes the clincher: “…While we approve of the ends sought by the University and its Law School, we cannot agree with their methods. The admissions systems before this Court deny to applicants who are not members of designated minority groups fundamental equal protection because those systems value persons for their race, not for relevant individual characteristics. In doing so, they violate this nation’s core constitutional percepts and its civil rights laws.”
That’s what they call being neutral?
Fortunately, the American Jewish Committee (AJC), submitted a strong, eloquent brief in support of the University of Michigan. AJC was joined by seven organizations, including the Central Conference of American Rabbis, the National Council of Jewish Women and the Union of American Hebrew Congregations.
“Considering race as a factor in university admissions furthers the compelling government interest of achieving diversity in higher education in the United States,” the AJC observes in its petition. “Diversity is an important component of a well-rounded education, especially in such a pluralistic country as our own. Exposure in universities to those of diverse backgrounds and experiences will better equip those graduates who go on to become leaders of our future.”
The brief notes that much has been made of the university undergraduate system’s decision to award 20 points to people of color who apply to Michigan. It states that 20 points are also awarded to anyone, including Whites, from a low socioeconomic status (however, a student can’t receive points for both low-income and for race), scholarship athletes are also awarded an automatic 20 points and extra points are given to children of alumni, to help bring about geographic diversity, and for writing skills demonstrated on admission essays.
“In 2000, African Americans, Native Americans, Asian Americans and Hispanics made up twenty-nine percent of the population,” AJC points out. It also explained that by the year 2050, those same groups will comprise 47 percent of the United States population.
“Against this background, it would indeed be ironic if, with all the factors that universities take into account to assure diversity or otherwise serve the university’s pedagogical and institutional interests – including geography, sports capability, socioeconomic or legacy status – that the only factors that may not be taken into account are those associated with populations that have been historically underrepresented on campuses.”
It would be more than ironic — it would be a travesty.