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Jewish World Review/Oct. 27, 1998/ 7 Mar-Cheshvan, 5759

Linda Chavez

Linda Chavez It's spreading!

FOR THE FIRST TIME since Californians enacted that state's controversial ban on racial and sex-based preference programs in 1996, voters will once again be asked on Tuesday whether they approve or disapprove of programs that confer special benefits on members of some racial minorities and women.

The venue this time is Washington state, where a ballot initiative identical in wording to California's Proposition 209 appears likely to win. If the measure passes, its effect will be to revive what seemed like a national trend just two years ago -- the backlash against group rights. If the measure fails, however, it's unlikely other states will take up the issue at all. The Republican-controlled Congress has already shown no stomach to take on racial preferences, despite years of anti-affirmative action rhetoric by Republican politicians. Win or lose, Washington's anti-preference initiative will set the stage for what happens next in the affirmative action wars.

In many ways, Washington is an unlikely locale for a debate about race. Few blacks or Latinos live in the state (they make up about 8 percent of the population), nonetheless the state uses racial preferences in a variety of government programs, including state contracting, state employment and -- especially -- admission to state colleges and universities. Since most voters neither work for nor do business with the state, the use of race in college admissions decisions has provoked the greatest outcry.

The story of Katuria Smith, a graduate of the University of Washington who was denied admission to the law school this year, illustrates why race-based admissions strike some people as unfair. Although she is white, Katuria is far from privileged. Raised by a single mom along with her three siblings, Katuria worked several jobs while she attended night school at a community college -- including one job as a janitor, another working construction and still another at a cattle auction. She was finally able to transfer to the University of Washington for her final two years and graduated cum laude.

But Katuria's perseverance and personal history counted for little when she applied to law school. The University of Washington rejected Katuria while admitting several minority applicants with lower grades and test scores. The law school defends its policy on the grounds that it must make special allowances for minority students if it is to compete at all for minority enrollees. There are simply too few black and Hispanic students who can meet the law school's competitive regular admissions policies, and the school argues, if it didn't make some exception, it will lose out in competition to other law schools that have aggressive affirmative action programs.

As a result, according to data recently published in the Seattle Times, the grade point average of the average black student admitted to the law school in 1997 was actually lower than the GPA of the average white student denied admission, while the test scores of the two groups were identical. Overall, black and Hispanic students admitted to the law school score, on average, substantially below their white and Asian counterparts.

Of course, the same kinds of qualifications gaps occur at the undergraduate level in Washington as well as in other states. But the rationale at that level is at least plausible -- black and Hispanic students are presumed to have attended inferior, inner-city schools, where they may not have been as well prepared to compete on SATs, for example.

But, presumably, black and Hispanic students applying for law school have already earned a degree from a four-year institution and can hardly be viewed as educationally disadvantaged. Why must they continue to receive added points in the selection process for graduate and professional schools? This is more than a helping hand. It's a permanent crutch.

Katuria Smith has decided to sue the law school over its decision to admit less qualified students because of their race or ethnicity, and her case may eventually make its way to the Supreme Court. But the voters of Washington will have first crack at deciding whether such policies are fair. Their votes may well determine whether other Katuria Smiths around the country will have the opportunity to be judged on their academic accomplishments, not the color of their skin. future.


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©1998, Creators Syndicate, Inc.