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How Affirmative Action Helped George W….Most Share Bush View on Affirmative Action

How Affirmative Action Helped George W.

The President might ask himself, "Wait a minute. How did I get into Yale?"


Jan. 27, 2003
Copyright © 2003 TIME MAGAZINE. All rights reserved.

George W. Bush is all for diversity, he explained last week, but he doesn't care for the way they do it at the University of Michigan. The Administration has asked the Supreme Court to rule the Michigan system unconstitutional because of the scoring method it uses for rating applicants. "At the undergraduate level," said Bush, "African-American students and some Hispanic students and Native American students receive 20 points out of a maximum of 150, not because of any academic achievement or life experience, but solely because they are African American, Hispanic or Native American."

If our President had the slightest sense of irony, he might have paused to ask himself, "Wait a minute. How did I get into Yale?" It wasn't because of any academic achievement: his high school record was ordinary. It wasn't because of his life experience – prosperous family, fancy prep school – which was all too familiar at Yale. It wasn't his SAT scores: 566 verbal and 640 math.

They may not have had an explicit point system at Yale in 1964, but Bush clearly got in because of affirmative action. Affirmative action for the son and grandson of alumni. Affirmative action for a member of a politically influential family. Affirmative action for a boy from a fancy prep school. These forms of affirmative action still go on. The Wall Street Journal reported last week that Harvard accepts 40% of applicants who are children of alumni but only 11% of applicants generally. And this kind of affirmative action makes the student body less diverse, not more so.

George W. Bush, in fact, may be the most spectacular affirmative-action success story of all time. Until 1994, when he was 48 years old and got elected Governor of Texas, his life was almost empty of accomplishments. Yet bloodlines and connections had put him into Andover, Yale and Harvard Business School, and even finally provided him with a fortune after years of business disappointments. Intelligence, hard work and the other qualities associated with the concept of merit had almost nothing to do with Bush's life and success up to that point. And yet seven years later he was President of the U.S.

So what is the difference between the kind of affirmative action that got Bush where he is today and the kind he wants the Supreme Court to outlaw? One difference is that the second kind is about race, and race is an especially toxic subject. Of course, George W.'s affirmative action is about race too, at least indirectly. The class of wealthy, influential children of alumni of top universities is disproportionately white. And it will remain that way for a long time – especially if racial affirmative action is outlawed.

A second difference is that the Michigan system is crudely numerical, whereas the favoritism enjoyed by George W. Bush is baked into the way we live. Between these two extreme examples are all the familiar varieties of preference: explicit racial favoritism without numbers, favoritism based on something as amorphous as social class or as specific as your high school, favoritism limited to recruitment and preparation, and so on.

Opponents and supporters of affirmative action actually tend to agree that there is something bad, generally called quotas, and something good, generally called something like diversity. Their argument is about where you draw the line. Bush calls the Michigan 20-point bonus a quota, and his critics insist that it is not. But both sides are wrong. If your sole measure of the success of any arrangement is whether it increases the representation of certain minorities, then it doesn't really matter what procedure you use to achieve that result: some people are getting something desirable because of their race, and an equal number of people are not getting it for the same reason.

Of course a series of somebodies didn't get into Andover, Yale and Harvard Business School because their blood wasn't as blue as Bush's, and other somebodies didn't get a chance to own the Texas Rangers or to use the capital Bush borrowed to buy his share of the team because these somebodies were nobodies. Life is unfair. A legitimate criticism of affirmative action is that it politicizes life chances and focuses blame on race. If you get turned down by Yale to make room for a George W., you're not even aware of it. But if you get turned down by the University of Michigan, you're likely to blame affirmative action (if you're white), even though the numbers say you probably would have been turned down anyway.

So ask yourself: Would you rather have a gift of 20 points out of 150 to use at the college of your choice? Or would you rather have the more amorphous advantages President Bush has enjoyed at every stage of his life? If the answer to that isn't obvious to you, even 20 extra points are probably not enough to get you into the University of Michigan.

Most Share Bush View on Affirmative Action

Jan. 28, 2003
Copyright © 2003 All rights reserved.

Americans overwhelmingly favor an affirmative action system that assists women and minorities - but only if it doesn't do so by disadvantaging white men, an ABCNEWS/Washington Post poll finds.

The distinction is in line with the one drawn by President Bush, whose administration earlier this month filed legal briefs opposing affirmative action programs at the University of Michigan, saying they rely on unconstitutional racial quotas.

While the majority in this poll share Bush's view, that's not so among one important subgroup -- black Americans, a majority of whom support preference-based programs, and whose support for those programs has grown in the last two years.

Overall, two-thirds of Americans oppose preferential programs -- ones that "give women, blacks and other minorities preference over white men getting into college, getting a job, or getting a promotion." While the level ranges, opposition includes most women, most people of other races (neither blacks nor whites), and majorities across major political and ideological lines.

The view is vastly different, however, when it comes to programs that give women and minorities "assistance -- but not preference." That wins broad support across groups, from nearly seven in 10 Americans overall.

These views are little changed from an ABCNEWS/ Post poll two years ago, with one exception: Support for preference programs among blacks has grown from 52 percent then to 65 percent now.

Polling on affirmative action requires close attention to wording. Questions that use the positive phrase "affirmative action," without defining the program or specifying whether or not preferences are applied, find majority support. But as this poll shows, the presence or absence of preferences is a critical factor in views on the issue.

More Opposition Among Conservative, Older Respondents

As noted, the level of opposition to preference programs ranges among groups -- they're opposed by 81 percent of Republicans, 79 percent of conservatives and 76 percent of older Americans, compared to 54 percent of Democrats, 53 percent of liberals and 56 percent of younger adults. On the other side of the issue, 76 percent of black men support preference programs, compared to 57 percent of black women.

Such gaps close dramatically when it comes to programs that offer assistance without preferences.

In undergraduate admissions, Michigan automatically has given minority applicants 20 points (out of 150) and marked their applications for a second look. The university's law school doesn't award points, but counts race as a factor in admissions. The Bush administration says both procedures amount to quota-based discrimination. The university denies any use of quotas.


This ABCNEWS/ Washington Post poll was conducted by telephone Jan. 16-20 among a random national sample of 1,133 adults, including an oversample of 211 blacks. The results have a three-point error margin for the full sample, 6.5 points for blacks. Field work was done by TNS Intersearch of Horsham, Pa.

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