Affirmative action before the Supreme Court

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As regular listeners to these commentaries know, I have tended to be somewhat critical of our current president and many of those around him. I do not take it all back, but I have realized that he and I share a distinction about which I make a public confession.

George W. Bush and I are both products of affirmative action he at Yale and I at Oxford. Some time after I was firmly ensconced as a graduate student at Oxford University, I accidentally discovered that I had been chosen over a number of more academically qualified candidates for one of those highly coveted places at Oxford. Upon making this discovery, I asked the Oxford professor in charge of the process why I had been so fortunate: Why me? I asked. Because, dear boy, responded the professor, We had never had a Texan in this group. We thought it might be interesting. We thought you would arrive with six guns and a big hat. And he laughed.

A few years later something similar happened for George W. Bush at Yale, from which both his father and his grandfather had graduated. The Bushes were, after all, one of Connecticut’s patrician families. It seems very, very unlikely that Mr. Bush was admitted to Yale on the basis of his high school grades and test scores, which he has publicly admitted were not all that good.

Now, in neither case did they call it affirmative action, but that is what it was: offering admission on something other than strict academic grounds. Affirmative action is back in the news – not only because it is once again college admission season, but because one month from now the U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments involving the affirmative action policies of the University of Michigan. This is a seminal case before the court. Hundreds of colleges and universities and large corporations are following the case closely, and many have filed briefs with the court – mostly in support of the University of Michigan. President Bush has taken the other side.

Affirmative action is one of those major watershed divides in American politics. Honorable and reasonable people argue passionately about it. In general, with some exceptions, Democrats tend to be in favor of it; Republicans against.

Back in the 1960’s affirmative action originally meant trying to provide some redress for centuries of discrimination based on race. Over time it came to embrace issues of gender and ethnicity. But these changes have been extremely difficult from the beginning, and the political divisions have been sharp. The liberal Democrats have pretended that affirmative action is cost free, while the Republicans have pretended that these deeply rooted societal problems will take care of themselves if government will only stay out of it.

Both are wrong of course. But stay tuned, dear friends, for this is one of those issues that is not going to go away. Whatever the Supreme Court decides in the University of Michigan case, this is going to be back, again and again. In the meantime, a little quiet soul searching on the part of the president might do a world of good. He no more got into Yale because he was the most qualified, than I got into Oxford for that reason. Confession, Mr. President, can be good for the soul and, in your case, for public policy as well.

This is Olin Robison.

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