Affirmative Action's True Purpose

As a new SCOTUS case begins, it's time for advocates to reframe the conversation about the issue.

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The stage may be set for the five-member conservative majority on the court to imperil the ongoing vitality of affirmative action. Chief Justice John Roberts, who, in opposing the modest, voluntary public-school affirmative-action plan in Parents Involved in Community Schools v. Seattle, famously said (pdf), "the way to stop discrimination based on race is to stop discriminating based on race," could not have crafted a better context in which to announce further limits on affirmative action. With a weak economy resulting in little inclination among working-class to promote efforts to "share the pie" and a black president who is disinclined to talk publicly about race, the climate may never be better for the court to turn its back on affirmative action. 

But whatever course the court takes, it remains up to civil rights advocates to find a way to begin a renewed conversation about race and affirmative action -- one that respects the legitimate fears of whites struggling in an unforgiving economy, but that reminds us why affirmative action is an investment in the future of a better America for all of us.

Sherrilyn A. Ifill is a professor of law at the University of Maryland Francis King Carey School of Law and a civil rights lawyer.

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is a civil rights lawyer and professor at the University of Maryland School of Law.