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In the Crossfire

Is affirmative action necessary?

Norton: "If diversity is what is a central value in every selective university in the United States, then it ought to be seen as a compelling interest by the Supreme Court."

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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The United States Supreme Court has agreed to hear a case involving one of the most divisive issues in the United States -- affirmative action. The justices will decide whether applicants to the University of Michigan and its law school were unconstitutionally turned down because they were white.

In order to achieve a more diverse student body, many institutions have policies that take into account an applicant's race, along with other nonracial characteristics, like where he or she lives, any socioeconomic disadvantage and athletic skills.

The high court's ruling is due by next June. Is affirmative action necessary to ensure a diverse student body?

Ward Connerly, the chairman of the American Civil Rights Institute and delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-District of Columbia, joined "Crossfire" hosts Tucker Carlson and Paul Begala to debate the issue.

CARLSON: Delegate Norton, thanks for joining us. At the heart of one of these cases is a story of a woman named Jennifer Gratz. She applied to the University of Michigan. She had a 3.8 grade point average and she didn't get in, partly because she was white. Now if your daughter was applying to college and she didn't get in partly because she was black, meaning if her race counted against her, I think you would call that what it is, it's racism. And I think you'd call it that. Why not call it that here?

NORTON: Well, I wouldn't because in the University of Michigan case, it should be noted that there were whites who also did not get in whose scores were the same or lower than the scores of blacks who did not get in. The reason is that diversity broadly considered was added to a large number of factors.

Now, these factors included factors that let in whites with lower scores than this plaintiff. If diversity is what is a central value in this and every selective university in the United States, then it ought to be a compelling interest or seen as a compelling interest by the Supreme Court.

CARLSON: Wait a second. What you're saying is, if I understand it, that it's OK to count someone's race in his favor, and of course the flip side, the inevitable flip side of that, is it's OK to count someone's race against him. Now if there is a definition of racism, isn't it that?

Connerly: "I think diversity is a very important interest if you're talking about diversity of thought. I don't think that the diversity of someone's skin color or where their ancestors came from is compelling."

NORTON: When, in fact, you are looking at the entire grid of factors, and you're looking at groups that have been underrepresented in higher education for 200 years, of course, if you want diversity you must make race a factor. Not the deciding factor but at least a factor. Or else you're going to end up with the same kind of all-white student bodies that you've had...

CARLSON: Unless you commit racism against the white students.

BEGALA: Excuse me. Let me bring Mr. Connerly into this. The Supreme Court did rule on this precise issue about 24 years ago in a case involving the university on whose regents you sat, not at the time, but the University of California system. In the Bakke case, the court referred back to a case 30 years earlier which integrated my alma mater, the University of Texas law school. And it speaks directly to law school admissions, which is what's at issue here. Let me read you what the court ruled. It's supposed to be, as Al Gore would say, the controlling legal authorities.

The Supreme Court says, "The law school, the proving ground for legal learning and practice, cannot be effective in isolation from the individuals and institutions with which the law interacts. Few students, and no one who has practiced law, would choose to study in an academic vacuum removed from the interplay of ideas and the exchange of views with which the law is concerned."

Isn't the Supreme Court right when they say that diversity is an important state interest?

CONNERLY: I think diversity is a very important interest if you're talking about diversity of thought. I don't think that the diversity of someone's skin color or where their ancestors came from is compelling. And that is exactly what the court is going to have to decide.

The nation is dedicated to the principle of equal treatment for every individual, not groups. And the whole idea that there is underrepresentation, I think strikes at the heart of what's wrong with the way most of these policies are practiced.

BEGALA: Well, Mr. Connerly, though, diversity of thought is sort of an ephemeral thing. I don't know how we can have a thought police to check that. In Michigan, the case at issue before the court looks not just at race, as Delegate Norton said, they also look at geography and if you happened by circumstance of birth to be from an underrepresented county. They look at socioeconomic status. They look at whether you can play football. And the University of Texas, by god, they ought to be looking at that, too.

Why is it that we have affirmative action for things like that, or say in the case of George W. Bush, it's called a legacy. He received affirmative action as the kind of over-drinking, over- privileged son of the moneyed elite. Why should they get affirmative action but not people based on race?

CONNERLY: There's a difference between affirmative action, Mr. Begala, and race preferences. In every instance that I've seen -- and I still serve on the board of regents of the University of California -- when race is being used, it is not being used as a teeny, weenie, itty-bitty factor. It is the deciding factor. And extra points are given to some people on the basis of their quote race and taken away from others.

That is not affirmative action. That is a blatant system of race preferences, and that is something that I hope the court strikes down.

NORTON: Now, if it were the deciding factor, then it would be a quota. Quotas are exactly what the Bakke case 25 years ago struck down. It is one among sometimes dozens of factors. And unless you want an all-white university, listen to your college presidents, you're going to have to have that factor factored in.

Now, let me say this, because this is very important, and seldom mentioned when we talk about affirmative action. Affirmative action is a temporary remedy. If you want it to go away, then, of course, you've got to, in fact, do it and get it over with. If you do what Mr. Connerly is talking about, you're going to be doing something like it for god knows how long.

For example, even in California, you've had to go to a proxy for what proposition I think it's 209. Now, in fact, they have another way of getting minority students, because they were flushed out of the system by abolishing affirmative action altogether.

BEGALA: Well, Mr. Connerly...

CONNERLY: That's not a proxy. That is not a proxy. We've gone to a comprehensive review of all applicants looking at their grades and their standardized test scores, as well as their backgrounds. But it's not a proxy for race.

NORTON: It's a proxy, because it's where they were in their class at schools all around the state, including minority schools. So some of those children go to schools that are 100 percent black or Hispanic.

CONNERLY: But Congresswoman, anyone can be in their top four percent at the University of California. And what you're saying is that, in order for a child to learn, or a student to learn, they have to have somebody of a different color sitting next to them. If that is true, then we may as well wipe out all of the historically black colleges and all of the women's colleges, because they're all lacking in diversity.

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