Court ruling reflects progress on equality

In some respects, Tuesday’s U.S. Supreme Court decision — upholding a voter-approved ban on using race as a factor in admissions to state colleges in Michigan — can be viewed as a step toward Martin Luther King Jr.‘s dream of living in a colorblind society.

We have twice elected a black president to lead our country, which many would argue is a compelling justification for a re-examination of affirmative action in this country.

This ruling, coupled with last year’s decision to overturn a key piece of the Voting Rights Act, reflects a court that believes that current conditions are a vast improvement over those a half-century ago when Congress took steps to enact equal protection provisions for all Americans. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 outlawed discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex or national origin. It ended unequal application of voter registration requirements and racial segregation in schools, at the workplace and by facilities that served the general public.

On Tuesday, the high court ruled 6-2 that voters are free to outlaw racial considerations in admissions. Rather than being celebrated as a sign of a new age of equality — in which racial preferences are no longer necessary — the court’s decision sparked a controversy for failing to address whether such bans violate the Constitution’s equal protection clause.

As The New York Times summarized in an editorial critical of the decision: “Among other things, the justices disagreed about whose rights were at issue: the minorities who would be affected by the ban or the majority of the state’s voters who passed it.”

The majority sided with the voters. The Associated Press summed up the majority position: “Policies affecting minorities that do not involve intentional discrimination should ordinarily be decided at the ballot box rather than in the courtroom.”

We agree with that basic assertion, but not without some reservations about the implications.

“This case is not about how the debate about racial preferences should be resolved,” Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in the controlling opinion. “It is about who may resolve it.’”

It’s a fine distinction to support the court’s ruling and simultaneously ask whether it did the country a disservice by side-stepping the racial questions at the heart of the matter. Perhaps the court decision reflects the fact that affirmative action programs — attempts to remedy the effects of centuries of slavery and prejudice — are themselves race-based discrimination sanctioned by the government.

As Chief Justice John Roberts remarked in another case, “The way to stop discriminating on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.”

We measure these decisions in a larger context. We think it’s a good sign that our society is in a position to ask if racial preferences are still needed.

The court’s decision evaded making that judgment, but spoke to America’s mincing steps toward true equality.

We continue to look forward to the day when government policies and programs that have been necessary to address our shameful past are no longer needed. This week, the Supreme Court cautiously hinted that we’re getting there.


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