John Leo

The court says race-conscious admission plans don't "unduly harm" individuals who are not members of the favored racial and ethnic groups. But white and Asian applicants who keep losing out to favored minorities with much worse credentials might take a different view of whether any "undue harm" is occurring.

So the court's message boils down to this: Quotas are bad, but finagling to assure quota-like results is good, as long as the finagling isn't too obvious. Finagling shouldn't be hard -- the promoters of preference policies have been at it for years, shrouding their admission plans, cutting corners, hiding the numbers, suppressing bad news, sometimes trying to get away with clearly unconstitutional plans.

Why so much dishonesty? Stuart Taylor Jr. of National Journal says preference policies "can only live on lies, because the oft-obscured reality of racial preferences offends the values of most Americans of all races."

Exactly right. The dishonesty is built into preference policies because backers are aware that public opinion, though supportive of the broad and vague term "affirmative action," is lopsidedly opposed to preference policies and has been since the mid-1980s. This is true even among preferred minorities. For example, a Washington Post/Kaiser Foundation poll in 2001 showed that 86 percent of blacks opposed preferences and said that hiring, promotions and college admissions should be based strictly on merit.

In her dissent on the undergraduate decision, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg made a remarkable comment on the preference lobby's pugnacity and will to win in the face of public disapproval. She wrote that universities "may resort to camouflage" if not allowed to install frankly preferential policies. Since this is so, she said, candid preference plans are better than achieving high minority numbers "through winks, nods and disguises."

Chief Justice Rehnquist rebutted this dubious accommodate-the-evaders advice in his majority opinion. He said Ginsburg believes we should deal with university violations "not by requiring the universities to obey the Constitution, but by changing the Constitution so that it conforms to the conduct of the universities."

One can argue that this is exactly what the court did in its shameful handling of the Michigan law case: It swept aside all consideration of equal protection and approved a lightly disguised quota system that a better court would have struck down decisively. This was not a good day for the Constitution or the court.

John Leo

John Leo is editor of and a former contributing editor at U.S. News and World Report.

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