WASHINGTON - Race matters. Boil it down, and that's what the milestone Supreme Court rulings in the University of Michigan case reduce to, an acknowledgement of the obvious.
Not that the rulings were one-sided. As you surely know by now, justices struck down a formula that awarded a certain number of points toward undergraduate admission to applicants based upon race.
But at the same time, and to the relief of affirmative action advocates, the court affirmed that race can be taken into account in college admissions. There is, a majority of justices reasoned, a social benefit to be derived in fostering diversity in higher education, a benefit important enough to justify overriding the equal protection clause of the Constitution.
Predictably, Clarence Thomas was among the justices who disagreed. In a dissenting opinion, Justice Thomas, an ardent opponent of affirmative action and the only black on the court, repeated the oft-stated argument that racial preferences taint the achievements of racial minorities.
It's a myopic argument. The reasoning proceeds, after all, from the implicit assumption that skin color has played no role in the advancement of white males, that their predominance in "government, industry and academia" stems solely from their hard work, talent and skill. One has to be naive if not downright ignorant to believe that, to think that laws and customs designed to exclude blacks, Hispanics and women from the field of competition did not also play some small part in that success. White males have benefited from a de facto affirmative action for the entire 227 years of the American experiment.
It is important to remember that, for all the talk of affirmative action as a tool of diversity, its original mission was to redress years of systemic racism and sexism.
Had we been wiser at the point of conception, this might not be such a contentious issue now. Affirmative action would have, should have, come with a built-in expiration date - say, a generation or two, during which we would have worked to change the circumstances that made it necessary.
Unfortunately, we remain a society riven by "isms," racial and sexual. We are also a society in which some people use isms as an all-purpose excuse for failure. Not just failure to succeed, but also failure to try.
Take, for example, the low collective test scores of black students. You can argue that this academic incompetence is the byproduct of the negative, anti-intellectual self-image those kids are fed from birth, and I wouldn't disagree. But at the same time, we probably shouldn't be surprised to discover that the people who, statistically speaking, watch the most television do the worst in school.
You don't need the Supreme Court to fix that. But you do need to take ownership of the problem. Preferably sooner rather than later.
Because this will not, cannot, ought not, go on forever. Indeed, in writing in support of affirmative action, Justice Sandra Day O'Connor speculated upon a day, 25 years from now, when it might necessarily end. That ought not be seen as an obstacle, but a challenge, a spur to finally confront all the hindrances to minority achievement. Affirmative action is not an end unto itself, only an imperfect means. Its goal should be its own obsolescence.
Meaning not a nation where affirmative action no longer exists, but one where it no longer needs to.
Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for The Miami Herald. His column appears Sundays in The Sun. He can be reached via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or by calling toll-free at 1-888-251-4407.