In 2003, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled against Barbara Grutter, a college grad who sued the University of Michigan law school because it employed racial preferences in its admissions process to achieve academic diversity.
Justice Sandra Day O'Connor joined the court's four liberal justices to keep affirmative action alive that day, in a 5-to-4 decision. But the moment was fast approaching, O'Connor said, when the promotion of people of color, solely because of their race, would not be justified.
No one knew precisely when the tipping point would be reached, O'Connor wrote, but "the court expects that 25 years from now the use of racial preferences will no longer be necessary." Five years later, Barack Obama was elected president of the United States.
Obama's election was the sign we've been waiting for. It is time we do away with preferences and recognize people, as Martin Luther King urged us, by the content of their character. Today, a black man sits in the Oval Office, having narrowly defeated a woman for the Democratic nomination whom, to considerable acclaim, he then appointed secretary of state. Ask him. On the day after his "There-is-no-Red-America-there-is-no-Blue-America-there-is-only-the-United States of America" speech at the Democratic convention in 2000, I happened to land next to then Senator Obama at a breakfast with reporters. I thought his speech was a noble exposition of American ideals but, given my duties as a professional skeptic, tried to test his sincerity.
"Do you think African-Americans still need affirmative action?" I asked. "No," he said. The average black American child would meet racism in his lifetime, Obama said, but not the pervasive hatred faced by earlier generations, and not of a kind that could not be overcome by energy and initiative. That did not mean that poor minority children did not need special attention, preferences, and other kinds of help—but so did disadvantaged white kids.
Obama said much the same thing during last year's presidential campaign when ABC's George Stephanopoulos asked him if daughters Sasha and Malia should get preferred treatment. "I think that my daughters should probably be treated by any admissions officer as folks who are pretty advantaged," Obama said.
His idea of replacing race with wealth is a good one. According to a study of America's elite colleges by the Century Foundation, admissions preferences based on socioeconomic status could achieve diversity without employing the criterion of race. College admissions offices are not, of course, the only place in our society where discrimination—or the lingering results of past discrimination—occurs. Black men are seven times as likely to be imprisoned as white men of the same age, and black families are three times as likely as their white counterparts to live in poverty.
But demographic destiny will help finish our task. Among younger Americans, racial attitudes are improving. Privileged populations can perpetuate their favorable standing past the day they are eclipsed in number—but not forever. White people are now minorities in two of America's biggest, richest states—Texas and California—and most of the nation's mighty cities.
Obama's appointment of Judge Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court is a good example of how, all other things being equal, political and business leaders should still recognize a need for fairness. Most everyone in America would admit, if pressed, that having eight guys and only one gal on the nation's highest court is stupid. It is unfair. And there is no good reason for it; there are an ample number of qualified female jurists.
Women are a major reason that the Democrats won the presidential election. If I were Obama and I got to make two or three appointments to the court, all would be women. And the fact that the bright and experienced Sotomayor is a Latina makes her nomination twice as appealing. We've been balancing tickets with regional, ethnic, and religious considerations since 1796. Nothing could be more American. Nor should we strike antidiscrimination statutes from the books.