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Bush taking wrong side on affirmative action

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It will be curious to see how President Bush Texas-Two-Steps his way out of this one.

With the Supreme Court prepared to take up two cases from Michigan involving racial preferences to achieve diversity in higher education, President Bush has pulled the White House into the largest affirmative action case in a generation. Never mind White House counsel Alberto Gonzales' and adviser Karl Rove's efforts to steer Bush toward a politically safer course.

President Bush went his own way and announced Wednesday that his administration will oppose the university's program that gives preference to minority students, calling it an unconstitutional "quota system."

The Bush administration is not a party to the Michigan fight and therefore did not need to take a position. While it's his prerogative to chime in, I'm more than a little uncomfortable with the executive branch telling the judiciary what to do, particularly when it doesn't have a dog in this fight. Never mind the president seems to have enough on his plate already, thank you very much.

Perhaps taking on affirmative action plays well with the right-wingers he needs to secure the 2004 presidential nomination. No question, the White House taking a position has piqued the interest of ethnic minorities.

I'm curious how Bush can nominate Gonzales to the Supreme Court, as many speculate he will, without the affirmative action issue coming back to haunt him.

I'm not suggesting Gonzales isn't qualified to be a Supreme Court justice. He's a Harvard University law school graduate. Before joining Bush as White House counsel, he was appointed by Bush as a Supreme Court justice in Texas. He's got the goods.

He also happens to be Hispanic. Many political pundits have observed that appointing a Hispanic to the Supreme Court would curry favor with Hispanics — voters many political strategists believe could make the difference in the 2004 presidential election.

That's probably oversimplifying matters. But I do think Bush's decision to enter the affirmative action question puts Gonzales in a difficult position. While I have no knowledge he has personally benefitted from affirmative action during his college years, his own life experience bespeaks the value of higher education. His parents were migrant farm workers. Neither finished elementary school. Gonzales, the second of eight children, grew up in a two-bedroom home with no running water. Now, he's counsel to the president of the United States.

Only in America.

It's difficult for me to reconcile that Gonzales is considered by Bush as a prime prospect for the high court, in part because of his ethnicity, but it is somehow wrong to consider race as a factor for admission to medical or law school. Does this mean affirmative action is OK only when it is politically expedient?

Most ethnic minorities I know don't want special consideration. But we're kidding ourselves if we believe all students receive an equal education in America's public schools. Reforming public schools has been, in many respects, a losing battle.

One way to address the inequity of the public school dilemma is affirmative action in college admissions.

If you don't think that matters, consider the writing of Justice Blackmun in the landmark 1978 Bakke case when he observed that until at least 1973, "the practice of medicine was, in fact, largely the prerogative of whites."

In 1950, blacks made up about 10 percent of the nation's population, but black physicians accounted for just 2.2 percent of the total number of physicians. The vast majority attended medical school at Howard and Meharry universities, black institutions.

From the years 1955 to 1964, the numbers of blacks admitted to predominately white medical schools declined. By 1970, the black population increased to 11 percent of the whole, but the black medical students remained at 2.2 percent.

"If ways are not found to remedy that situation, the country can never achieve its professed goal of a society that is not race conscious," Blackmun wrote.

Although this is not a like comparison, the American Medical Association reported that the racial/ethnic breakdown of the United States according to the 2000 Census was 72 percent white; 12 percent black, 11.8 percent Hispanic; 4.1 percent Asian or Pacific Islander and 1.2 percent American Indian.

Of 17,538 applicants accepted to U.S. medical schools in 2000, 11,112 were white (63.4 percent), 1,168 were black (7.6 percent), 1,082 were Hispanic (6.2 percent), 3,457 were Asian or Pacific Islander (19.7 percent), and 126 were American Indian (0.7 percent.). In the same year, medical school acceptance rates for applicants of various racial/ethnic backgrounds were as follows: white (49 percent), black (39.8 percent), Hispanic (47 percent), Asian or Pacific Islander (46.9 percent) and Native American (46.2 percent).

This suggests progress but certainly not a direct reflection of the racial diversity of this country. Why is that important? Because studies show that minority patients are much more likely to select a physician of a similar ethnic background. Hispanics, for example are 19 times more likely to seek a Hispanic physician than a non-minority. If we want people to have access to health care and to feel comfortable seeking health care, it's important that medical schools churn out a diverse physician pool.

As I said, these number are encouraging, but probably not to the point where we can say there's no need to continue to take steps that encourage diversity in higher education.

I hope as the Supreme Court weighs the Michigan cases it will carefully consider how far this nation has to go in terms of racial and ethnic equality. Affirmative action is hardly the best answer to racial inequality but for the time being, it's the best we can do.

Marjorie Cortez is a Deseret News editorial writer. E-mail her at marjorie@desnews.com.