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Supreme court rams race back on the presidential plate

Earl Ofari Hutchinson

Supreme court rams race back on the presidential plate

The U.S. Supreme Court almost certainly will vote before the November presidential elections on whether to scrap race as a factor in college admissions.

The conservative majority has time and again shown that they are chomping to do away with it. The recusal of moderate justice Elena Kagan virtually assures they’ll get their way.

The justices may not have thought about how affirmative action and the issue of race will play out in the presidential campaign, but it will again prick all the thorny, potentially inflammatory, sore spots that race always does.

The likely GOP presidential nominee, Mitt Romney or Rick Santorum, will have an easy time with the issue. They will simply repeat the stock conservative mantra that discrimination is discrimination and must be opposed.

Conservatives have backed that up with decades of lawsuits, ballot initiatives and administrative rulings that have torpedoed any and every effort to use race to promote diversity. The assault on affirmative action will do more than just give the GOP candidate a chance to pose as the defender of a color-blind America — it also potentially revives affirmative action as a campaign-wedge issue.

The issue largely fell off the nation’s radar nearly a decade ago when the Supreme Court narrowly upheld the University of Michigan’s right to use race as a factor in increasing minority numbers at the school.

The Bush administration at first vigorously backed the challenge to the University’s affirmative action program. But mostly due to the strong and very public dissent from then Secretary of State Colin Powell and National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice, Bush waffled and ultimately softened his opposition to it, and accepted the decision.

During the 2008 presidential campaign, affirmative action was not an issue. GOP presidential candidate John McCain and Obama made only the barest mention of it. And that came only in response to California anti-affirmative action crusader Ward Connerly,  of California, when he plopped his anti-affirmative action measure on ballots in three states, one of which was McCain’s home state of Arizona.

McCain backed the Connerly measure. He insisted that he backed equal opportunity and opposed discrimination. Obama opposed the initiatives. Connerly quickly jumped on Obama for it, noting that he cut radio ads in 2006 that hammered his Michigan anti-affirmative action initiative. Obama unabashedly said that if the measure passed it would hurt women and minorities in getting jobs and in education. Connerly tried to use Obama’s opposition to his initiative as a foil. It didn’t diminish voter support for Obama.

But Obama’s election changed things. Race now inched back onto the public stage with conservatives watching hawklike for any hint that the president would, in word or policy, form any tilt toward minorities. The faintest sign of that from Obama would have brought loud yelps that he was pandering to minorities and that racial favoritism was the hidden agenda of his administration.

Obama didn’t give that hint. But the suspicion that race lurked closely under the surface in the Obama administrations’ policy decisions didn’t evaporate. If the president wouldn’t play into conservatives’ hands on race, then they could always manufacture a racial issue.

The recent spate of musings and articles by talk show hosts, websites, blogs and news reports that the president has written off white workers in his re-election bid, fits neatly into the bogus scenario that minorities are poised to be the prime beneficiaries of a second Obama term.

This makes the Supreme Court’s decision to take up affirmative action even more irresistible to the GOP as an issue to back Obama into a corner and hopefully get him to take a strong public position in support of affirmative action. If that happens the GOP will quickly pounce and play it up for all its worth to attempt to prick the racial suspicions and sensitivity of some white voters.

But this might not be as cut and dried as the GOP would like us all to believe. Congress has repeatedly backed away from dismantling affirmative action programs, beginning a decade ago when lawmakers shelved anti-affirmative action legislation.

President Bill Clinton followed suit. He drew much heat for his plan to modify some aspects of the programs, but eventually dropped his administration’s talk about further watering down affirmative action programs.

Neither the Obama administration, nor any of the GOP presidential contenders have uttered a word about the Supreme Court’s decision to take up the case. It’s simply too hot an issue at this early stage of the campaign to weigh in.

But the court’s likely anti-affirmative action ruling timed for November, or before, will almost certainly change that. The certainty now is that affirmative action will be shoved back on the presidential plate.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is an author and political analyst.