Erin Hendrix was headed up the walkway to her home in Detroit's cozy Rosedale Park community when her mother charged out the front door, frantically waving a letter from the University of Michigan.
"Oh, baby, I'm so proud of you!" Elaine Lewis-Hendrix said. "You were accepted with a full scholarship!"
But Hendrix, then 17, wasn't joyful that spring day in 2000. Black students at the university had warned her that its image of racial diversity was an illusion, so she hoped that her 3.78 grade-point average at an elite suburban high school, along with her 1260 SAT score, would bring a full scholarship offer from a school outside the state.
"I was thinking, 'Oh, great, this pretty much seals my fate,' " Hendrix said.
Her ambivalence toward the university is shared by many black and Latino students in Michigan. While they are eager to attend one of the most prestigious state universities in the nation -- considered the Harvard of the Midwest -- they are also wary of the social environment that awaits them there. In the months leading up to today's arguments at the Supreme Court over whether Michigan can consider race in its undergraduate and law school admissions, students said, the tensions have risen.
Michigan's racial demographics are not remarkably different from those of other major state universities, but the schoolyard debate over how minority applicants are admitted has magnified every perceived white insult, and the hurt and anger that result.
Within the past year, in an episode unrelated to the controversy over affirmative action, the white-run independent student newspaper poked fun at minority student organizations by using expletives to lampoon their names. As attention focused on the Supreme Court cases, someone scrawled a racial epithet across a sidewalk on the campus yard, and a white student organization held a bake sale offering discounted treats for black and Latino students.
"This kind of stuff affects me personally," said Marisa Darden, a 19-year-old sophomore who is black. "I am personally offended. One of the reasons I chose to come to UM is their boastful reputation on diversity. But I have to make a choice between socializing with black people or socializing with white people, because this campus is extremely segregated."
Seventy-five percent of the university's students are white, and they control campus life from the student government to the pep squad. Hendrix, who shares a class with Darden, quickly discovered how little-understood blacks are.
After making the 45-minute drive from Detroit to the Ann Arbor campus, Hendrix moved into a dorm where roughly 70 percent of the students are white. One day, she recalled, a white student asked her if there were any good neighborhoods in Detroit. Her father had told her never to drive there, especially after 5 p.m. on a Friday.
"There was this overwhelming feeling that I didn't belong," Hendrix said. "I feel so isolated. I call my friend at Spelman College and say I want to transfer." But she hasn't sought out the historically black college in Atlanta because a Michigan degree is too valuable a credential, and her father would forbid it.
Monique Perry, a 20-year-old junior, said white students asked her to make them copies of rap CDs. "I've never owned a rap CD in my life," said Perry, who was raised in Detroit and was a top student at the city's elite Cass Technical High School.
Darden said that at her dorm, a white student asked, "How do you wash your hair?"
Despite those complaints, Michigan is quite diverse compared with the nation's elite public universities. At the University of California at Berkeley, underrepresented minorities make up only 15 percent of undergraduates; at Michigan, the proportion is 25 percent. Still, school officials in Ann Arbor say they are seeking a more diverse campus.
"One of the reasons why we're defending our affirmative action policy so strongly is that we're not there yet," said Julie Peterson, a University of Michigan spokeswoman. The school has programs designed to bring students together, Peterson said, "because it's not enough to just have people here. You have to do the work."
Godfrey Dillard, an attorney for the Detroit branch of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, said the nuanced suffering of minorities at Michigan has not been argued in the legal challenge to Michigan's undergraduate admissions process, which pits a white complainant against the university. Although the Supreme Court has ruled that the legal system cannot remedy historical discrimination, some observers of the case feel that Michigan's history sits like an elephant in the courtroom.
The university was founded in 1817 but did not admit a black student until more than 50 years later. As recently as 1960, the university's campus housing and fraternities were segregated. The percentage of Latino and Native American students barely registered above zero.
