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Archive for Tuesday, September 11, 2001

Race still matters in America

September 11, 2001

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I was born colored. You can see it on my birth certificate. I was born in the Negro or Nigra wing of the hospital in Conyers, Ga. Ask my mama. From the beginning, race has been a factor in my life.

It was a factor when I helped integrate Rockdale High School. It was a factor when I helped maintain the integration of the University of Georgia.

But three federal judges said the other day that race cannot be a determining factor in decisions about who else will attend that university.

At Rockdale High, blacks weren't permitted into the college prep classes. I broke through that barrier. At the University of Georgia, I broke down another barrier when I became freshman of the year and was later tapped to join an honor society.

I was acutely aware that race was a factor, just as it had been a decade earlier when Charlayne Hunter and Hamilton Holmes risked their lives when they enrolled at that theretofore all-white campus in 1961.

But now, supposedly, we've progressed to the point that considering race is forbidden even if the goal is to diversify a campus where less than 6 percent of the student body is black.

"Racial diversity alone is not necessarily the hallmark of a diverse student body, and race is not necessarily the only, or best, criterion for determining the contribution that an applicant might make to the broad mix of experiences and perspective," a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit ruled.

I agree that a person is more than the color of his or her skin. But one's racial background often determines one's access to educational resources, from birth on. Adding points to a nonwhite student's application is no more onerous that adding points because one is the offspring of an alumnus or one is a talented athlete or musician.

Granted, a privileged black student from a wealthy background should be no more entitled to a place in the classroom than a poor white student.

But methinks the judges are naive and have spent too much time in their ivory towers when they take the university to task for its affirmative efforts to bring nonwhite students to a campus that excluded them for more than 150 years. The judges don't give the university enough credit for struggling to address the failures of the past when race was clearly a factor in excluding nonwhites.

Ideally, the university should have great leeway in defining diversity for its entering classes. This is Georgia's publicly supported flagship campus, so the goal should be, first and foremost, a student body that reflects the state itself. That includes such factors as gender, family income, geographic distribution, individual talent, the likelihood of success, both academically and professionally, and the likelihood the student will pay the state back through some form of public service later in life.

Surely race belongs on this list. Surely it is as legitimate a consideration as any of the other factors. Surely it defies logic and common sense for the judges to say that because race shouldn't be the only consideration, it shouldn't be a consideration at all.

The victors in the case were three white women who were denied admission in 1999 and sued on the theory of reverse discrimination.

The losers may be all those talented nonwhite students for whom race has been a factor in their life opportunities but cannot be a factor in deciding whether to admit them to the university.

This is tricky business, for sure. I don't favor quotas, and I have often chided people for assuming that racial or ethnic difference is the same as diversity. Several years ago at a joint convention of minority journalists, I decided to organize a diverse table at lunch. I grabbed nine people and invited them to join me. When we introduced ourselves to each other, it turned out that, yes, I had blacks and Latinos and Asians at my table. But we had all attended Ivy League schools, and we all had ties to New York City. Some diversity!

Given the range of factors that determine whether one is admitted including grades, test scores, community service and connections to the university family race as one of those factors does not strike me as sinister.

The judges left open the possibility that race could be considered but warned the university that if it "wants to ensure diversity through its admissions decisions, and wants race to be part of that calculus, then it must be prepared to shoulder the burden of fully and fairly analyzing applicants as individuals and not merely as members of groups when deciding their likely contribution to student body diversity."

The task will be more difficult if this ruling stands, but if university officials are as committed to diversity as they have said, they will devise a system that is fair to all applicants but doesn't ignore history. Like it or not, race is a factor in American life.

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