Under U.S. Supreme Court case law, affirmative action in university admissions does not violate the Equal Protection Clause of the U.S. Constitution when it is done in a way that is narrowly tailored to the compelling interest in the benefits of classroom diversity. In Schuette, the question is not whether the university can choose not to have a policy of affirmative action, but whether the policy against affirmative action can be put in the state constitution — where, as a political matter, it becomes difficult to change. The idea is: 1. The political process has been restructured along racial lines, and 2. That restructuring violates Equal Protection.
It's a difficult argument to make, since it sounds like choosing equality imposes inequality, but there are a couple old cases upon which to build. I just want to focus here on Totenberg's (perhaps) careless adoption of the state's characterization of affirmative action as "racial preferences." Boldface added:
Students seeking to enact or get rid of other preferences can lobby the regents, [the ACLU's Mark] Rosenbaum observed. But racial minorities cannot lobby for reinstatement of consideration of race in college and university admissions decisions. Moreover, he said, to get back their preferences, minority students would have to embark on a difficult and multimillion-dollar campaign to re-amend the state constitution in a state that is more than three-quarters white.So there's Justice Breyer saying it too. Perhaps Totenberg picked up the cue from him. It seems to me, if you want affirmative action to be accepted as important, good, and — as we say in legal doctrine — compelling, you don't want to encourage the habit of thinking of it as preferences, which seem to be special benefits that some people get because of their race. You want people to think in terms of taking into account all of the many factors that play a role in the university's practicing of a subtle art of composing a student body with a marvelously fine-textured, beneficial-to-all diversity.
Also arguing against the referendum was lawyer Shanta Driver. Justice Stephen Breyer posed this hypothetical to her: Most cities have "a vast number of administrators" of all kinds of programs. Suppose an administrator of one project decides to adopt a racial preference, for a good reason, but then the city council votes to abolish that preference. Would that be unlawful?
"No," replied Driver. Breyer pressed on, asking "Where's the line?" How do you avoid giving every individual administrator the power "to decide on his own whether to use racial preferences without a possibility of a higher-up veto?"
If that way of thinking is lost, affirmative action is doomed.