By Nat Hentoff
Rocky Mountain News, May 11, 1998
Katuria Smith’s mother was a 17-year-old high-school dropout when Katuria was born. Divorced 11 years later, her mother raised four children by herself. The family was poor, and when Katuria graduated from high school, she worked at whatever jobs she could find – janitorial work, a job in construction, another mixing auto paint. She took night classes in the paralegal program at a community college, working full time during the day. In 1992, she was admitted into the University of Washington in Seattle, continuing to work to pay her tuition, and was graduated cum laude.
When Smith then applied for admission to the University of Washington Law School, her record included a 95th percentile score on the Law School Admissions Test. Moreover, her quarterly grade-point averages at the college level ran from 3.56 to 3.79 on a 4.0 scale. ”I felt I was exactly the kind of person they would want,” she told the Seattle Times. ”Most kids in my hometown expected me to end up in jail. Instead, I really did do something with my life.”
In March 1994, Katuria Smith was rejected by the University of Washington Law School. She failed, I believe, because on her application form, she checked the box identifying her race as ”white.” She went on to a less prestigious and more expensive law school at Seattle University. Because she is convinced she was treated wrongly by the University of Washington Law School, she has brought a lawsuit charging reverse discrimination – or put more plainly – racial discrimination that violates equal protection of the laws. Among her attorneys are members of the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Individual Rights.
They won the Hopwood case at the University of Texas and may well prevail in a reverse discrimination suit against the University of Michigan Law School. The law school that turned Smith down prides itself on its commitment to a diverse student body. Between 1989 and 1994, the percentage of minorities there increased from 17.5 percent to 43.3 percent.
The current dean, Roland Hjorth – a likable, well-intentioned man – says, ”I think it’s important that there be lawyers from all segments of society.” Recently, I was asked to lecture at the University of Washington Law School on other matters. But at lunch with the dean and other members of the faculty, I couldn’t resist bringing up the rejection of Katuria Smith. ”What if,” I asked, ”Katuria Smith had chosen not to check the ‘white’ race box on her application? Would she have been allowed to do that?” ”Yes,” said the dean. ”Katuria,” I went on, ”is not an easily categorizable name. It could be the first name of a black applicant. And Smith certainly could be a black name.” ”With her high scores,” I told the dean and faculty, ”and also – as an index of character – the proof of her determination to overcome poverty, would she have been accepted if the admissions committee had believed her to be black?” Several members of the faculty nodded affirmatively. ”Then what kind of a system are you running?” I asked. ”Is this the University of Washington Law School’s definition of due process?” Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell is a hero to many schools dedicated to ”diversity,” because in his swing vote in the 1978 Bakke decision, he said that race could be a factor in admissions criteria. But Powell clearly added that race could not be the determining factor, nor could a black applicant be judged on a separate track from the other applicants. And as I reminded the University of Washington faculty, Powell also pointed out in Bakke: ”The guarantee of equal protection cannot mean one thing when applied to one individual and something else when applied to a person of another color.”