WASHINGTON – The recent Supreme Court case upholding affirmative action policy at the University of Michigan law school has sparked some provocative questions about race that no one seems to want to answer, say black conservatives.
Among them, what is considered African-American or Hispanic? What if someone is one-third black or one-quarter Latino? Is a man with white skin with some Puerto Rican blood or a great-grandfather who was black meet the criteria for an underrepresented minority group? Who decides?
Like the U.S census, affirmative action programs on campuses nationwide only require applicants to “self-identify” their race with little or no independent verification. Growing resentment over what has been perceived by some as racial quotas that award applicants bonus points for the color of their skin could lead to rampant fraud by students seeking an edge in their applications.
“It’s a logical extension. Why wouldn’t people use it to get a leg up?” asked Walter Williams (search), a black conservative columnist and professor of economics at George Mason University in Virginia.
Peter Kirsanow, a labor attorney and Republican appointee to the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights (search), predicted “there will be tremendous fraud,” especially at schools where “race has a greater value than SAT scores.”
Conservatives “are clearly disappointed” with the Supreme Court's ruling, and are attempting to create controversy where there is none, responded David Bositis, a research analyst for the Center for Joint Economic Studies (search), an African-American think tank.
“Is [fraud] a significant concern? No. It’s an infinitesimal number of people we’re talking about here,” Bositis said.
In June, the U.S. Supreme Court defeated a challenge to the University of Michigan's law school admissions process, which gives special consideration to minority students in order to achieve racial diversity in the classroom. The school lost a companion case for its undergraduate affirmative action policy. In that admissions process, which the university now has to revamp, the school literally gave extra points for applicants who were black, Hispanic or Native American.
Julie Peterson, spokeswoman for the university, said concern about race fraud has never plagued the university, and claims of the potential for fraud are "ludicrous."
“We expect students to be honest on their applications, just as we expect them to be honest in their coursework,” she said. “It’s part of the honor system of the academic world.”
The school does not accept submissions of student SAT scores or high school grade point averages based on the honor system, Kirsanow points out.
Peterson acknowledged that there is no way to verify independently whether any fraud has occurred before.
In the last academic year, 14 percent of undergraduate students hailed from an "underrepresented minority group," Peterson said. She balked at the suggestion that many of these students might have gotten in on their skin color alone.
"That idea reflects a complete misunderstanding of our system,” she said. “It has not, and never has been, all about race.”
She noted student applications go through a rigorous vetting, and if any red flags appear, they are reviewed — high schools are called and counselors are consulted.
Affirmative action-related fraud does have precedent. In 1990, the Boston Fire Department found that six of its firefighters had falsely claimed minority status on their applications, including white twin brothers Phillip and Paul Malone.
Initially, the brothers failed to qualify due to low test scores on their first test. On new applications, they claimed a great-grandmother was black. Though they earned the same test scores the second time around, they qualified for jobs under new minority outreach standards. After 10 years on the job, they were fired for fraud.
“There are people who are going to test the limits,” said Rogers Johnson, a black Republican state representative in New Hampshire. “It looks like we will have to establish rules and regulations. But how do we determine how black a person is?”
Williams suggests universities may have to turn to "race boards" like those established by the white South African government in the Apartheid era.
The government created its own definitions of black and white in order to enforce the social and economic segregation between the white minority and black majority populations, said Williams, author of "South Africa's War on Capitalism."
“It’s all despicable,” Williams said, calling race-based admissions and employment policies part of a “spoils system” that ultimately pits people against one another. He suggested that the longer a system gives special status to one race over another, resentment, fraud and the need for arbitration will continue to rise.
But Ron Walters, director of the African American Institute (search) at the University of Maryland, said the recent Supreme Court decision actually forces the University of Michigan to focus less on skin color and more on the applicants’ background, ensuring that race is just one of many factors considered before a student is accepted.
“They [conservatives] have a lot of unchecked assumptions,” Walters said, ”You don’t automatically get in [to a university] using your race."
Kirsanow said he expects that time and interaction between ethnic and racial groups will naturally tear down skin-color barriers.
“We have a multi-racial society. I think the whole concept of race is going to get so scrambled that schools are just going to have a hard time figuring out who gets the preferences,” he said.