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    A Times Editorial

    The 'race-neutral' myth

    A Harvard study shows that Gov. Bush's One Florida plan uses race-conscious policies to promote more diverse student bodies at state universities.

    © St. Petersburg Times
    published February 16, 2003

    In his defensive reaction to a Harvard University study of One Florida, Gov. Jeb Bush is bringing a political edge to a scholarly research project. The study doesn't attempt to "discredit" his plan for promoting racial diversity in higher education, as he suggests. It simply describes it more accurately.

    That description is relevant because the governor and his brother, President Bush, have used One Florida as part of their argument that the U.S. Supreme Court should reject admissions policies at the University of Michigan. Michigan considers race as one of many factors that determine whether applicants are accepted. The governor, in an amicus brief before the high court, argues that Florida does not: "Florida can share with the court that, through the use of race-neutral means, it has maintained a state university system that reflects the rich diversity of Florida's population."

    What the Harvard Civil Rights Project report reveals, convincingly, is just the opposite. One Florida succeeds only to the extent that most of its components are not race-neutral. "The perception that the success behind the ... program is race-neutral is false," the report concludes. "While Florida's university institutions may not be practicing race-conscious admissions, their recruitment, financial aid, and retention initiatives designed to improve access are race-conscious."

    The highest profile portion of One Florida is "Talented 20." The state guarantees every student who graduates in the top 20 percent of his or her public high school class a spot in a state public university, regardless of race. But the program's design is dependent on the fact that some high schools are segregated by race, and the researchers found that it has had little effect on diversity anyway. Of the state's 21,989 Talented 20 students in 2001, all but 177 qualified for university admissions without the guarantee.

    The less-publicized parts of One Florida contribute the most to racial diversity. Under Talented 20, for example, the flagship University of Florida has struggled to keep a racially diverse campus. So the school assembled a task force to study minority enrollment, and the results have included: a new essay component to the application; expanded minority outreach teams; minority mentoring and retention programs; partnerships with urban high schools; and expanded scholarship opportunities for minorities. All of these strategies are, notably, race-conscious.

    The race distinction is at the core of the constitutional debate before the high court. The court is being asked to declare not just that the Michigan affirmative action policies are a form of improper reverse discrimination but that any race-conscious program is suspect. Oddly, if the court were to declare in the Michigan case that racial diversity in higher education is not a compelling governmental interest warranting race-conscious policies, then the successful elements of One Florida would no longer be permissible.

    The Harvard report fills an analytical void from the governor's office on one of Bush's most prominent initiatives. The governor ought to take credit for the racially assertive parts of One Florida, yet he still clings, publicly, to the myth that he has found a racially neutral solution. Bush no doubt perceives a political need for his pretense, but the high court should deal in reality, not pretense.

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