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New Ways to Racial Peace

Creating racial harmony within American communities has been as elusive as catching rainbows. But it's not for lack of trying.

Efforts such as school busing, curbs on bank redlining, and anti-discrimination laws have each made their mark over the past few decades, but it's not enough.

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And many race-based measures, especially the use of quotas, have created some national fatigue over standard-issue affirmative action or have not stood up in court.

Indeed, the challenge now for those seeking racial integration in the United States is coming up with fresh solutions - that work, but don't fan resentment or step on civil rights.

One arena where the desire for racial diversity remains strong is at public universities, which are charged with lifting the education levels of all, regardless of race.

Such universities also want to make sure the next generation of Americans spends four years living with people of different colors and ethnic heritages. These schools can be the pots that help melt away lingering racial antagonisms.

In Texas, California, and Florida, public universities have been forced to drop race criteria in their admissions process - only to see a decline in minority applicants. But each state has come up with nonrace-based ways of bringing minorities into classrooms.

Texas' public universities and colleges now accept the top 10 percent of graduates from each high school in the state. For California, it's the top 4 percent. Florida plans to guarantee slots for the top 20 percent.

In reality, these states will take race into account indirectly by admitting the best students from high schools dominated by blacks or Hispanics. The plan acknowledges the persistence of segregation in the nation's neighborhoods, but then uses it in a color-blind way to give a leg up to people of color.

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They are saying, in effect, that where one lives matters more than the color of one's skin. But it's the same difference.

Will it work? Early results in Texas and California indicate it might, but not as effectively as racial quotas would.

And minority students who excel at poor schools are often in need of remedial education at universities to compete with top graduates from better high schools. Other problems with this approach may need correction.

Other large-scale experiments to help minorities achieve higher learning are in the works. The Educational Testing Service, for instance, is considering a type of SAT that takes into account a student's socioeconomic background. Other types of admissions tests may be widened to assess a broader range of abilities.

More such experiments may pop up around the United States as old ways of affirmative action falter. They should receive swift support - if they pass constitutional muster.

Such steps are important in reconciling a national standard for fairness with a desire to raise minorities up and create racial harmony. Sometimes solutions take some awkward compromises, perhaps even some fudging.

But no one said that reconciling the races - America's grand experiment - was going to be easy.

(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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