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Affirmative Action: “It’s Absolutely Essential”

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By Hugh B. Price
President, National Urban League

On Monday, February 17, there occurred in Washington, D.C., as the nation’s capitol was being battered by a pounding snowstorm, an extraordinary moment in the history of American democracy.

That day, a swirl of voices spoke up for the ideal of and the practical application of the expansion of opportunity to the broadest possible number of America’s citizenry.

At the annual conference of the American Council of Education, more than 300 organizations representing a broad spectrum of American society declared their support for affirmative action in general and specifically for the admissions policies that are being challenged at the University of Michigan.

Those represented at the ACE gathering—including major corporations, labor unions, institutions of higher learning, civil rights organizations, and 30 of America’s top former military and civilian defense officials—have filed a total of more than 60 amicus curiae briefs on the University’s behalf with the U.S. Supreme Court as it prepares to hear arguments on this momentous case.

They recognized, as Mary Sue Coleman, the president of the University of Michigan said in a speech to those assembled, that the controversy over affirmative action is “a debate about the future direction of this country”—and they were there to say, as Coleman urged, that the country’s future direction must be to advance, “not turn back the clock.”

The National Urban League, along with the Southern Christian Leadership Conference of Los Angeles and the National Rainbow/PUSH Coalition, has filed its own amicus brief for Michigan in the case.

Our view is that because racial disparities stemming from past discriminatory practices continue to affect America’s institutions at all levels, affirmative action remains a compelling and effective tool for colleges and universities to create and educate a diverse student body that is reflective of the larger society.

There’s no doubt that such admissions policies like those Michigan uses have contributed to advancing opportunity for people of color—and enhancing the quality of life in higher education as well as the bottom line in the workplace.

Equally important, the demographic changes underway here make it clear that the quality of America’s civic life will increasingly depend on a literate and engaged populace of color who are well equipped to exercise the ballot and meet the obligations of citizenship.

That view isn’t ours alone. Indeed, what was most striking—and heartening—about the ACE gathering was that it proved it’s held by such a diverse collection of Americans.
What does it mean that prominent American companies, including 64 Fortune 500 corporations, are supporting Michigan’s affirmative-action approach?

What does it mean that such former military leaders as General H. Norman Schwartzkopf, three former chairmen of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and two former Secretaries of Defense have declared their support for affirmative action—as have labor unions, other colleges and universities, more than 100 Democratic members of the House of Representatives, a host of civil rights and other organizations, and at least a dozen state attorneys general?

What does it mean that Colin Powell, President Bush’s Secretary of State, and Condoleeza Rice, President Bush’s national security advisor, recently felt compelled to declare their support for affirmative action—publicly differing with the President’s recent criticism of the University of Michigan’s practice?

What do all these things mean?
One thing they mean is that there is a large community of individuals and organizations and institutions from across American society who understand that affirmative action represents a compelling national interest for the present and future of the nation.

They realize that it is not simply a mechanism for righting past wrongs but also a building block for constructing our American society of today and tomorrow.

As Joseph R. Reeder, a former undersecretary of the Army, said, speaking of affirmative action’s value in peopling the nation’s service academies and Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC) collegiate programs, “It’s absolutely essential … You can’t get there yet without taking race into consideration.”

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