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Family Embodies Split on Affirmative Action

Justices' rulings shine a light on the diversity of opinion -- among the Boyds and the nation.

June 29, 2003|Richard B. Schmitt | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON -- Ralph Boyd Jr. is the chief of the civil rights division of the Justice Department, but even in his own family he isn't considered much of a civil rights activist.

The firebrand is his father, Ralph Boyd Sr., who grew up in Baltimore during the Depression and became a decorated member of a segregated infantry unit in World War II. After the war, he helped found a chapter of the NAACP, and at age 84 he continues to rail against what he sees as injustices, helping spark a recent investigation into police misconduct in his adopted hometown of Schenectady, N.Y.

The younger Boyd, 46, on the other hand, attended Harvard Law School and worked as a prosecutor as well as at a large corporate-oriented Boston law firm before he was picked for his high-profile Justice Department post. Civil rights groups consider his record to be mediocre at best.

One reason: He helped craft the Bush administration position before the U.S. Supreme Court that the affirmative action program at the University of Michigan Law School was unconstitutional -- a view that his father's group, the NAACP, labeled a "perversion" in its court papers in the case.

The Supreme Court's rulings last week in the law school case and a second University of Michigan case involving undergraduate admissions put a spotlight on the diversity of opinion over affirmative action -- in the Boyd family and among millions of others who have followed the cases closely.

The court held that colleges, universities and law schools may continue to use race as a factor in the admissions process in order to achieve "diversity." The justices also held that admissions officers are forbidden from using strict quotas or point systems to achieve that end.

The rulings were seen as a defeat for those who had hoped the court would outlaw race as a factor under any circumstances, and a victory for affirmative action proponents who contend that racism is still entrenched in America despite half a century of civil rights gains.

The critics include a growing number of black Americans who see affirmative action's benefits as wasted on people who least need the help, and who argue that other factors -- crime, poverty and disintegrating families -- are a greater impediment to black advancement and should be attacked more aggressively.

All things being equal, they contend that blacks would rather be judged on the basis of merit than race. "The black elites would have us all believe that there is a minority viewpoint, and that it is all in favor of racial preferences," said Peter Kirsanow, a member of the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights and a staunch critic of affirmative action.

"My sense is that most blacks would applaud affirmative action as it was originally conceived," he said, "but now that outreach has been conducted ... they just want the opportunity to be considered on an equal footing."

The view, while hotly contested, has also been echoed by a number of prominent black officials in the Bush administration who had more than a passing interest in the high court's latest historic affirmative action pronouncement and the legal maneuvering surrounding it.

They include Larry Thompson, the deputy attorney general and a longtime friend of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. In an impassioned dissent, Thomas called the law school's admissions policies "elitist" and accused his brethren in the majority of "responding to a faddish slogan of the cognoscenti."

Thompson was a student at the University of Michigan Law School in the early 1970s, and according to Griffin Bell, a former law partner who was attorney general in the Carter administration, never forgot an episode in which a professor presumed he got into the school through its affirmative action program.

"He felt stigmatized.... He was very incensed over that," Bell said.

Boyd Jr. -- who through a Justice Department spokesman declined to be interviewed -- has expressed major reservations about affirmative action. For example, in a Martin Luther King Jr. Day address in St. Louis in January, he decried the government's use of race in assigning burdens or conferring benefits on citizens.

"Unless someone is the victim of actual discrimination, race simply shouldn't play a role -- or at least a prominent role -- in decisions concerning what opportunities that person will have or not have," according to the text of Boyd's speech at the University of Missouri.

Boyd recently announced that he will be leaving the Justice Department next month to return to private practice.

In an interview, Boyd's father acknowledged having differences of opinion with his son over the years, but remains enormously proud of his only child. He suggested that political pressures might have prevented his son from doing all he wanted in Washington. "I may not agree, and I don't have to agree," the senior Boyd said. He decries that "dissent has become a dirty word in our country."

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