Paul Greenberg

Amidst all the opinions out of the nation's highest court on Tuesday -- majority and minority, concurring in part and dissenting in part, or just too vague to classify -- was there any clear message? Yes. Definitely. But you had to peer through all the legal haze, an admix of angry rhetoric and discreet evasions, in order to divine where the Supreme Court of the United States is headed on the always simmering issue of race-based admissions to the country's colleges and universities. But it's finally headed in the right direction, however many zigs and zags the learned justices may have taken along the way.

If you listen carefully to the general drift of all these different decisions, that sound you can hear in the distance, maybe only the far distance, is the long awaited death knell for racial preferences in higher education. Yes, time is running out for all those racial quotas -- for that is what has always lurked behind the euphemism Affirmative Action, which can have decidedly negative impact on those students who don't belong to the favored race, ethnicity, class or whatever bias you prefer.

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If the essence of law is not logic but experience, to borrow an observation from the ever-observant Oliver Wendell Holmes, then this assemblage of legal opinions pro and con and in-between indicates that experience is slowly catching up to logic where racial preferences are concerned. And ending them.

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From its beginning, what is called affirmative action has had a paradox at its center: Any preference given applicants who belong to the preferred group amounts to discrimination against those who don't. That's always been the essential injustice of Jim Crow systems no matter what elevated names they are assigned -- whether "separate but equal" or "affirmative action" -- and no matter which Americans they favor, and so necessarily disfavor others. There's no getting around that essential truth no matter how hard judges like Sonia Sotomayor or Ruth Bader Ginsburg try.

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Justices Sotomayor and Ginsburg are scarcely the first to deck out an essential injustice in the language of high principle. It's almost a tradition in American jurisprudence. See the works of Roger B. Taney (he of the infamous Dred Scott decision) or Henry B. Brown, author of Plessy v. Ferguson almost half a century later, from which all kinds of racial segregation flowed. Happily, there's always a great if lone dissenter like John Marshall Harlan who sees right through their game, or just a waffler like Anthony M. Kennedy who blows the whistle on it, as he did in this week's majority opinion.

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Paul Greenberg

Pulitzer Prize-winning Paul Greenberg, one of the most respected and honored commentators in America, is the editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.