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White House Attack on Affirmative Action Program

From the radio newsmagazine
Between The Lines

Between the Lines Q&A
A weekly column featuring progressive viewpoints
on national and international issues
under-reported in mainstream media
for release Jan. 27, 2002

Civil Rights Groups Denounce White House Attack on University of Michigan Affirmative Action Program

Interview with the Rev. Joseph Lowery, co-founder and president emeritus of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, conducted by Scott Harris

Listen in RealAudio:

Following close on the heels of the controversy sparked by Sen. Trent Lott's racially insensitive comments, the Bush administration has chosen sides in a landmark affirmative action case that will soon be heard by the U.S. Supreme Court. The president will file a brief on behalf of prospective white students who allege in a suit that the University of Michigan's race-conscious admission policy unfairly discriminated against them.

White House spokespersons say that the administration's goal is not to overturn all college affirmative action programs, but just that used by the University of Michigan. But critics contend that Mr. Bush's stance on this case has cast a shadow over his presidency. Civil rights activist Jesse Jackson attacked Mr. Bush as "the most anti-civil rights president in 50 years."

The Michigan case reopens the debate ignited in the 1978 Supreme Court Bakke decision, which narrowly ruled that quotas were impermissible, but that the use of race in the pursuit of diversity could be allowed. Between The Lines' Scott Harris spoke with the Rev. Joseph Lowery, cofounder and president emeritus of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, who takes a critical look at the Bush administration's decision to oppose the University of Michigan affirmative action policy.

Rev. Joseph Lowery: The Trent Lott debacle was interesting in that they got rid of Trent as the majority leader, but the Trent Lott mentality -- in spite of the fact that he proclaimed over and over again on national television that he supported affirmative action --- the truth of the matter is he exposed their southern strategy which opposes affirmative action. So we talk about race-based initiatives, we talk about race neutral policies for admission by universities and hiring by corporations, but the truth of the matter is, we know full well that the inequities we see in this country that are based on race did not occur by osmosis, they did not occur accidentally, they occurred as a result of deliberate intentional policy and they will not be addressed or remedied except by intentional, deliberative policy. And that's what affirmative action is all about.

Between The Lines: What do you think went into the decision that the Bush administration made to attack affirmative action at the University of Michigan with this upcoming Supreme Court case? What kind of political calculations do you think they made?

Rev. Joseph Lowery: I think it's another rung on the ladder that leads to southern strategy. They're appeasing the right-wing element in the (Republican) party. And it's interesting to me that the president got into the university where he attended because points were given to him because he was the son of a graduate -- people who are children of alumni get points. But yet, they're objecting to the children of those who were excluded because of their race getting points because the university wants to address that inequity.

Between The Lines: What in your mind are the consequences if the Supreme Court overturns the University of Michigan's admissions policy? What will that do to affirmative action nationally?

Rev. Joseph Lowery: Well, I think it will have a devastating effect. I think it will result, as it has in other places, in a serious decrease in the enrollment of minorities. The fact that minorities have challenges is because of their deprived background in their earlier educational experiences, in the disadvantages of their families. It's not just blacks and browns, I think there are disadvantaged whites who need attention as well. But the effort on the part of the University of Michigan, is, I think, a courageous effort to avoid the pitfalls of other universities that have been forced to take out their affirmative action plans -- and the result is you're going to get an all-white campus.

Between The Lines: Rev. Lowery, you hear the rhetoric of politicians and right-wing talk show hosts who allege that affirmative action as it's played out in places like the University of Michigan and others, effectively discriminates against white students with high grade point averages. How do you respond to the idea that somehow affirmative action is discriminatory and defies the whole issue of preventing discrimination on the basis of skin color?

Rev. Joseph Lowery: I think there are very rare cases where some whites may not have gained admission because of the number of minorities admitted -- that may be. But, when you hold it up against the millions, the generations of minorities who have been excluded very deliberately and when you make a conscientious effort to atone for that, and to compensate for that, to rectify that, at some time or another, you may step on the toes of somebody who was hurt in that process. But I find it difficult to feel sorry for people who, if they can't get into Harvard, can get into Yale. There's no real truth to the fact that anybody is denied an education -- and maybe in some specific instance you may not at this point in history get in a particular school -- but you have so many other opportunities that minorities don't have. But even if that happens, you can make it through and go right on about your business.

Between The Lines: How do you see the United States -- are we going backwards here in some respect or do you have hope that enough people will rally to protect things like affirmative action and struggle for equality that we can overcome whatever is happening in this country at the moment?

Rev. Joseph Lowery: Oh yes, I believe in the final triumph of righteousness. I believe that justice will prevail. Sometimes, it takes a long time. The revolution that we experienced is a result of the (civil rights) movement which precipitated a counter-revolution. And the counter-revolution now is seeking to redefine America in terms of the old Dixiecrat framing of public policy. So we've got to organize and coalesce and become more active in the name of Martin Luther King. This is a good time to renew that commitment to let justice roll down like waters and usher in a new phase of justice and equity in this country.

Rev. Joseph Lowery currently works with the Black Leadership Forum. Contact the Forum at (202) 780-5599 or visit their Web site at

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