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Public Statements

The Unemployment Compensation Act

Location: Washington, DC

Jan. 15, 2003


Mr. KENNEDY. Mr. President, I ask unanimous consent that the order for the quorum call be rescinded.

    I ask unanimous consent to proceed for 10 minutes as in morning business.

    The PRESIDING OFFICER. Without objection, it is so ordered.

    Mr. KENNEDY. Mr. President, reports indicate that the Bush administration intends to submit a brief in the Supreme Court opposing the University of Michigan's use of affirmative action in its admissions policy. This still sends the absolute wrong message about the administration's commitment to civil rights and equal educational opportunity for all Americans. Today is Martin Luther King's birthday, and he would be the first to condemn the shameful hypocrisy of the administration on race.

    Affirmative action is critical to providing educational opportunities for qualified minority students. Much of the progress that we have made in this country in reducing the income and employment gaps between minorities and whites is the direct result of affirmative action programs that have provided minority students with access to colleges and universities.

    We know that the struggle for equality is not over. Even with affirmative action, there are significant racial disparities in higher education between minority students and white students. Currently, African-Americans enroll in higher education at 85 percent the rate of white students. Latinos enroll in higher education at only 80 percent the rate of white students. As a country, we need to work to close that gap, as the administration now proposes, not widen it.

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    By providing educational opportunities to talented minority students, affirmative action programs help benefit all of our society. We all benefit when students are allowed to fulfill their true potential. We all benefit from lower poverty rates, and higher income and employment rates. Students benefit from the interaction and learning that takes place among students from different racial and ethnic backgrounds.

    Opponents of affirmative action rely on myths that are refuted by numerous studies and even by common sense. They argue that affirmative action is unfair to qualified white students. But as the Michigan admissions programs demonstrate, affirmative action programs do not involve special quotas or set-asides for minority students. A student's racial and ethnic background is one among many factors that are considered in determining admission. In addition to a student's grades, test scores and recommendations, universities consider such factors as whether student's parents are alumni, a student's socio-economic background, their geographic background and whether they have special artistic, athletic or other talents to contribute. Given the range of factors considered in college admissions, the true unfairness would come from saying race and ethnicity are the only factors that could not be considered.

    Opponents also argue that affirmative action helps unqualified students. The University of Michigan's affirmative action program admits only qualified students. The success of minorities graduating from selective schools as measured by their graduation rate, their performance in professional and graduate school, and their success in future careers and as community leaders is well documented in a recent study by William Bowen and Derek Bok in their book "Shape of the River." Most of the African-American and Latino students accepted under affirmative action come from lower-income backgrounds than white students. They are more likely to have gone to segregated and poorly-funded schools, and much less likely to have parents who had attended college. Yet despite these disadvantages, their success was comparable to their white counterparts.

    The administration suggests that it supports the idea of racial and ethnic diversity, but that it doesn't believe that one should use what it calls "racial preferences" to achieve this. This, however, is a cop-out that evades the key question posed by the Michigan case: that is, whether racial and ethnic diversity is a compelling governmental interest. Not whether it is a merely good thing, but whether, given the central importance of integrated schools to our society, it is a constitutionally compelling interest.

    Moreover, any suggestion that all universities can enroll a diverse student simply by relying on race-neutral programs, such as percentage plans is simply wrong. As a recent report by the U.S. Civil Rights Commission makes clear, percentage plans have failed to markedly affect enrollment of minorities at flagship state universities. In addition, these programs do not even purport to reach graduate or professional schools or private colleges, all of which would be affected by the Supreme Court's ruling.

    In failing to support the University of Michigan's program, the Administration is undermining the central promise of the Fourteenth Amendment's equal protection clause. The equal protection clause was founded on the notion of providing equality of opportunity to all Americans, particularly those who had been disadvantaged by our country's history of discrimination. We have done tremendous work in this country to improve educational opportunities from elementary school through higher education, and to reduce racial inequities, but our work to fulfill the promise of the equal protection clause, and the core values that underlie our democracy is not done. I had hope that the administration would join those of us who seek to continue that struggle and I am tremendously disappointed in the decision they have made today.

    I yield the floor.

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