WASHINGTON - A reader recently let me know how affirmative action had hit him where he lives.
His daughter, of whom he was justifiably proud, had been accepted for admission by four top-notch universities, except one, the University of Michigan, which also is the subject of this weeks' landmark affirmative action ruling.
Dad naturally concluded that his white daughter quite likely was bumped aside to make room for a lesser-qualified minority. He was pretty steamed about the unfairness of that and wanted to know what I thought.
I wondered why he was so sure. He reminded me of the many times I have been frustrated to come across an empty handicapped parking space in an otherwise full parking lot.
My first impulse is to think that I would now be parked if that space were not reserved.
More than 25,000 applicants normally apply for 5,000 freshman slots at the University of Michigan. Who's to say that this man's daughter would have gotten in if the university had not given extra points to a few hundred blacks or Latinos?
But my second, more reasoned impulse tells me that, no, somebody else most likely would have beaten me to it anyway.
So it is with affirmative action, says UCLA economist Thomas J. Kane, who used the handicapped parking space analogy in a 1998 report on affirmative action in college admissions.
"Eliminating the reserved space would have only a minuscule effect on parking options for non-disabled drivers," Mr. Kane wrote in 1998. "But the sight of the open space will frustrate many passing motorists who are looking for a space."
Similarly, only a few white college applicants might be rejected because of affirmative action, but every rejected white applicant will feel frustrated.
Yet if affirmative action were eliminated at schools that practice it, the admission probability for white applicants at those schools would rise from 25 percent to 26.5 percent from, according to a 1998 study of race in college admissions by two former Ivy League presidents, economist William G. Bowen of Princeton and political scientist Derek Bok of Harvard.
Of course, blacks would feel more of the pain numerically. That 1.5 percent gain in whites would come at a cost of about half of those colleges' black students, the authors estimate.
It was with similar recognition of the good outweighing the bad in affirmative action that the Supreme Court voted, although narrowly, to keep it alive.
As many expected, the pivotal vote of Justice Sandra Day O'Connor struck a 5-4 compromise that upheld the virtue of diversity as a legitimate pursuit in Michigan's law school admissions. But in a separate 6-3 opinion regarding undergraduate admissions, written by Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist, Justice O'Connor rejected Michigan's blatantly exclusionary policy of awarding extra admission points to racial or ethnic groups that the university viewed as underrepresented.
Justice O'Connor properly regretted the university's "deviation from the norm of equal treatment of all racial and ethnic groups." But she also properly endorsed the military officers who explained in their friend-of-the-court brief in support of the university that considerations of race have become not only important but crucial to building an effective officer corps since the 1960s.
Indeed, as our military's performance in both Iraq wars has shown, our fighting men and women never have been better educated or otherwise more qualified than they are today. Yet it would be hard to argue that America has not become a better country since the early 1970s when a conservative president, Richard Nixon, signed the first affirmative action regime into law by executive order.
It also would be laughable, were it not so tragic, that Justice Antonin Scalia in his dissent mocks the notion that Michigan has a "compelling state interest" in fostering diversity. Michigan and other states certainly do have a compelling interest in breaching historic divides of race and class. Taxpayer-supported universities have a similarly compelling interest in educating as broad of an array of the state's constituents as possible.
As with abortion, gun control and other hot-button political issues, each side in the affirmative action debate can make a legitimate claim to moral virtue. But neither has a monopoly on it.
Maybe we could achieve the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s dream by trying to pretend that race does not exist, as some affirmative action opponents propose. Justice O'Connor's decision wisely recognizes that we will get there more quickly by taking race fully into account.
Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing newspaper. His column appears Fridays in The Sun. He can be reached via e-mail at email@example.com.