A new euphemism is needed because the old one has lost its power to obscure: Its real meaning is too obvious, even though it is unrelated to the literal meanings of either "affirmative" or "action.""We're all sensitive people," as Marvin Gaye sang in the begging-you-to-do-what-I-want song "Let's Get It On." You're sensitive? Well, I'm sensitive too. He's arguing his case to some woman, whom we can only imagine, a woman who's been resisting his sexual action. She's presumably claimed to be very sensitive. That's why there's that line "We're all sensitive people."
Ironically, Sotomayor's new euphemism comes considerably closer than "affirmative action" to being a literal description of the underlying reality. "Admissions policies" is far clearer than "action," and "race-sensitive," unlike "affirmative," at least acknowledges that what's going on has something to do with race.
The word "sensitive" does all the euphemizing work. But it cuts both ways. Defenders of segregation were, in their own way, "sensitive" when it came to race.
That song is about sex, not race, but you see my point about one side to an argument/conversation making a claim to sensitivity. There's sensitivity all around. We're all sensitive people, with so much to give....
A more common expression than "race-sensitive admissions policies" — and it must be somewhere on that treadmill journey — is "race-conscious admissions policies." Why "sensitive" instead of "conscious"? "Sensitive" connotes feelings of warmth (and irritability), and "conscious" connotes mental clarity and perception. If they're going to talk about when government may take race into account, judges should be speaking about sharply observed and understood facts about the real world. It's called "strict scrutiny" for a reason. "Sensitivity" suggests a more vaguely sourced intuition about how things ought to be, the very stereotypes and prejudicial impulses that strict scrutiny is supposed to preclude.