WASHINGTON – Tents filled the small yard at the United Methodist Building, providing support for the rally under way across the street at the Supreme Court.
Inside the courthouse, the justices were to hear arguments in two cases – Grutter vs. Bollinger and Gratz vs. Bollinger – concerning affirmative action in University of Michigan admissions policies. The court’s decision, expected this summer, will have implications for affirmative-action policies nationwide.
Police lined up to keep the rally participants on the sidewalk, but the crowd grew to fill the four-lane street. Thousands had traveled great distances to express concern about the potential erosion of affirmative action.
The April 1 rally, sponsored by the NAACP, drew appearances by people such as Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), U.S. Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) and the Rev. Al Sharpton, as well as several United Methodist Church executives.
Jim Winkler, chief executive of the Board of Church and Society, pointed to the denomination’s strong stand in support of affirmative action.
"It is an intentional effort to ensure that racial and ethnic minorities and women of all colors have the chance to receive all the benefits of our society including education, employment and housing," Winkler said in a statement. "The church believes affirmative action opens doors so that all persons will have the opportunity to pursue the American dream."
The board, which owns the United Methodist Building, together with the denomination’s Commission on Religion and Race and the Washington Office of Public Policy, Women’s Division of the Board of Global Ministries, joined in welcoming the rally, which spilled into adjoining streets and continued throughout the morning. The previous night, hundreds of college students wrapped in blankets had held a vigil in front of the court.
"Affirmative action has been incorrectly labeled as giving preferential treatment to people of color who are often less qualified," said the Rev. Chester Jones in his statement. Jones is the chief executive of the Commission on Religion and Race. "In reality, as admissions and employment decisions are being made, race and ethnicity are one of many considerations."
Other factors, including academic achievement, athletic abilities and family history, are also considered in such decisions, he said.
"The vast majority of affirmative action programs do not consider unqualified applicants in the same pool as qualified applicants but rather consider candidates who are very similarly qualified," Jones said.
Although affirmative action is perceived as harmful to white men, "white men hold structural power in society today," he said. "According to a Washington Post study, the vast majority of corporate executives, political officeholders, tenured professors (and) even small-business owners are white men."
The number of white people who have entered the nation’s 10 most elite institutions of higher education through alumni preference is higher than the number of blacks and Hispanics who have entered through affirmative action, Jones said.
"Creating a society of opportunity for all people is what is at stake in the Michigan affirmative action case," he asserted. "Institutionalized segregation of the past and present still requires the remedy of affirmative action to provide opportunity where opportunities have been and still are being denied."
Jones urged United Methodists in their conference commissions on religion and race to encourage colleges and universities in their areas to value racial diversity in admission policies. He suggested monitoring how church-related institutions work for a diverse student body.
He observed that 11 historically black colleges and universities are related to the United Methodist Church. They were founded in a day when black students were denied admission to most colleges. "Black institutions still lead in educating the black community largely because racism still plagues society," he said.
"Given the misconceptions that abound in the debate over affirmative action, there are several reasons why we, as United Methodists, should continue to stand strong in our support of affirmative action," Jones said.
Both men pointed to the denomination’s resolution on affirmative action – No. 150 in the 2000 Book of Resolutions. It says, in part, "No persons – whatever their gender, their ethnic or racial heritage, their physical condition – should be deprived of pursuing their education or employment aspirations to the full extent of their talents and abilities."
By Albert H. Lee