In 1954, there were 200 black students at Michigan, according to school records. Twelve years later, there were 400, barely more than 1 percent of the total student population of 32,000. At that time, 55 percent of Detroit's 300,000 students were black.
At the start of the 1970s, frustrated African American students at Michigan organized the Black Action Movement, requesting more minority enrollment. The request was first rejected by the university, then accepted after the students held a strike, and later abandoned.
A university investigation in 1980 found that 85 percent of black students surveyed said they experienced severe racial isolation and discrimination by their peers. Eight years later, Provost James Duderstadt started the "Michigan Mandate" to increase the number of students and faculty of color.
The mandate acknowledged "prejudice, bigotry, discrimination and even racism" on campus and later instituted an admissions system that awarded applicants points for several attributes, such as grades, test scores, home town and alumni in the family.
When Jennifer Gratz, a white student, applied to the university's College of Literature, Science and Arts in 1995, she was not among approximately 4,000 students who made the cut. She sued, claiming that the school's policy of awarding 20 points on a 150-point scale to minority applicants for their race unfairly helped them pass her in the line for a place at the school.
Since then, university lawyers and affirmative action advocates have noted that the system awards six points to applicants from the state's rural areas, which are overwhelmingly white, and up to 10 points to those from high schools that offer honors courses, which many inner-city high schools don't offer. Children of alumni, who are more likely to be white, also receive points.
Peterson said that at least 42 white and Asian students with grade-point averages and test scores lower than Gratz's were admitted the year she applied.
The point system has become an issue not only in the Supreme Court, but also on campus.
Everette Wong, a Chinese American, sided with Gratz. "You shouldn't get 20 points just because you're a minority," said the 20-year-old sophomore. "If I am getting triple-bypass surgery, do I want a doctor who got C's and not A's?"
Ben Wanger, 20, a white sophomore, said, "I think the best people deserve to get the best. Racism isn't as rampant as it used to be."
That is true, other students said, but they are still mindful of Michigan's past.
"I benefited from affirmative action," said Paul Spurgeon, 20, a white sophomore. "My grandfather went to UM, and I benefited from that. If you look at the television, and if you listen to students in my class, you don't see them attacking me. They attack blackness and race."
Helen Basterra, a 23-year-old junior from England, said, "I find it astonishing the amount of people who are against affirmative action. America is a colorblind society, but there's such division on campus. It goes to show you how much race is a factor in this society."
The issue also resonates beyond the campus, in neighborhoods where black Michigan high school students are thinking about where they want to go to college.
"As a minority, it really concerns me," said Danyel Currie, who at 17 is on her way to becoming the first in her family of four to graduate from high school. "I'll be one of the first people affected. It's important, because if affirmative action is struck down by the court, resegregation and inequality will be a fact of life."
She carries a 3.8 grade-point average while taking advanced courses and finished in the 98th percentile of students who took the PSAT. Recruitment letters are cluttering her mailbox. Without affirmative action, Currie said, the letters would almost certainly dwindle, and so would offers of financial aid. Her mother is raising three children on a waitress's wages, so she needs a scholarship.
She's watching the Supreme Court case closely. The University of Michigan hasn't contacted her -- which is okay with her. "I'm not sure I want to go there," she said, "because of the social climate and because I want to go to a small, liberal arts college that's more intimate."
If Currie turned down an offer from Michigan, Ashley Maltbia said, she would happily take her place. Maltbia, 14, is a freshman at Renaissance High, the daughter of a teacher, and full of ambition.
"I would love to go," she said. "I feel like it would be a great experience. It's so diverse. All my life I've been going to one-race schools."
Janee Moore, a 16-year-old junior, said Maltbia would likely be trading one race for another at Michigan. Like Hendrix, she has heard people talk about Michigan's lack of diversity.
"I have a friend who's going there, and she says there are just two black men. I would never date," she joked.
"I want to go because UM has more prestige, bottom line. It's the number one Michigan school. I'll just have to deal with it."