Wednesday, June 25, 2003

Kaleidoscope of friends biggest lesson of college

Denise Amos

The U.S. Supreme Court didn't hand supporters of affirmative action an out-and-out victory when it ruled this week on two college admissions lawsuits. The court didn't toss them - or me - into a state of despair, either.

On one hand, the high court struck down the University of Michigan's blanket practice of assigning extra points to African-American and other applicants of certain underrepresented minority groups.

On the other hand, the court upheld the Michigan law school's practice of considering race with a host of other characteristics when evaluating potential students.

People like me - who believe that affirmative action is necessary to ensure that minorities have access to opportunities - can't help but grin over some parts of the Supreme Court decisions. Mainly because the courts again affirmed the inherent value of allowing colleges to pursue racial and ethnic diversity in their admissions practices.

All of which is in the best interest of college students because they learn how truly diverse the world really is.

When I went to school at Northwestern University in Evanston, Ill., nearly 20 years ago, I had expected to see only one or two black faces in a sea of white on campus. I and some of my friends called it being "the only raisin in the rice pudding."

But college wasn't like that. I saw dozens of students like me. I also knew dozens more who weren't like me, but the differences weren't all black and white. Some of my friends were Chinese, Jewish, Japanese, Italian, German, Kenyan, Lebanese and a variety of white Americans. They were rich and poor, sophisticated and not, smart and not so smart.

I learned more from interacting with this kaleidoscope of friends than I did from any book or college lecture.

The Supreme Court seemed to understand this with its dual rulings. And the justices' language shows they wanted to correct inequities without causing more - and much greater - inequities.

They didn't want to make things more fair to a few white students while making matters much less fair for many minority students and others. Even though these court cases were about college admissions, they also were part of a campaign to challenge scholarships, employment practices and other avenues of affirmative action.

So both court decisions - although reaching opposite, overall conclusions - were consistent in certain themes: It's OK to consider a person's race, along with other qualities, when making admissions decisions; racial and ethnic diversity can be compelling interests in academic settings; universities continue to have freedom of admissions but with scrutiny of diversity-influenced decisions.

From where I sit, colleges must maintain enough diversity on campus to teach students that there is no norm. We all are minorities sometimes, and yet we all belong.

College also should be a time when prejudice, ignorance, elitism and stereotypes are challenged and dispelled. And it's the mix that works this magic. And that's not a bad lesson to take into the working world.

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