The White House opened itself to criticism on one of the most racially charged issues in the United States yesterday as it announced its intention to intervene in a high-profile Supreme Court case and voice its opposition to affirmative action in university admissions procedures.
The case, centering on the University of Michigan's system of racial preferences, is expected to be a landmark in the long-running debate on affirmative action, which has already been eroded by local court rulings and popular ballot initiatives in several US states.
George Bush has made little secret of his opposition to affirmative action ever since he hit the presidential campaign trail four years ago, arguing that that it is unfair and possibly unconstitutional. Some of his advisers, however, have urged caution for fear of jeopardizing his chances of netting black and Latino votes when he runs for re-election in 2004.
According to administration officials, lawyers from both the White House and the Justice Department will draw up a brief today arguing against the University of Michigan's admissions policies. "He [the President] wants to find a way to recognize the importance of diversity, and do so in a way that serves one and all," the White House press spokesman, Ari Fleischer, told reporters. "The challenge is to focus on diversity in ways that do not use quotas." The White House intervention, while not uncommon in landmark Supreme Court cases, might seem politically risky just days after the resignation of Trent Lott, the would-be Senate majority leader, whose openly expressed sympathies for racial segregation made him a severe embarrassment to the Republican Party.
Tom Daschle, the Democratic minority leader, immediately seized on this theme, calling the Michigan case "a watershed moment for the administration". "They have to decide whether they're for civil rights and diversity or not," he said. "I think the burden of proof will be on Republicans to show us how they can be for diversity and yet be against the laws that promulgate diversity."
The University of Michigan is one of the largest and most prestigious state-run institutions of higher education in the country. The case was originally brought by three white students who argued that the system of preferences for minority students discriminated illegally against them and their white peers as they sought to move on from undergraduate studies to advanced degree courses, notably at the University of Michigan law school.
Similar arguments have been used to undermine affirmative action programs in California and in Washington state, both of which voted in statewide referendums over the past six years to end affirmative action in its traditional form. Advocates argue that the point of the system is to tip the playing field in favor of disadvantaged groups and give them the chance to catch up with the white majority.
The Bush administration is expected to suggest an alternative to racial preferences. While he was governor of Texas, Mr Bush proposed a plan that would make the top 10 per cent of graduating students at all high schools eligible for entry at state-run universities a proposal that would not eliminate black and Latino enrolment but would almost certainly severely reduce it.
© 2002 Independent Digital (UK) Ltd