WASHINGTON -- For four decades the American people have been perplexed by "affirmative action," "quotas" and all the circumlocutions that have accumulated around them. Reading about them is painful. Living with them is worse.
What has the Supreme Court trying been trying to tell us with these bewildering decisions? What are educators trying to tell us with these policies?
Actually, I think President John F. Kennedy was on the right track at an August 20, 1963 press conference when he answered a question about the possibility of "job quotas by race" becoming the law of the land. Said JFK, "I don't think we can undo the past. In fact, the past is going to be with us for a good many years. ... We have to do the best we can now. That is what we are trying to do. I don't think quotas are a good idea. I think it is a mistake to begin to assign quotas on the basis of religion, or race, or color, or nationality. I think we'd get into a good deal of trouble. Our whole view of ourselves is a sort of one society."
Well, we have indeed gotten into "a good bit of trouble" with quotas and with affirmative action. The problems began in the Nixon administration and they have been multiplying ever since. By trying, as Kennedy said, to "undo the past," we balkanized our future. America is now many different little Americas. It is white America and black America. It is male and female -- or at least feminized -- America. It is Latino, gay, vegetarian -- you name it -- America. All a "little America" needs is an imaginative demagogue.
Will we ever be able to get back to Kennedy's "one society"? It is not going to be easy with all the race hustlers, the ethnic hustlers, the special pleading hustlers, out there trying to make a buck and to speak for their richly elaborated upon aggrieved group. Yet there is hope, and this week's decision in Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin by a 7-1 Supreme Court margin provides a glimmer of hope.
Racial preferences were cemented into law by the 1978 Bakke case. They became even more inscrutable and unreadable with the Grutter v. Bollinger case of 2003. There the court found that, though quotas and affirmative action might be dubious instrumentalities for racial harmony, if some sort of consideration of race furthered "diversity", they were quite all right. So while quotas and affirmative action were frowned upon, at least by non-liberals, some sort of consideration of racial preference was allowed in education for the sake of diversity. You all know how much diversity is celebrated in universities and, particularly, law schools. Wait, you doubt that there is much diversity in Academe? Well, what are we talking about then?