President George W. Bush deliberately chose Rev. Martin Luther King's birthday to announce his opposition to affirmative action at the University of Michigan, the head of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission said here Tuesday evening.
"Even a dog knows the difference between being stepped on and being kicked," Mary Frances Berry told more than 200 listeners, most of them African-Americans, in the Montante Cultural Center of Canisius College.
On Jan. 15, Bush said he supported diversity in higher education but called the University of Michigan's admissions policy "fundamentally flawed" because it "unfairly rewards or penalizes students based solely on their race."
The administration's intervention in the Michigan case was part of a sweeping review of civil rights "backsliding" Berry said she has seen as a member of the independent Civil Rights Commission since 1980.
"On Martin Luther King's real birthday, the man who is in the White House -- who was elected by the Supreme Court -- decided to send African-Americans a message," she said.
"The message was that he is going to intervene, when he doesn't have to, in the Michigan case, against affirmative action, and mischaracterized it as 'quotas.' And he did it deliberately, because there was no reason for him to intervene in the first place, and he didn't have to do it on Martin's birthday."
Stepping on a dog is one thing, she said, but kicking it is another.
Berry, who has a law degree and teaches history and law at the University of Pennsylvania, said the University of Michigan doesn't set racial quotas but merely gives an extra 20 points (out of 150) to applicants who are socially disadvantaged, regardless of ethnic background.
In its landmark 1978 Bakke case, the U.S. Supreme Court banned racial quotas but allowed consideration of race in college admissions. The issue is now being revisited in the courts.
Berry's lecture was a cataloging of resentments she said are being felt by minorities under the Bush presidency and a Republican Congress, on issues ranging from civil rights to foreign policy.
"If Martin Luther King were here today he'd be in deep, deep trouble," she said, then reviewed how the Nobel laureate's opposition to the Vietnam War cost him an invitation to a civil rights conference at the White House.
"People kept asking him why he was getting into foreign policy," Berry recalled. "It was a struggle for Martin Luther King to come out of the closet, so to speak, as a person who was against war. Even today, people who suggest a peaceful solution (in Iraq) are snickered at."
Berry urged young people to continue the struggle for civil rights.
"If you must get high on something," she said, "be high on being engaged in a cause."
The audience was welcomed by Canisius alumna Sandra White, a city housing and neighborhood development specialist. The lecture was part of the Fitzpatrick Chair of Political Science Lecture Series.