Although rigid critics of affirmative action are lambasting the Supreme Court's pair of rulings on the subject as confusing and contradictory, in truth they are consistent with past rulings and steer a clear if moderate path on the issue.
A 5-4 majority, with Arizona's Sandra Day O’Connor a swing vote and author of the opinion, ruled the University of Michigan Law School's admission policy of considering race among many factors does not violate the Constitution.
O’Connor wrote that public universities should have policies in place that ensure educational opportunities are open to all, regardless of race or ethnicity.
But a more lopsided 6-3 majority ruled that the university's undergraduate admission policy attaching points to race in a way that could eclipse other factors is unconstitutional. That is in keeping with a past Supreme Court ruling striking down quotas that amount to reverse discrimination.
The rulings aren't contradictory. Rather, they more clearly define affirmative action in a society where racial inequities and injustices persist, yet where certain remedies wrongly violate some individuals' rights.
Anyone struggling to understand the brand of affirmative action endorsed as constitutional by the Supreme Court need look no further than Arizona's public universities. To its credit, the Board of Regents more than a decade ago put in place a policy promoting racial and ethnic diversity that emphasizes expanding recruiting and retention efforts among minorities.
Arizona State University and its two sister institutions make special efforts to reach qualified high school seniors in low-income and minority communities.
Once enrolled, these students are provided with counseling and academic services aimed at reducing their risk of dropping out.
While not perfect, these recruitment and retention efforts have helped create a more diverse student population without infringing any qualified student's enrollment opportunities. Indeed, they have ensured that more of Arizona's young adults, regardless of race or economic circumstances, have an equal shot at higher education and future success.
Far from reverse discrimination, this is the kind of “affirmative action” President John F. Kennedy spoke of when he coined the term to overcome generations of inequality of opportunity, some vestiges of which persist to this day.