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Updated 10:00 AM February 5, 2007




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Affirmative action backers say appeal to "democratic merit"
could win majority support

In a post Proposal 2 world, it's still possible to convince society that affirmative action is vital for all, says an internationally recognized authority on the issue.

"Thomas Jefferson said the purpose of education is making citizens," said john powell, executive director of the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity at The Ohio State University. He said this ideal should help guide admissions policy.

powell, who chooses to lowercase his name, addressed "Equity and Access in a Post-Affirmative Action Environment" Jan. 30 at the Palmer Commons Forum Hall, in a lecture presented by the National Center for Institutional Diversity (NCID).

He stressed that what he calls opportunity structures and cumulative causation—in the case of minorities this means inferior schools, poor nutrition and stressful neighborhood environments—are more valid factors to access than race in determining an individual's potential for college success.

"Cumulative causation defines opportunity and cumulative causation can also retard opportunity," powell said.

He reminded his U-M audience that the University is seen as a national leader in championing diversity and opportunities for minorities. "You have an opportunity here to set the agenda for other universities," he said. "Talk about our linked fate."

powell urged his audience to collect data, evaluate it and tell stories that illustrate inequities in how students can be assessed. In one example, he said that after California's anti-affirmative measure passed in 1996, college admissions evaluators threw out some minority student test scores, even though they earned 4.0 grade point averages. He said the reason their admissions requests were rejected was that more affluent students had access to advanced placement classes and could post those classes on their applications—classes unavailable to students from poorer neighborhoods.

powell talked of the concept of "white space"—defined as geographical areas where minorities are not supposed to be—where those who are not white are known to be profiled and more likely stopped by police or treated with suspicion. He suggested this phenomenon hurts whites more, because they are isolated when these spaces exist and do not benefit from more diverse contacts.

"The most isolated group in the country is whites; they're not being prepared," he said, adding society needs to recognize that diversity is in everyone's self interest.

He also urged those who seek to promote affirmative action and adversity to speak out, and to "inoculate" the general public with ideas that can head off subtle appeals to racism with code words. powell said this happened in 1968 when presidential candidate Richard Nixon gained favor with white voters because he stressed law and order as a campaign slogan at a time where urban riots had seized headlines.

"The question is how do we talk about race? We can do it in a way that actually brings people together," powell said, suggesting that attention to cumulative causation factors and favorable opportunity structures can bring people together.

In a panel discussion following the lecture, Phil Bowman, NCID director, told powell, "Your notions of democratic merit are essential to what we are committed to doing," and added he is hopeful other U-M units will join the NCID to promote diversity. Bowman said the public tends to support affirmative action ideals but opposes measures to promote it. He said there is supporting research "suggesting that this conflict is intensified by racial/ethnic differences in ideology related to affirmative action—resentment about reverse discrimination, attributions about inequality, stereotypes, and conservative values."

Phoebe Ellsworth, Frank Murphy Distinguished Professor of Law and Psychology and Professor of Law, backed powell's call for improved opportunity structures for minorities. Ellsworth said research shows that successful whites believe they "prevailed in a color-blind universe," yet minorities have far fewer connections to opportunities than whites.

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