Politics & Government
8:31 am
Tue March 26, 2013

Commentary: Race and admissions

Twenty years or so ago, I got up the nerve to ask the late Coleman Young, the controversial and acid-tongued mayor of Detroit, why affirmative action was necessary.

Nobody ever thought of Mayor Young as shy, retiring or diplomatic, and I was fully prepared for a caustic and profane reply. But he instead grew almost philosophical.

He mentioned a case where white students were complaining that affirmative action in college admissions gave an unfair advantage to lesser qualified students of color.

“That’s like saying, you have a track race, and you have one guy who trains every day, and another one who has been chained in a dungeon,” the mayor said. “Then one day you unshackle the guy and lead him upstairs and take him to the track, and put him next to guys who’ve been training. And you tell him, ‘okay, no unfair advantage, it’s a level playing field, so get ready to race.’ Well, of course the guy who was chained up will lose. From the start, it’s never been a level playing field. That’s why you need affirmative action,” he said.

Well, seven years ago the voters of this state sharply disagreed with the former mayor, who by then was long dead.

In a statewide vote, they amended the Michigan constitution to outlaw race and gender consideration in college admissions and in hiring for public sector jobs. That’s where matters have stood ever since.

But now the United States Supreme Court has agreed to consider this fall whether the Michigan ban is constitutional. This could have historic consequences in a number of ways.

For one thing, the court could well rule as to whether we can use ballot initiatives and statewide votes to set public policy, something that’s become more and more common.  Then, of course, there’s the issue once again of affirmative action itself.

Ten years ago, in a case involving the University of Michigan law school, the Supreme Court ruled that yes, race may be used in a factor in admissions. Though in a similar case involving undergrad admissions, the justices ruled that a system where applicants got extra points based on their race wasn’t legal.

But now there’s also a very interesting new challenge to the ban of affirmative action. If it is not constitutional to use race as a factor, then why is it constitutional to give extra consideration to the children of alumni?

The more you study the Supreme Court, the more you know that in momentous cases, it is very dangerous to try to predict how the justices will rule, and on what grounds. Go back and read their ruling on the president’s health care plan for proof.

But what’s clear is that this ruling is likely to be important, and important in the way it helps shape society.

You could turn college admissions over to a computer that crunches grade point averages. But that would ignore the fact that schools in Flint aren’t the same as schools in Bloomfield Hills. Or that the interests of a diverse society may be best served by having highly educated citizens of different backgrounds.

No, there is not now and never has been a level playing field. But in this competitive world we may all do better if everyone has a chance.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. Views expressed in the essays by Jack Lessenberry are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan.