When the ACLU supports discrimination

Diversity cannot continue by crude racial categories

By Nat Hentoff

The Village Voice, July 15, 1998

Katuria Smith’s mother, who had been divorced, raised her four children by herself. The family was poor, and when Katuria was graduated from high school, she worked at whatever jobs she could find–in construction, as a janitor, mixing auto paint.

As Michelle Malkin, a columnist for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer,notes, Smith went to a community college where she took night classes in the paralegal program. During the day, she worked full-time.

In 1992, she began to study at the University of Washington in Seattle. She had no choice but to keep on working to pay her tuition. Eventually, Katuria was graduated–cum laude.

Having scored very high on the Law School Admissions Test and having had a superior academic record at the University of Washington, she applied to that university’s law school.

In March 1994, she was rejected. Wrong color. This is a law school with a strong record of insisting on student “diversity.” Katuria wasn’t “diverse” enough.

She has filed a racial-discrimination lawsuit against the University of Washington Law School, claiming that she has been denied the constitutional guarantee of equal protection of the laws. Among her lawyers are staff members of the Center for Individual Rights in Washington, D.C. That lean and lively outfit won the similar Hopwood case at the University of Texas Law School and is now likely to prevail in an antidiscrimination suit against the University of Michigan Law School.

Among those filing court papers in opposition to Katuria Smith is the American Civil Liberties Union, which sees nothing wrong with the fact that Katuria was turned down for only one reason–her color.

In the notorious Plessy v. Ferguson case (1896), the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of a Louisiana statute that required racial segregation on trains. Homer Plessy, not being white, was the wrong color.

In this land of constitutional democracy, here is the ACLU–the oldest and most visible civil liberties organization in the country–telling this young woman that it does not matter who she is beneath her skin and what lifelong obstacles she has overcome to emerge as her own independent person.

The ACLU is protective of individual liberties and rights in its other cases, but when it comes to this form of affirmative action, it supports preferences by race and finds it necessary to exclude persons solely because they are the wrong color.

“All I have ever wanted,” Katuria Smith told me recently, “is just to be treated like everybody else. If those opposing me don’t think that LSAT scores and grades are accurate predictors of how applicants will do in law school, then throw them all out–for everybody. Let’s look at each individual.”

I asked her about preference by gender, which is part of the search for diversity in a good many law schools.

“I feel the same about gender,” she said. “It would be insulting to me to say I can’t compete because my plumbing is different.”

When Katuria was rejected by the University of Washington Law School, she went to the less prestigious and much more expensive Seattle University Law School. She took out student loans and kept on working at clerical jobs between semesters.

When Katuria first came to that law school, she says, “People were staring at me. And students, some of them black, hung up derogatory signs all over the place with photocopies of newspaper stories about me and my lawsuit.”

Thinking back, Katuria finds it interesting that the students who put up signs attacking her never spoke to her directly. “There was one black person whom I overheard speaking to a secretary. He was very angry at me. I recognized his voice. Yet he and I often had friendly conversations in the hallways.

“But he did not know my name then. Once he did connect my name to the person he actually knew, there was no anger. He even said, ‘I support you.'”

Meanwhile, in Boston, Robert Guen, a former member of that city’s school committee and since a founder of the Pacific Rim, a charter school with a very diverse student body, has told the Boston Globe he strongly believes that diversity in the schools benefits everyone. But, the Globe added, paraphrasing Guen, diversity cannot continue “by the crude racial categories that have been used since court-ordered desegregation began.

“The [present] categories sort students as white, black, Asian, Hispanic, and ‘other,’ with no particular provision made for the Haitians and Cape Verdeans, the Vietnamese and Cambodians, who came to Boston [and elsewhere] in large numbers after the categories were created.”

Then Guen emphasized: “Maybe the poor white student from a broken home, the Haitian and Vietnamese and Irish fresh off the boat, the poor black kid, should all get the same consideration. We should be need-sensitive.”

If schools, from kindergarten through graduate school, were to become need-sensitive, then finally there would be a start at reaching those in need from all backgrounds.

For example, current affirmative action–through collective categories and percentages–has left far behind youngsters of all colors and races at the bottom of society. This includes millions of, among others, black kids who will never get close to applying to a college because their lower schools have abandoned them.

One way to get equality of opportunity is the commitment of the University of California at Berkeley to “put extensive funding into recruitment and outreach programs to identify and develop students who would [eventually] be eligible for the University of California system and eligible for Berkeley.

“The recruitment efforts [in elementary and middle schools] have resulted in increased applications. . . . This has demonstrated that children in impoverished neighborhoods can achieve and excel if the schools have the appropriate resources.”

Then we’ll have true diversity–of class as well as color. And there will be true equal protection of the laws.