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Affirmative Action Again an Issue, but Jews Are Quiet This Time Around

January 30, 2003
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In the 25 years since the Supreme Court outlawed racial quotas for university admissions, Jewish groups have largely tempered their opposition to affirmative action.

On April 1, the Supreme Court will hear arguments in two of the biggest affirmative action cases in a generation.

The cases involve white students who contend that the University of Michigan’s law school and undergraduate schools’ affirmative action programs amount to reverse discrimination.

In the Supreme Court’s landmark 1978 decision against affirmative action in Regents of the University of California v. Bakke, Jewish groups lined up in vocal opposition to affirmative programs.

In that decision, the court banned quotas but allowed racial criteria to be used in admissions decisions.

This time around, their positions are more muted, as well as more diverse.

Only the Anti-Defamation League, one of the then-staunchest leaders of the national fight against affirmative action, has filed a brief opposing Michigan’s program.

“The Jewish community is less concerned about affirmative action than it was 25 years ago,” said Marc Stern, legal director of the American Jewish Congress. “We’ve all shifted.”

Leaders of Jewish groups said the rejection of quotas for affirmative action came largely in light of numerical limits on Jewish enrollment in European and American universities in the 1920s.

“It’s the quota concept that’s anathema,” said Jeffrey Sinensky, director of public policy for the American Jewish Committee, which will be submitting a brief in defense of the university.

In the 1970s, the then-head of the ADL, Nathan Perlmutter, was among the national leaders in the fight against affirmative action, calling for a ban on all race-based criteria for admissions.

But this time around, ADL is keeping a low profile.

The group criticizes the University of Michigan in its brief to the court. But it does not go as far as the students’ lawyers, who seek to annul the Bakke precedent by arguing that race has no place at all in a constitutional effort to maintain diversity.

Taking a position roughly in line with the White House, the ADL’s lawyers write in the group’s amicus brief to the court: “It is enough to nullify Michigan’s systems.”

“Diversity must be achieved in a racially neutral way,” said the ADL’s national director, Abraham Foxman.

The ADL brief says race “may appropriately be considered in the admissions process,” so long as it is receives no greater weight than other characteristics of applicants.

The difference of opinion on affirmative action between Jewish groups and black organizations was among the sources of tension between the groups in the late 1970s, said Maudine Cooper, president of the Greater Washington Urban League.

In the 1960s, Jewish groups had allied with minority groups to oppose segregation and enact civil rights legislation. But then affirmative action came into the picture, splintering the alliance.

“There was little love lost between blacks and Jews on this issue,” said Stern, who has been with the AJCongress for over 25 years.

In 1978, the AJCongress opposed all use of race in university admissions. This time, internal disagreements within the organization have prevented the group from filing a brief.

Cooper said the moderation of Jewish groups shows that leaders of Jewish as well as black organizations are “older than we were before. We’ve settled into a reality check that you can’t throw it all away.

“If we get rid of affirmative action what happens to the diversity we all want?” Cooper said.

In addition, the parameters of the debate have shifted, since quotas have been barred for a quarter century and now the court will decide whether to draw the lines even further.

In both of the University of Michigan’s programs, minority students receive special consideration as a part of their applications. In the undergraduate affirmative action program, on a scoring scale in which 100 points generally secures admissions, minority applicants receive 20 points automatically.

Athletes also receive 20 points, and a perfect score on the Scholastic Achievement Test is worth 12 points.

“Like the formal quota in Bakke, the dual standard employed by the university insulates members of the preferred racial and ethnic groups from competition,” argues the lawyers for the students.

Civil rights groups disagree.

“If the way that Michigan is doing affirmative action is not consistent with the law,” then affirmative action cannot be done at all, said Cecilia Munoz, vice president for public policy of the National Council of La Raza.

Which is why the AJCommittee supports the school.

“While we have opposed quotas we are, have been and will be in support of a range of programs for affirmative action,” Sinensky said.

In 1978, the AJCommittee supported the Bakke compromise, Sinensky said.

The 1978 case involved Allan Bakke, a white applicant to the University of California Medical School at Davis who charged that a special program which gave 16 out of 100 spots to minority applicants amounted to reverse discrimination.

Since the Bakke decision, with racial quotas outlawed for universities and certain employers, different kinds of affirmative action programs remain sanctioned by the Supreme Court.

Opponents attack affirmative action programs by trying to show that they are quotas.

The result has been confusing to say the least.

Depending on their definition of quotas, different federal courts have upheld or struck down various programs for racial preferences at various universities around the country.

The Supreme Court has avoided the issue since Bakke.

Munoz said civil rights organizations that have coalesced in favor of Michigan’s admissions systems “would be very much encouraged” by any support for their position from the organized Jewish community.

For its part, the White House has been careful about the politically sensitive issue, submitting briefs to the Supreme Court on Jan. 16 denouncing Michigan’s system, but not calling for a full reversal of Bakke.

In his comments that day, President Bush said the University of Michigan’s system “amounts to a quota system” and called for “a quality education to every child from every background.”

Since then, he has refused to say whether or not he supports any racial preferences at all for university admissions.

Foxman suggested that other creative ways could be used to maintain diversity.

“Use economic disability as a criteria and you will help blacks, whites, Latinos, anyone,” he said.

A decision by the Supreme Court is expected in late June.

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