The University Record, April 9, 2001

Read the accompanying article and view photos of the event.

Affirmative action views aired during live NPR broadcast

By John Woodford
News and Information Services

NPR host Juan Williams (left) moderated a discussion of affirmative action law and policies that featured John McWhorter (second from left), Law School Dean Jeffrey S. Lehman (second from right) and Larry Purdy. Photo by Martin Vloet, U-M Photo Services
Champions of several contrasting views about affirmative action law and policies aired their views March 29 during the first hour of National Public Radio’s (NPR) two-hour “Talk of the Nation” broadcast live from Rackham Auditorium. The visit by NPR was co-sponsored by the Horace H. Rackham School of Graduate Studies and Michigan Radio.

Juan Williams, host of the Washington, D.C.,-based listener-participation show, launched the opening panel discussion by calling affirmative action the “most divisive issue in America over the last half-century” because programs shaped by that principle affect many contracts, jobs and admissions to schools.

The ruling in Grutter v. Bollinger et al. two days earlier, against the U-M Law School’s use of race as a factor in admissions, gave the Ann Arbor venue of the NPR “town meeting” special relevance, Williams noted. He invited Detroit Free Press reporter Maryanne George to sum up for the audience the two ongoing U-M affirmative action cases—one a lawsuit against the undergraduate admissions program (U.S. District Court Judge Patrick Duggan ruled for the University last Dec. 13 in Gratz v. Bollinger et al.) and the Law School case, in which U.S. District Court Judge Bernard A. Friedman overturned the Law School’s admissions program in a March 27 ruling. (The 6th Circuit Court of Appeals has issued a stay of Friedman’s ruling pending the University’s appeal.)

George said the judge in the undergraduate case had accepted the University’s argument that using race as a factor in admissions is legal because “diversity is of compelling interest” to the institution and state, a judgment aligned with the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1978 Bakke decision. “Some people feel affirmative action harms them; some support it,” George said. “Basically, people want to know, ‘Why can’t my kid get in?’”

Williams noted that the recent ruling in the Law School admissions lawsuit gave special relevance to the Ann Arbor venue of the NPR discussion. Photo by Martin Vloet, U-M Photo Services
Then the panelists weighed in. Larry Purdy, an attorney for the Center for Individual Rights, which is challenging U-M’s race-conscious admissions policies, said he wanted a society “where race doesn’t matter” and where diversity programs embraced ideological and socioeconomic differences rather than racial ones. The Law School could achieve a more wholly diverse class by other means, he said, such as dispensing with grades and standardized tests as factors in admission, accepting all applicants and then admitting them by lottery. This approach would let demographic statistics establish diversity.

Law School Dean Jeffrey S. Lehman responded that by rejecting the Bakke case as governing precedent, Judge Friedman “got the law wrong.” The Bakke decision “has prevailed [as case law] since its ruling,” Lehman said. And he added that other methods of admitting members of minority groups who had experienced systematic discrimination had proven ineffective or were “inconsistent” with the mission of the institution: “preparing leaders and providing good teachers.”

John McWhorter, associate professor of linguistics at Stanford University, argued that there was “nothing wrong” when race-based affirmative action “was instituted in the 1960s,” but “today, it should be based on class.” Continuing race-based affirmative action rests upon the “pernicious premise that most Blacks are disadvantaged,” he continued. Academic underachievement by Blacks “is a problem to fix by working on Black pre-college education” and by combating the post-’60s rise of “anti-intellectualism” in Black youth culture, he argued, concluding that “lowered standards mean lower performance.”

Lehman said that there is no evidence of lower performance by Blacks compared with other groups. “Our school is very selective,” he said. “Last year, we rejected 65 percent of Black applicants and 62 percent of Caucasian applicants. A study by Prof. Richard Lempert of all of our minority graduates since 1970 found no significant difference between their graduation rates, bar passage rates, career achievements or job satisfaction” and those of whites.

Purdy said that such a finding was a good basis for ending the consideration of race, test scores and grade point averages in admissions. Lehman called that the wrong conclusion from the evidence. “The study didn’t say we could achieve the same results [without affirmative action],” he said. “It showed that our admissions policy had the effect Lempert found.”

When Williams suggested to McWhorter that the Lempert study “showed affirmative action was effective,” McWhorter disagreed, maintaining that such programs caused Blacks like himself to feel stigmatized. “You will never know if you didn’t receive a benefit,” he said. “And scores and grades will stay lower with no incentive to close the gap. I am interested in bringing us up to par with everyone else.”

The discussion was thrown open to the audience. Lehman was asked whether the Law School wanted students “who succeed in law school or succeed as lawyers.” Lehman said the school’s mission of “improving citizenship and democracy, and making society better through the law” encompassed both objectives and that using tests and grade point averages in combination helped the school predict that the students it admits can pass the courses designed to achieve those ends.

Is affirmative action a short- or long-term solution, a graduate student asked, and where should society make its heaviest investment in correcting inequities?

“It should be short-term, like chemotherapy,” McWhorter responded, and resources ought to be focused on elementary and high school programs—“that’s the only truly human thing to do.”

An undergraduate joined McWhorter and Purdy in attesting that affirmative action programs “stigmatize” all students from certain minority groups, regardless of their academic qualities, by leading students from other groups to perceive them as undeserving of their place on campus.

A caller from Oregon replied that such a view ignored the fact that “underrepresented minorities tend to come in with lower grades and scores but to leave with the same level of knowledge” as their peers. Affirmative action, he said, has provided minority communities with the services of excellent physicians and other professionals who would not have been trained without such programs.

McWhorter sparked groans in the audience when he said he supported affirmative action in medical schools because studies show that African American physicians are more likely to serve their communities than are physicians from majority groups.

Lehman replied that “the same goes for the legal profession” and therefore McWhorter had undercut his own argument against affirmative action at the Law School.

Purdy, however, said he was “concerned when we hear we have to have whites for whites, Blacks for Blacks, Native Americans for Native Americans. The goal is a fully integrated society. Call me idealistic, but I hate to see slots assigned because the grads will serve their own community.”

Lehman said that while he agreed that race “matters more than it should” in this country, “that’s not something created by our admissions policy” but the legacy and continuation of racial injustice in American society.

The program ended when a student rose to declare that being admitted under U-M’s undergraduate affirmative action program “has not stigmatized me.”

“What concerns, outrages, me,” she continued, “is the retreat on programs that combat racism.” The books in her Detroit high school “were not quality books, not the same level,” she’d learned by comparing them with books available to students from wealthier school systems. Despite her unequal pre-college preparation, she said, she would nevertheless graduate on time this spring and go on to fight racism to the limit of her energy.