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Editorial: Wearing blinders to the real world

Given the makeup of this particular United States Supreme Court, the ruling upholding Michigan’s ban on affirmative action couldn’t have been too unexpected.

Disappointing, perhaps, but not a shock.

This court, after all, continues to be wearing blinders when it comes to its interpretation of the Constitution. The results often neglect or ignore what the world is like outside the judicial chambers.

The court, in its 6-2 ruling, upheld a decision by Michigan voters in 2006 passing a constitutional amendment banning the use of affirmative action — the consideration of race in admissions — as a means of creating a diverse student body at its public universities. That vote was challenged and a federal appeals court then ruled the law was unconstitutional.

In Schuette v. Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action, the Supreme Court majority overturned that decision, finding that the rights of voters carried more weight than the rights of minorities. As Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in one of the opinions supporting the ban, “This case is not about how the debate about racial preferences should be resolved. It is about who may resolve it.”

Were it only that simple.

This decision seems to suggest that majority vote never gets it wrong, despite historical examples that say otherwise. After all, throughout American history, majorities have supported efforts to disenfranchise minority voters or segregate public schools.

And it has been the courts, not voters, that have traditionally defended minority rights. As Justice Sonia Sotomayor wrote in her dissent from the ruling, “We are fortunate to live in a democratic society. But without checks, democratically approved legislation can oppress minority groups. For that reason, our Constitu­tion places limits on what a majority of the people may do.

“This case implicates one such limit: the guarantee of equal protection of the laws. The Constitution does not protect racial minorities from political defeat, but neither does it give the majority free rein to erect selective barriers against racial minorities.”

As noble an ideal as a race-blind nation may be, Americans know that in the real world that isn’t yet the case. As much as we want to say we have come far in erasing the prejudice of the past, discrimination — from blatant acts to much more subtle forms — continues to be part of our society.

And that includes gaining entrance to college. Consider, for example, that in Michigan and six other states that have enacted such a ban, there has been a noticeable drop in the enrollment of black and Hispanic students.

As of now, the Constitution, according to Kennedy, limits “race-conscious programs” like affirmative action. It will be worth watching to see how other states react to the ruling. It becomes critical for those outside the court to find other solutions to ensure that diverse student bodies at our public universities and colleges is a priority, even at times when this seems to conflict with majority opinion.

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