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Up Close & Personal with Grutter
February 11, 2003
by Ollivia M. Sexton

I spent last summer groveling over a case that has recently hit the media and heart strings of America with a bang. Last summer I filled my days working as an intern at the Center for Individual Rights (CIR) in Washington DC, on a case about a white girl who didn't get into the University of Michigan - Grutter v Bollinger. At first I didn't quite understand the magnitude of the case. I thought it was rather strange that someone would sue a college that didn't admit them. It took me only a few days to figure out what was really at stake.

I worked with the exact statistics that are being thrown around in the media - admission percentages of minority students in Washington, Texas, California and Florida (the four states that once upheld affirmative action, and subsequently outlawed it). I found the stats from the fact sheets of the schools themselves. My job was to figure out whether the number of minority students in college had really gone up or down. By the end of the summer I had compiled 130 pages of data which I was to summarize into two articles.

To my surprise, the numbers upheld both sides of the argument. Minority populations have risen and fallen under affirmative action; likewise, they have fluctuated in its absence. And that is exactly why we hear these numbers on both sides, with people swearing by their statistics. These people are not lying - the numbers tell both stories. It's interesting how numbers can be whatever you want them to be. But numbers and their manipulation aren't the real concern in this case. The issue is much more fundamental and understated, almost opaque.

I am talking about the moral side of affirmative action. I am not, for one moment, overlooking the real social ailments that strike at the heart of this debate. I know that all schools do not offer equal education to students. I understand that teens who lead lives filled with turbulence are unable to put their best foot forward in high school and therefore are not able to attend the best colleges or college at all. I know American heritage, and the suffering and oppression that parts of our population have endured. To some circles, because I am a woman, I belong in one of those marginal categories.

There are ways to handle these more pragmatic problems without resorting to legitimizing discrimination. Schools should be asking students to write admission essays about their dreams, goals, and aspirations. Admission departments should be making these decisions after reading students' reasons for not excelling at school - personal crises, poverty, or trauma. Students should be admitted because they want a chance, not because they can check a "preferred race" box on their application. Race and gender should not even be questions on the form. What should it matter what someone's sex or skin color is?

I cannot see why we would revert to a tradition proven to be harmful, oppressive, degrading and immoral. Either way we cut the cake, when someone is judged for any reason, by any criteria, other than their merit, policy that is dangerously too close to legitimized discrimination is introduced.

The issue is about judging people based on the color of their skin, or their gender. One argument that many proponents of affirmative action have trouble answering is, "why is it okay to judge people based on their race when it benefits them, but is a blatant display of discrimination when it harms them?" How can the same principle, judging someone on something other than their merit, be discrimination in one instance and diversity in another?

For years, people have protested against being judged by their color. Why now is there an exception to the rule? If the principle is wrong, as it is decidedly so, then the principle is wrong. Period.

We can't play loosy goosy with our most fundamental principles. The consequence of such action is a degradation in the importance and poignancy of the principle itself. As they say about common law maxims, the best way to overrule a precedent you don't agree with, but don't have the support to outright strike down, is to keep making exceptions to it until there is nothing left of the maxim. Making decision based on someone's skin color is wrong - let's not lose sight of that.

In syllogistic terms, discrimination is wrong; discrimination by definition is judging someone based on criteria beyond one's merit. Admitting students into schools based on the color of their skin is making a judgment based on something beyond merit. Therefore, affirmative action in university admission offices is discrimination. As discrimination, affirmative action is wrong.

Yes, we need to find a way to allow students equal access to university educations. Yes, we need to work against an oppressive past which has hindered much of our population. Yes, we need to encourage diversity. No, allowing discrimination is not the answer.

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