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A plan that fails on its merits


Arizona Daily Wildcat

By Sheila Bapat
Arizona Daily Wildcat,
February 21, 2000
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Florida Governor Jeb Bush is helping his state take giant steps backward in the movement toward diversity.

The brother of Republican presidential candidate George W. Bush recently proposed a plan that ends all considerations of gender and race in state university admissions and replace it with a "merit-based" system that admits all students graduating in the top 20 percent of their high school classes.

Florida State University's Board of Regents unanimously approved the plan on Thursday.

Following in the footsteps of California, where affirmative action has already been stripped from college admissions, Florida is perpetuating a detrimental nationwide trend that has spawned from the belief that affirmative action has outlived its usefulness.

Bush's plan is a disadvantage for Florida minorities. Not only does it eliminate gender and race in admissions processes, but it gives automatic admission to students who would probably be attending college anyway. Overall, it does nothing to truly promote merit and everything to chip away at diversity.

According to critics of affirmative action programs, colleges have been forced to lower their standards in order to help people who don't really deserve to be in college. They think the system ought to go back to being based solely on merit.

But the idea that the system was ever solely based on merit to begin with is probably the greatest misconception that affirmative action critics like to spout. Being related to alumni, of having "legacy," has nothing to do with merit. Yet it is part of the selection process at probably every university and is consistently used as justification for admitting certain students over others.

If your last name is Kennedy, you will probably get into Harvard.

If your mother and father attended a certain university, your chances of being admitted there are greater.

But if you're black, Hispanic or female and you live in California or Florida, you won't benefit because your race or gender have nothing to do with merit.

In truth, there are severe structural biases within the system that on the surface seem to be based on merit but were in fact originally designed without the interests of minority groups in mind. Thirty years of attempts at affirmative action programs, many of which were not given adequate time or financial support to even succeed, are simply not enough. Thirty years is not nearly enough time to do away with prejudices within systems-social, educational, economic-that are still so pervasive today.

Hundreds of students and elected officials protested the Florida Board of Regent's meeting. Many believed the proposal would lead to less minorities attending college.

U.S. Rep. Corrine Brown, D-Fla., was among those protesting the affirmative-action ban.

"We do not live in a colorblind society. Race is still a factor," Brown said. "I'm very disappointed in what's going on in Florida, and it's an example of the ugly side of politics."

We trick ourselves into believing that there is not really a problem, that we are all equal because the law says so and because there are less glaring problems than there were in the 60s.

Well here's a reality smack. The 60s didn't solve everything.

If anything, the social movements that took place 30 years ago were just America admitting for the first time that prejudice is a problem.

And though the problem hasn't gone away, the movement has been prematurely thwarted by states like California and Florida, and governors like Jeb Bush who are proudly leading the crusade to mock programs that promote diversity.

Just as Martin Luther King Jr. pointed out, affirmative action is intended to equalize a social imbalance that existed for centuries.

Ideally, any admissions process would be based entirely on merit. However, the word "merit" has embedded meanings. It also means "white." If can even mean "male."

True, outstanding students are usually admitted to college. But the reason many minorities are not admitted is because there are plenty of subtle biases, such as legacy, of which they students cannot take advantage.

The ideal merit-based system is an illusion. Sadly, Florida's leader and its Board of Regents have made a monumental mistake. As long as protecting the illusion of "merit-based" systems is upheld, diversity has no hope.

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