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America bids farewell to affirmative action

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The Supreme Court ruling upholding Michigan’s voter-approved ban on race-based affirmative action effectively puts an end to what was always a controversial strategy.

Once considered our best hope to level the playing field for minorities and women held back by discrimination, the policy to provide opportunities in universities and in the workforce succeeded by many measures. Blacks in particular were able to crack barriers at a time when racial prejudice and discrimination were overt.

But it’s been clear for some time that affirmative action was a strategy of the past — too divisive to be a positive force against prejudice that persists.

The latest kerfuffle in California makes the point: An attempt to revive elements of affirmative action for universities was quashed in the Legislature this year, not by white supremacists but by Asian-Americans whose children are disproportionately succeeding without it.

The ruling Tuesday said voters can decide on affirmative action, leaving the door open to it if voters approve. But Californians already have passed Proposition 209 to end it, and there’s no way it’s coming back to a ballot here.

America is still a land of unequal opportunity, however.

The same day the Michigan decision came down, The New York Times reported that America’s middle class, once the strongest in the world, has fallen behind Canada’s and some other industrialized nations’. America’s poor now earn less than those in poverty in Europe.

At the same time, it’s getting harder for lower-income kids of all races to rise on the economic scale. Wide disparities in K-12 education combined with rising tuition costs and less financial aid put college farther out of reach.

This is particularly true for black and Latino youths: They lag in academic achievement behind whites and Asian-Americans, not just comparing rich and poor but within every income level.

We never believed affirmative action harmed white Americans as much as its white opponents claimed or that it diminished the achievements of people of color, as black opponents claimed. If judgment today is more nearly color- and gender-blind than it was 40 years ago, thank affirmative action for part of the shift.

It’s day is over. But the societal challenges it took on are ever with us.

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