by | Nov 21, 2008 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

The only problem with a perfect world is so few of us want to give up anything to have one.

In a perfect world, black students would be admitted to the University of Michigan under the same standards as whites. I think everyone agrees on that.

And in a perfect world, white students would not have to give up their spots.

And there’s the rub, the yin and yang of a lawsuit filed last week by Jennifer Gratz and Patrick Hamacher.

Both were impressive high schoolers. She had a 3.8 grade-point average, scored high on the ACT, was on the student council and was homecoming queen.

He had a 3.2 GPA, scored high on the ACT, played football and was in the choir.

Both were denied admission to U-M. Both are white. Both, according to their lawyer, Terry Pell, “had higher qualifications than minorities who were admitted.”

They were kept out, they claim, because of a policy that U-M staunchly defends, a policy that ensures diversity on campus, but does take race into account for applicants — along with other factors such as poverty, curriculum and geography.

Now, if Gratz and Hamacher are as smart as they seem, I doubt they would argue with the benefits of minorities — especially blacks — being helped toward higher education. Years of slavery, poverty and prejudice no doubt put blacks at a disadvantage in this country, which no other ethnic group had to endure.

And since education is the best weapon for socioeconomic success, then college is only going to help raise the achievements and expectations of black America. And that’s a good thing, right?

Sure, we all say. As long as I don’t have to give up my spot.

Texas and California

This is not a new issue. Most of us remember Alan Bakke, who was rejected twice from a California medical school back in the ’70s. He sued, because the school held 16 positions out of 100 exclusively for minorities, some of whom had lower test scores than Bakke. The Supreme Court ruled in his favor, saying affirmative action was not about quotas.

Since then, there have been many chinks in the affirmative action armor. Last year, the Supreme Court struck down a bid by the University of Texas to use race as a factor in judging law school applicants. And in California, folks live under the new Prop 209, which prohibits affirmative action altogether.

So is there a place for race in college?

Those in favor say it’s the only way to combat prejudice. They say tests such as the SAT are discriminatory. They say impoverished minorities don’t have the same good high school educations as wealthier whites — so naturally, some test scores will be lower. But, they say, the only way to ensure that the next minority generation isn’t doomed to repeat the cycle is to make sure young people today get a chance.

And for those against? Racism is racism, they say. Besides, the biggest beneficiaries of affirmative action, they claim, are middle- or upper-class minorities, who don’t need a boost. They say a poor white student could get rejected in favor of a rich black one. Who is that helping?

These are strong opinions. But at their core they are fundamentally the same:

This is my time. And while I feel for you, I want what’s best for me.

Different measures

Now, to claim college admissions are discriminatory is to say the sky is blue. How about schools that admit athletes under lower standards? How about schools that favor alumni’s children? (I never got that one. What if your kid is a dolt? He gets in because 30 years ago, you went there?)

Anyhow, schools discriminate. But the point here is the law. As Pell says, “We have no quarrel with a school wanting diversity. But the Constitution says it can’t use race as a factor.”

Well, maybe it’s time to modify the parameters. Remember, it’s not being black that affirmative action is trying to correct. There’s nothing wrong with being black — or brown, or yellow, or red.

There is something wrong with being poor and uneducated. So perhaps U-M and other schools should increase openings for economically disadvantaged, and poor-school-system disadvantaged.

Of course, this requires more work. It means research into high schools, neighborhoods, economics. It’s tougher than sliding an application in the black pile, the brown pile or the white pile.

But then, if you want a perfect world you have to sweat a little. The saddest part of this case is how little we feel responsible for the whole of society, not just our pieces. I don’t know if you can teach that. But the minute all our kids get to college, it ought to be a required course.

Mitch Albom will sign “Tuesdays With Morrie” 8-9 p.m. Wednesday, Barnes & Noble, Port Huron; 7:30-8:30 p.m. Thursday, Book Nook, Allen Park; and 8-9 p.m. Friday, Borders, Utica. To leave a message for Albom, call 1-313-223-4581.


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New book, The Little Liar, arrives November 14. Get the details »

Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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