Latino Groups Petition Bush

Times Staff Writer

Abolishing affirmative action at U.S. colleges and universities may put higher education beyond the reach of many of the nation's Latinos, a coalition of groups said Wednesday in an open letter to President Bush.

With the Supreme Court set to decide two high-profile cases challenging affirmative action at the University of Michigan, the coalition warned that any progress toward campus diversity achieved in the last two decades could be undone if the court decides that race-based admission policies are unconstitutional. Such an outcome would have broad-ranging implications for public and private universities across the country.

However, lawyers at the Washington-based Center for Individual Rights, which represents the two plaintiffs, will argue that the University of Michigan's affirmative action policy is unconstitutional because it is not explicitly aimed at rectifying a pattern of past discrimination at the school, said Curt Levey, the center's director of legal and public affairs. The university maintains that its policy is meant to benefit all students, regardless of race, by bolstering diversity.

At a news conference Wednesday, representatives of the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, National Council of La Raza and the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, among other groups, cited their letter to Bush, which describes "an immediate crisis confronting the Latino youth of our nation."

According to U.S. census figures, only 11% of the nation's 35 million Latinos have obtained post-secondary education, compared with 28% of non-Latino whites, and that number could decline sharply unless affirmative action in higher education is preserved, Latino advocates say.

In the University of Michigan cases, the court will decide whether Jennifer Gratz and Barbara Grutter, both white, were unfairly denied admission to the university's highly competitive undergraduate and law schools, despite their strong qualifications. The university currently considers race as one of many factors, including grades, in-state residency and alumni relationships, when weighing an application.

Though lower courts have long been divided on affirmative action, the University of Michigan appeals mark the first time the Supreme Court will revisit its landmark 1978 case, Regents of the University of California vs. Bakke, in which the justices ruled that race-based quotas were unconstitutional. But in a separate brief after the Bakke case, Justice Lewis F. Powell Jr. wrote that an applicant's race may be considered a "plus" factor in admissions "in the interest of diversity," an opinion that opened the door for affirmative action policies at colleges and universities across the country.

While many schools have significantly boosted their minority acceptance rates since Bakke, affirmative action advocates say it is too early to declare the playing field level and take race out of the equation.

"Hundreds of years of lack of access and inequality have not been erased in one generation," said Moctesuma Esparza, chairman of the New American Alliance, a Latino business organization that signed the letter to Bush.

Lawyers for the University of Michigan plaintiffs said they will cite decisions in which the Supreme Court ruled that race-based preferences in areas such as federal and city employment and contracting were unlawful.

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