On many occasions, the courts have served as defenders of minority rights and protected minorities against the actions of the majority. This led to historic decisions that eliminated across the nation the racial segregation that existed in southern states.
Yesterday, the Supreme Court handed down a ruling that stopped this trend in its tracks. It granted the majority of voters in Michigan the power to reform the Constitution to eliminate affirmative action in university admissions. Proposition 2 eliminated the use of preferences based on race or sex in public education, contracts, and employment. The ruling only focused on education.
In her dissent, Justice Sonia Sotomayor correctly indicated the role of the federal court in protecting the rights of members of historically marginalized groups. That does not mean that minorities must be protected from a political defeat, but is also does not give majorities the right to create obstacles for minorities.
Yesterday’s decision does precisely that. Both in Michigan and in California, since the passage of Proposition 209, participation by Latinos and African-Americans at public universities has been drastically reduced by not allowing race to be one of the many factors considered in student selection.
No matter how badly we want to be a “color-blind” society, as the majority of the justices voting in favor of the ruling would like, this is a utopian vision that ignores both the past and the present. The goal is to create a society with opportunities to overcome obstacles, even for the poorest and most marginalized. That does not mean placing them above others.
We believe in the definition of affirmative action provided by Sotomayor in her book, My Beloved World. There she wrote that it served to “create the conditions whereby students from disadvantaged backgrounds could be brought to the starting line of a race many were unaware was even being run.”