Question: A conservative public policy law firm has launched an attack on what it calls "a lingering presence of unlawful racial preferences" in college admissions at elite institutions. Has the Center for Individual Rights hit on a major issue, or is it trying to drive yet another wedge between whites and minorities?Bonnie Erbe: Last time I checked, there were no massive protests, no e-mail campaigns, not even any "Letter to the Editor" drives by angry white males and females complaining they have been illegally frozen out of Ivy League college admissions. In fact, quite the opposite is the case: Admissions of minorities to elite colleges and professional schools have dropped dramatically since conservatives began an assault on affirmative action.

At the University of Texas Law School, for example, the 1996 entering class included 31 African-American students and 42 Mexican-Americans. After the university was forced to drop affirmative action in admissions, the entering 1997 class included four African-Americans and 26 Mexican-Americans. Eight blacks and 30 Hispanics joined this past year's entering class vs. hundreds of white students.

Similarly, at the University of California network of undergraduate campuses, minorities are in short supply. People of color make up almost half the state's population. Yet minorities comprise only 11 percent of college students.

The Center for Individual Rights has launched a venal campaign to foment discontent by running ads in a dozen college newspapers. It is urging students to find out if their colleges discriminate in admissions on the basis of race. The center raises its own visibility and, presumably, marketability, through such race-baiting tactics.

But it is creating an issue where none exists.

Josette Shiner: The dismal record of minority admissions to many universities is a cause of national shame and a call to action. But where should we target our resources?

At condoning dual standards for white and minorities admissions to institutions of higher learning? No.

The real damage of such "affirmative action" admissions policies is that, for a time, they masked a festering national crisis. They lulled many into complacency. The fact is that most minorities cannot compete in college admissions -- they are simply unprepared. Why? Is it lesser natural ability? Absolutely not. It is the lack of opportunity starting the first day they arrive with a heart full of hopes and dreams into yet another broken public school in yet another crime-filled urban neighborhood.

Martin Luther King Jr. stood for a universal, overarching principle: Character matters more than skin color. Affirmative action was originally designed, in the 1950s, to ensure that job applicants were employed and treated without regard to their race, creed, color or national origin.

The urgent need to focus on equal rights and opportunities, rather than the Band-Aid of imposed equal outcomes, is one that a growing number of minority Americans recognize.

And it explains why school-choice has become a leading priority among African Americans. They understand the difference between lowering standards and providing equal opportunity early enough to make a real difference.

Bonnie Erbe is host of the PBS program "To the Contrary." Josette Shiner is president of Empower America.