Affirmative-action policies, which have provided a leg up in admissions to black and Latino students at selective colleges for almost 50 years, are in deep trouble. On Wednesday, when the U.S. Supreme Court hears oral arguments in Fisher v. University of Texas II challenging affirmative-action policies, it is very likely that a majority of justices will lay the groundwork for a decision striking down UT Austin’s use of racial preferences.
Paradoxically, however, the conservative justices who do so could spur the creation of a new, more liberal set of affirmative-action policies at selective colleges across the country. These policies may actually create robust racial diversity by helping economically disadvantaged students of all races.
Today’s debate isn’t so much about whether racial and ethnic diversity is an important and desirable goal. Most people of good will agree that it is. The debate, instead, has shifted to the questions of how universities achieve diversity—the key issue in Fisher II.
The U.S. Supreme Court has properly recognized that racial diversity on campus is desirable, and that is unlikely to change in the current litigation. Classroom discussions are more engaging when students bring different life experiences to the table. And the court has held that the “path to leadership” should be open to students of all backgrounds. The researcher Thomas Dye has found that 50 percent of government leaders and 49 percent of corporate leaders are graduates of just 12 wealthy colleges and universities, so it’s important that bright students from all walks of life have access to selective higher-education institutions.