SALT LAKE CITY — The way affirmative action benefits universities, the military and businesses was the focus of the NAACP Salt Lake Branch's annual life membership and freedom fund banquet Friday.

"We are going backward on too many issues right now in our nation," said Gary Orfield, a professor of education, law, political science and urban planning at UCLA and co-director of the university's Civil Rights Project.

Orfield was the keynote speaker for the 93rd annual event at the Little America Hotel.

"A case was argued very recently on the United States Supreme Court, a case of one young woman, Abigail Fisher, a student who said she wanted to go to the University of Texas and said that she wasn't admitted because she was white," he said.

The Supreme Court is currently hearing the case of the Sugar Land, Texas, woman, who claims that African-American and Hispanic students with credentials below hers were admitted to the University of Texas in 2008 and she was not because of the school's affirmative action policies. The university has said race and ethnicity are only part of the admission process.

"We are facing a serious risk if we do not figure out how to educate," Orfield said. "African-Americans and Latinos are going backward in our upper level of education. We are already falling seriously behind in world competition for college graduates. For many years, we were No. 1 in the world. We are now number 15 or 16."

America is a society that is now has nearly half non-white students in public schools, he said. Nationally, public schools were 46 percent non-white from 2009 to 2010 — and more than 50 percent in the West, Orfield said.

The U.S. is headed toward a situation where it will have a majority of non-white students in public schools, he said, and the country doesn't have a plan for it.

Orfield said that universities, the military and businesses have one common feature — they are non-political institutions that have a long history and a very large base in society.

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"Students actually think in a more complex way — not just about race and ethnicity, but about many subjects — if they have experienced diversity, if they have experienced multiple perspectives," he said, referring to a Supreme Court ruling that upheld affirmative action in 1978.

Orfield said maintaining affirmative action is the only way to maintain diversity in schools.

"If we are forbidden to use affirmative action, we may be excluding the communities that represent the large majority of people who are paying taxes," he said.

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