Few people of open minds and good hearts would deny that diversity is not just an admirable goal but a necessary one for colleges and universities that aim to prepare their students for life in the real world. And few would deny that minority populations have had and, to varying extents, still have unfair difficulty in taking advantage of the multiple benefits of higher education.
That, in too-brief form, is why affirmative action was created, and it has been useful: to the students it helped up and to the nation, which benefits from the success of all its citizens and citizen groups. Yes, it has had unintended consequences, but such are the costs of repairing the damage from decades of Jim Crow.
Affirmative action was never intended to be a permanent structure. If it worked right, it needed to serve its purpose, then go away. It’s the starter on what is hoped to eventually be a self-sustaining engine. The problem is in knowing when the engine has engaged. When is it safe to let it run by itself?
The answer is, in many ways, unknowable, but we may be about to find out if this is the time. The Supreme Court this week ruled that states may, if they choose, abolish affirmative action in their own constitutions.
The ruling came in response to a legal challenge to a 2006 constitutional amendment in which Michigan prohibited discrimination or preferential treatment in admission to the state’s public universities, government contracting and public employment. The court’s ruling affected only higher education.
It’s a problematic ruling because the nation already has some experience with this. Texas, Florida and California also prohibit affirmative action in college decisions and they have seen a significant drop in enrollment of black and Hispanic students in their most selective colleges and universities.
It is not implausible to allow states to decide when, and if, they permit affirmative action, but that’s not to say those decisions are wise or fair.
Texas and Florida have also moved recently to make it more difficult for minorities to vote. They pitch those spiteful regulations as necessary to prevent voter fraud – of which there is almost none that those measures would cure. Thus, the question arises: Are these states, and maybe others, taking advantage of the court’s rulings to herd their minority citizens into a figurative ghetto where their influence can be contained?
It’s a fair question and it’s why this ruling feels so chancy. The country has come a long way from the days when cops let dogs loose on African-Americans demanding their rights and when soldiers had to be posted so that black students could safely attend Southern schools. But racism remains alive. Some minds are closed; some hearts are embittered. And some of them belong to people in elected office.
It will be wise to watch what happens in Michigan and other states that opt out of affirmative action. Loss of educational opportunity can be crippling, for individuals and nations.