Admissions case will change minds, not lives

Some fights are for results, some are for ideas. This week the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments on two cases challenging the University of Michigan’s use of affirmative action in its admissions. Numerous organizations, both for and against affirmative action, filed briefs to present their viewpoints. The organizations included General Motors Corp., the American Bar Association, the White House, the National Organization for Women, and others. Despite all the interest generated, the Supreme Court’s ruling on the case will have repercussions in the minds of Americans – but not their lives.

In almost every school’s admission algorithms, nonracial proxies for race are already extensively used. The University of Michigan undergraduate admissions policy being challenged assigns qualitative points based on an individual’s background. Although a student applying can receive 20 points for being a member of an underrepresented minority group, he or she can receive the same 20 points for a host of other factors, including socio-economic disadvantage and attendance of a predominantly minority high school. The provost is also allowed to grant points at his or her discretion. Even if race were not explicitly considered in the Michigan admission process, all of these other admission factors would ensure that many minority candidates still received an extra 20 points. Even if Michigan loses, the composition of its student body will not significantly change, given the current admission process. Other groups and organizations considering affirmative action will similarly still be free to reach the end they desire through different means.

However, in important ways the Supreme Court’s decision will shape how Americans think of race. One earlier race-related case that affected the American thought process on race was Brown v. Board of Education. Although the case did result in practical changes, its broader philosophical ruling – that separate but equal was in fact discriminatory – was far more important to American society than the practical changes the ruling invoked. The Supreme Court’s decision on affirmative action will have a have a similar long-range and deep effect on how race matters are considered in this country.

Article III of the U.S. Constitution limits the power of courts to considering cases and controversies. In this case, the controversy raging between the affirmative action-approving left and the disapproving right might have no practical significance. It does, however, provide a good case study on how American thought is shaped. And that might prove to be the ultimate stake in the Supreme Court’s decision.