The unsettling feeling for many people that accompanied Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy’s retirement amplified the disruption the Trump administration is pursuing in almost every aspect of domestic and international life. Things that were taken for granted as largely settled are being called into question, reversed or outright abandoned.
It was reasonably settled, for example, that among the appropriate considerations for college enrollment is an applicant’s race. Given the country’s history of treatment of African-Americans — their enslavement and, following the Civil War, their segregation and marginalization by law or custom — affirmative action was seen as a way to help level the playing field for people who until recently hadn’t even been admitted to the field.
In the 1978 Bakke case, the Supreme Court ruled that race-conscious admissions decisions are constitutional. Additional rulings in 2003, 2013 and 2016 reaffirmed that race-aware admissions policies are permissible, although racial quotas are not.
In an effort to regularize the process, the Obama administration developed guidelines for universities that wish to consider an applicant’s race within the bounds of the law. The guidance said that race could not be the primary factor in a school’s decision, but it could be considered in achieving diversity among a student pool.
“As the Supreme Court has recognized, the benefits of participating in diverse learning environments flow to an individual, his or her classmates, and the community as a whole,” those guidelines said. “These benefits greatly contribute to the educational, economic and civic life of this nation.”
Last week, President Donald Trump revoked those guidelines. That move raised concerns as to whether the administration is interested in defending race-conscious admissions. With a new conservative justice likely to be appointed to the Supreme Court, concern was heightened that the court might overturn what is fairly settled law.
“The president is sending a message to his future nominee and to his base that he and his administration don’t care about diversity and will actively work to turn back the clock,” said Rep. Cedric L. Richmond (D-La.), chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, in reaction to Trump’s action. We hope that is not the case.
African-American students make up a disproportionately small number of enrollment at public universities, just 6 percent. Obviously, race-conscious policies cannot close the gap, but it is reasonable to think that without government support for closing the gap, it would be far worse.
A new challenge may be coming in a high-profile lawsuit accusing Harvard University of discriminating against Asian-American applicants. Anti-affirmative action activists have seized on the case and the Justice Department has sided with the plaintiffs. Should the case reach what will likely be a conservative majority on the Supreme Court, it may drive the final nail into affirmative action’s coffin.
A race-blind America is a great dream. But any effort to push non-whites to the margins, where they cannot even be seen, is the wrong kind of race-blindness.