As long as racism exists, we need ways to fight it

04/28/2014 5:59 PM

04/28/2014 5:59 PM

Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court tightened the screws on affirmative action

, the decades-old practice of using race as a factor in deciding who gets admitted to college or offered a job.

Michigan, the court said, could legally prohibit the use of affirmative action when admitting students to its universities.

Affirmative action — and its close cousin, minority set-asides for public projects and contracts — has always struggled in the court of public opinion. Many Americans have long wondered whether the best way to fight discrimination is to, well, discriminate.

Of course, any decision on a job or a college admission is discriminatory by definition. A school might discriminate on the basis of test scores, for example, or relationship to an alumnus, or athletic ability. The question isn’t whether employers or admissions counselors can discriminate, it’s whether they can use race as a reason.

The answer, increasingly, is no.

Yet it’s clear that the fundamental problem affirmative action is meant to address — prejudice — is still with us. We need only read the headlines of the last couple of weeks to understand

that

reality.

The intolerant statements of

Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy, and the remarks attributed to Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling

, are quite familiar to Americans of a certain age. Casual racism once was commonplace in this country, openly discussed, reflected in the media and popular arts. Racial segregation was legal within the lifetimes of both men. Bigotry was government policy, from the cradle to the grave.

Their views, thankfully, are dying a natural death. Our children are brighter than we are. Their children will be less bigoted still.

But it seems morally repugnant to ask victims of bigotry to just be patient. Racism eventually may die on its own, but that’s small comfort for those who feel its sting today.

Affirmative action was invented for precisely that reason. It was designed to overcome decades of racial animus by requiring employers and colleges to work harder at finding people left behind by hate.

Supporters thought affirmative action would help balance the scales in an unbalanced nation. Courts and legislatures now are deciding the tool is too crude for further use. They may be right.

If so, though, they owe America an outline of alternate ways to fight the intolerance that still infects this country — in the Nevada desert, in a courtside seat, in the dark corners of the Internet or across the hiring table.

Some sicknesses need immediate attention.

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