WASHINGTON — The U.S. Supreme Court is wrestling once again with the question of racial preference in college admissions. It is entirely possible that it might end the controversial policy of affirmative action, given the conservative bent of five of the nine justices.
There's an old story about a brilliant football prospect at the University of Texas whose racial considerations were being challenged by a white student denied admission four years earlier.
As the story goes, a young black man showed up at the university's stadium in Austin and asked for a tryout. The coach told the equipment manager to outfit him with old, oversized pads, helmet and clothing. The coach then told the ambitious athlete to start on the one-yard line and run through the entire team, which was lined up down the field to stop him. If he could do this, he was told, he would make the team.
The young man took the ball and headed downfield with speed and grace that left the coach and his assistants breathless. When he reached the end zone 99 yards away, he turned around and ran back, outrunning and sidestepping tackle after tackle until he reached the coach and quietly handed him the ball.
At that point, the coach turned to his equipment manager and fairly shouted. "For crying out loud, can't you get this Cuban kid something that fits?"
The story, of course, is apocryphal at an institution that has promoted a policy to overcome those times when it was, like other Southern schools, a bastion of segregation. Through decades of effort, this highly endowed jewel of a public institution has managed to diversify its student body — despite an earlier Supreme Court decision declaring that quota systems and other preferential devices in admissions based solely on race violate the Constitution.
However, the court ruled that considering race in judging applicants to support campus diversity was acceptable. It is this concept that is being challenged by Katie Fisher, a white female student who went on to Louisiana State University and is about to graduate. She and her supporters contend that Texas, her first choice, unfairly denied her acceptance because of her skin color.
It is time for the court to settle this contentious debate once and for all. Without a definitive ruling, the nation's public institutions will be under siege when it comes to their selection processes for the foreseeable future.
For too long, many of the nation's most elite schools have created a false diversity that is more aimed at making them look good than in considering the welfare of those they contend benefit from it. One justice who opposes the policy is Clarence Thomas, who has benefited from it. He has said he found the affirmative action label a stigma.
In a perfect world, intellect and skill would be the only qualities used to judge admission. Selecting one student over another would be based totally on academic merit combined with special talents. Only in tie situations would anything else come into play. The way to achieve diversity would be to improve the quality of secondary education for minorities.
But as we all know, this isn't a perfect world. So if two students come down to the wire, with both meeting the required test and skill levels, should race be a factor to settle the matter? The thorny question has caused major heartburn among academics for years. As the court already has said, giving racial preference points for being white, black, green or orange to reach a specific number violates the Constitution.
Fisher, the complaining applicant, was a good student in high school. Why is she continuing her crusade four years later? She says she doesn't believe there should even be a race box on a college application. Her point is well taken. We will see if the court agrees.
Email Dan K. Thomasson, former editor of the Scripps Howard News Service, at firstname.lastname@example.org.