Students across the country are gearing up to defend affirmative action on a national day of protest on February 24. Not to be outdone, the right, which has had success turning the tide on affirmative action in courts and ballot booths, is mounting a campus counteroffensive. In January the Center for Individual Rights (CIR) launched a national campaign urging students to sue their colleges for racial discrimination in admissions. The effort’s National Press Club kickoff featured former Education Secretary William Bennett and none other than Nat Hentoff, a columnist with a liberal reputation. Hentoff’s trip to Washington was paid for by the organizers from CIR, one of the hottest law groups of the new right.
The group placed advertisements in fifteen campus newspapers–including papers at Columbia, the University of Chicago, Dartmouth, Duke, Virginia, Rutgers, James Madison, the University of Pennsylvania and the University of North Carolina. The full-page ads advised students to download or send for a free handbook on how to tell whether their college is breaking the law. “Guilty by Admission,” the ads declare. “Nearly Every Elite College in America Violates the Law. Does Yours?” The handbook tells students how to use freedom of information requests, how to acquire data from their university to compile complaints and then how to find a lawyer to bring a suit. This campaign represents the latest anti-affirmative action strategy on the right: targeting private universities that receive public money.
Nat Hentoff has written regularly of his opposition to affirmative action, arguing that policies promoting racial and gender diversity do nothing for the majority of the disadvantaged. His favorable stories on CIR’s clients make him a popular figure in the organization’s libertarian circles. His colleagues at the January kickoff event, however, have pretty unsavory histories when it comes to civil rights. Bennett’s record goes back at least to 1979, when he wrote, with Terry Eastland (publisher of The American Spectator), Counting by Race, an early book condemning affirmative action. At Ronald Reagan’s National Endowment for the Humanities, Bennett made a show of refusing to implement minority hiring policies required by the EEOC. When he served as Education Secretary, civil libertarians denounced his call for broad mandatory AIDS testing and school locker searches. At Bennett’s side at the CIR event was Terrence Pell, who worked as Bennett’s chief of staff at the Office of National Drug Control Policy. Today he’s senior counsel at CIR.
CIR won its greatest victory so far representing Cheryl Hopwood in the precedent-setting case that led to a decision ending affirmative action at the University of Texas. The court went on the record not just barring the university from using racial quotas in admissions but forbidding the school to consider race at all–leaving the institution open to legal prosecution for almost any diversity effort, including training or recruitment conducted in what could be construed in a race-conscious way.
Other CIR clients include the sponsors of California’s anti-affirmative action Proposition 209 and Katuria Smith, a rejected student who sued the University of Washington Law School claiming discrimination. CIR is representing plaintiffs in a similar suit against the University of Michigan and, for good measure, Jessie Thompkins, an African-American student protesting diversity scholarships for whites at overwhelmingly black Alabama State University.
Killing affirmative action is just part of CIR’s agenda. According to its 1997-98 annual report, the outfit’s long-term objective is “the re-invigoration of meaningful constitutional constraints on government.” The language of individual liberties is presumably what makes CIR attractive to a libertarian like Hentoff. CIR argues that the First Amendment prohibits the state from applying antidiscrimination law to private groups, and Hentoff isn’t the only liberal to support that view. In 1995 when CIR filed an amicus brief on behalf of the organizers of Boston’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade, who had excluded an organization of Irish-American lesbians and gays, the Supreme Court agreed.