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In Pursuit of Racial Diversity

Affirmative action is raising tensions between minorities and whites at many US college campuses. Part 2 of 2.

OF the 50 law students each year who win a coveted position on the Georgetown Law Journal - a ticket to job interviews later at top-drawer law firms - none have been black for as long as anyone can remember. So this spring, the Georgetown Law Journal (GLJ) staff amended its constitution to consider race in the competition for staff posts.

The move rankles some students here as a new encroachment on what they see as the ideal of color-blind competition.

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"A lot of people are upset about this," says Jeff Campbell, a first-year student. "If everyone is equal and everyone is capable of doing everything here, then why do we need affirmative action on the journals?"

Yet support for the move is broad. Roughly two-thirds of the GLJ editors voted - in anonymous balloting - to adopt a form of affirmative action.

Of more than 2,000 law students at Georgetown University Law Center, about 11 percent are black. Yet only a small handful of black students win posts on the seven law reviews here, and the most prestigious journal has underrepresented minority students "in the extreme," editor-in-chief Whitney Cunningham says.

Affirmative action in pursuit of racial diversity has been an article of faith and practice at most universities for about 20 years. "The only thing that's new is that we have a generation of students who have forgotten why affirmative action started," says Betsy Levin, executive director of the Association of American Law Schools.

Yet affirmative action is clearly making new inroads. On this campus, as on many others around the United States, these inroads are raising tensions between minority and white students. The Monitor held extensive conversations with students - black and white - at this elite, well-integrated graduate school to seek a picture of how some members of the next generation of opinion and policy leaders thinks and feels about race.

"Diversity is here, and it's going to get more, not less, important," says Georgetown law professor William Eskridge. "Certain groups, especially conservative white males, feel a certain unfairness - defined as equal people not being treated fairly."

Professor Eskridge sees fairness in more political terms: "Law schools are power institutions, producing tomorrow's power leaders. It's unfair for the power elite not to be representative."

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White students at Georgetown often mention the racial diversity on campus as a valuable aspect of their education.

Student Bar Association president Jeff Johnson went to undergraduate college with "mostly white, Norwegian Lutherans" in northern Minnesota. "This has been a real eye-opener for me," he says. "I hear views that I knew were there, but I'd never heard them articulated before."

But the concern about the skewing of competition through racial preferences is common.

Law reviews, influential shapers of legal thought, have been bastions of meritocracy.

WHETHER staff editors are selected for the highest average first-year grades, in writing competition, or a combination of both, the judging is blind. Candidates are given numbers, so the judges are not swayed by friendship, personality, prestige, or race.

Under the new system at GLJ, a pool of 75 candidates is chosen from grades and a writing competition. The first 25 to 30 of the 50 staff posts are allotted to the top 4 percent of the pool in grades and the top five writing scores.

In choosing the remaining positions, the minority status is considered along with grades and writing of those in the pool.

This makes a mild form of affirmative action, since there is no guarantee that the pool of 75 will even include any minority-group members in any given year.

But is this slight skewing of the competition fair?

"We are not an honor society," says Mr. Cunningham, the editor. "We are an organization with a purpose, and that is to put together a top-quality journal. I voted [for the new process], because it will bring more viewpoints to the product."

Other kinds of diversity, such as gender and ideology, are already well represented on the journal, says Cunningham, without taking deliberate effort.

Why do so few blacks win journal positions?

Conan Louis, who graduated from Georgetown law school in 1986, was one of three black students out of 67 in his class to make a law review. "Because of the cultural differences, a lot of black students don't begin to understand the importance of being able to put law review beside your name," he says.

Many blacks don't make the attempt to compete for positions because they have heard that, for whatever reason, blacks never make the journal.

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