The best thing the Supreme Court could do is make universities focus on the looming class divide in higher education. Racial affirmative action rarely benefits low-income and working class students; one study found that 86 percent of African-Americans at selective colleges are middle or upper-middle class....Yeah, that's pretty much the theory the Supreme Court used in Grutter.
Polls by the Los Angeles Times and Newsweek have found that Americans oppose racial preferences in college admissions by 2:1 but favor income preferences by the same margin. The facts in the University of Texas case are tailor-made for President Obama to help the Democratic Party transition from supporting affirmative action based on race to preferences based on class. It’s not whether we should have affirmative action or whether we shouldn’t, it’s what kind of affirmative action should we stress: race-based or race-neutral?
Although Obama’s Justice Department sided with Texas in the lower courts, the president has himself always sent mixed messages about affirmative action, even suggesting that his own daughters do not deserve preference in college admission. And throughout his administration, Obama has wisely taken pains to avoid policies that smack of racial favoritism. When he came under pressure to address black unemployment, for example, Obama declared: “I can’t pass laws that say I’m just helping black folks. I’m the president of the United States.” Of course, affirmative action can be framed as a policy that helps nonminorities too, because the education of white students is enriched when colleges are racially and ethnically diverse.
But it’s not clear how well that argument still washes with the public. And Obama has gained in the polls as he has pivoted toward economic populism in anticipation of a likely race against Mitt Romney and all his many millions. If the president uses the Texas case to side with class-based affirmative action, and low-income and working-class people of all races, he will solidify the populist case he’s trying to make.So, Obama could abandon affirmative action — a liberal cause for decades — and make it all about class. Abandon all the resonance he might get with the ideal of racial equality and sound the theme of economic justice — or, as the conservatives love to say, redistribution of the wealth and socialism.
Is that the best bet for Obama? He could also express respect for the rule of law and the institution that is the Supreme Court and make us worry about the current personnel and who's going to be appointing the next couple Justices.