New York, Jan. 19: For eight years Jennifer Gratz fought a long and often lonely battle against the combined might of the liberal establishment, the American legal system and the government in Washington over her claim that she was the victim of racial discrimination.
Last week, in a moment that marked a possible turning point in one of the most divisive debates in American history, the 25-year-old Detroit-born woman woke up to discover that her President agrees with her.
Gratz, who now lives in California, is the subject of a controversial test case, about to be heard by the Supreme Court, of the system of “affirmative action” — used by universities to increase the number of “minority” students in their classrooms.
She and another woman, Barbara Grutter, who are both white, claim they were unfairly discriminated against by the University of Michigan, which gave preference to less qualified black students applying for admission.
President George W. Bush plunged into the long-running American dispute over race, and how to be fair to all races, by announcing that he had filed a brief to the Supreme Court supporting their cases.
Gratz said: “I think anyone would be surprised to hear the President of the United States talking about a case you are directly involved in, and I think it is just great. I am so excited that he is on our side.”
Bush’s intervention follows last month’s forced resignation of Senator Trent Lott as leader of the Senate over remarks that appeared to favour the pre-Civil Rights policies of racial discrimination.
At a press conference, the President condemned the “quota” system and argued that the use of race as a factor in granting admission should be declared unconstitutional.
That, Gratz said yesterday, is just what she thought when, aged 17, she opened an envelope at her family home and learned that her application to go to the University of Michigan’s Ann Arbor campus to study maths had been turned down in the interests of “diversity”.
“I opened that letter and said to my dad, who was in the room, ‘Can we sue them'’” she said. “I knew immediately that it was just wrong — I was being denied a place I had earned just because I have a white skin. It is wrong to discriminate against anyone because of their skin colour, whatever that colour.”
Growing up in the Detroit metropolis, where whites took flight to the suburbs after one of the worst race riots of the 1960s, Gratz had been aware of “affirmative” action programmes at her local university while she was still at high school.
“We talked about it because we would watch older kids apply and see different people accepted over others, even if a rejected student had all the right scores and qualifications. It was something we feared: what could kids do about it'” she said.
Gratz, who recently married and now works for a computer company in San Diego, was a hard-working pupil with an exemplary record. She earned academic scores that are the equivalent of borderline As in Britain, and was a school cheerleader and a member of the science club. “I really believed that I had earned what it took to get in,” she said.
Her case was taken up by the conservative Centre for Individual Rights in Washington, along with that of Grutter, who was rejected by Michigan’s law school for the same reason.
The university did admit Gratz to a less prestigious campus, where she earned her maths degree, and stoutly defends its policy. It argues that if race were not used as a factor in admissions, “racially homogeneous classrooms would become the norm in leading law schools”, and in undergraduate classrooms the number of minorities would drop “precipitously”.
But Gratz insists that the only fair policy is equal opportunity for all, as dictated by the American Constitution.
“People assume that I come from a privileged background but that is not true. My dad is a retired policeman, my mother works at a hospital, and I am the first member of my family to graduate. I did it like everyone else should — through hard work,” she said.