Soon the Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in a case that promises to have wide implications for the future of affirmative action. At issue are two suits filed by white applicants to the University of Michigan who charge that they were discriminated against due to school policies that sought to promote student-body diversity. Under Michigan’s scheme, qualifications such as grade-point average and SAT scores varied depending on the ethnicity and race of the applicant. The University of Michigan has since moved to a different formula, but the effect is the same and the Supreme Court’s ruling will likely affect its constitutionality as well.
In conservative circles, there is concern about the approach that the White House will take. There’s no fear that the administration will support the Michigan practices (and by extention, all affirmative action programs). Indeed, the government is not a party to the suit, and the Bush administration may choose to take a pass altogether. That would be a pity, but a far better outcome than if it were to oppose the Michigan standard while backing affirmative action, generally.
Were it merely a legal debate, we’re confident the administration would choose to oppose all forms of discrimination, remedial or otherwise. But Washington being what it is, there are political subtexts to be considered. The first, of course, is the predicament into which Sen. Trent Lott has cast Republicans. Whether he’s raising the specter of bigotry, as he did with his remarks at fellow GOP Sen. Strom Thurmond’s 100th birthday celebration, or pandering for political expediency, as he did last Monday when he claimed to “absolutely” support affirmative action “across the board,” Mr. Lott has thrust scrutiny on the two stances Republicans most regard as anathemas. While Mr. Lott may fade away, the sorry episode of the last two weeks will remain a cloud over the GOP.
The second political plot-thickener is the widely held belief that, should a justice retire, White House counsel Al Gonzales will be the president’s first Supreme Court nominee. Mr. Gonzales, an important voice in the Michigan deliberations, has worked hard these last two years to ingratiate himself with the Senate’s pugnacious Democrats on Bush’s judicial nominees. Given its considerable efforts to woo Hispanic voters, the White House is just as keen as its counsel to keep his record as virginal as possible.
A strong decision to oppose race-based solutions might not sink Mr. Gonzales outright, but it doesn’t take a Karl Rove to see how the issue could open him up to attack as it did Clarence Thomas a decade ago from race-baiting outsiders like La Raza and the NAACP, and demagoguing Democratic senators. But road-paving is precisely the kind of injustice that lies at the heart of affirmative action. Whether it’s elevating Mr. Gonzales to the Supreme Court, admitting underqualified students to academic institutions, or awarding overbidding contractors with government set-asides, the opportunities of many shouldn’t be cast aside for the political promotion of one.
Mr. Lott’s seeming conversion to the contrary (yet another example of using race to promote an individual himself over the public interest), there’s no reason Republicans should be ashamed of a conservative approach to race relations. Indeed, it is a position more just and egalitarian than the contorted calculations and computations promoted by liberals. Simply put, if race no longer is to be a consideration, then race should truly no longer be a consideration. As long as there is official ethnic or racial categorization, there will be no end to perceived disparities or remedies.
Some Republicans in Washington are shaking their heads, bewailing their poor luck that the much-anticipated Michigan case should come at a time when racial tensions are so palpable. In fact, the timing couldn’t be better. The Bush administration now has an opportunity to reject the bigotry of the past and affirm equal opportunity for the future. In rebuking Mr. Lott, the president has taken the first step. Now it’s time for the second.