Inquirer Editorial: Not so color-blind

Michael Ashmore of Texas displayed a Confederate flag in front of the White House last week.
Michael Ashmore of Texas displayed a Confederate flag in front of the White House last week. (BILL O'LEARY / Washington Post)
Posted: October 25, 2013

A photograph that made the rounds via social media last week showed a young man proudly displaying a Confederate flag outside the White House after a protest of the government's closing of the World War II memorial. Maybe the man wants a new Civil War. Or maybe he believes this is a "post-racial" America in which that despicable symbol of slavery and discrimination no longer means what it once did.

Based on their remarks in an affirmative-action case argued the same week, some members of the U.S. Supreme Court may also believe that race is no longer an issue in America. But the justices should know better than to conclude that this country has reached the color-blind state imagined by the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., in which remedies for racial injustice are neither desired nor necessary. They should think again before sticking another knife in affirmative action.

The justices heard arguments on a 2006 measure approved by Michigan voters that prohibits state colleges and universities from considering race in admissions. The measure, known as Proposal 2, undercut a 2003 decision in which the Supreme Court ruled that race could be a factor in admissions to the University of Michigan Law School.

A lower federal court has found the voter-approved affirmative action ban unconstitutional. In defending it, Michigan Solicitor General John J. Bursch said it called for equal treatment of all applicants and therefore couldn't be in violation of the Constitution's equal-protection clause. Justice Antonin Scalia seemed to agree, saying the 14th Amendment wasn't meant to protect only blacks from discrimination.

Scalia's comments suggest that he believes color-blind policies are sufficient because racism no longer has to be overcome. But in his effort to be color-blind, he would prematurely end the long, arduous process of leveling the field so that everyone can play by the same rules. This isn't the 1960s, but sometimes extraordinary measures are still needed to offset past and current bias.

That doesn't mean affirmative action should last forever. In fact, if colleges did a better job of recruiting and aiding low-income students, the need for race-based solutions might be reduced. But given that black college enrollment has dropped 30 percent in Michigan since the state's voters ended affirmative action, their decision was premature.

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