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It may be time to say farewell to affirmative action in higher education admissions and to the aspirations that went with it.

In October, the U.S. Supreme Court will hear arguments in Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin, a case challenging the sliver of consideration the university gives to race and ethnicity when deciding whom to admit. It is already being billed as “the case that killed affirmative action.”

That may prove true, as the make-up of the Supreme Court has changed considerably since the last time it looked at this heated issue in 2003. Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, now retired, wrote the majority 5-4 ruling in Grutter v. Bollinger, upholding the University of Michigan Law School’s policy of considering race in conjunction with other factors for admissions.

O’Connor famously opined that “25 years from now, the use of racial preferences will no longer be necessary to further the interest approved today.”

She was 16 years off in that prediction. The court may simply forbid race as a consideration for both state universities and private ones that accept federal funds.

Texas automatically accepts the top 10 percent of each of its high schools’ graduating classes. Given the state’s many high schools that are de facto segregated by race, this guarantees a certain measure of diversity. Applicants not in the top 10 percent are selected based on other factors, one of which is race (but only in conjunction with other factors, following Grutter).

Abigail Fisher didn’t make the 10 percent cut. Nor was she admitted based on other criteria. She sued, arguing she was denied admission because of her race.

By pursuing her case, Fisher and her lawyers are in effect alleging that she was more deserving than at least one non-white student admitted to the university. Indeed, the subtext of the backlash against affirmative action and “diversity” is that the white student is always more deserving.

But what do we mean by “deserving”?

Colleges often weigh race-neutral factors such as socio-economic status, whether a student is the first in their family to attend college, or whether the family moved often during the student’s formative years. Low-income white students from rural areas often benefit equally from such considerations.

How should an admissions committee weigh the academic potential of a child who took tough college-prep coursework and earned a 3.5 GPA against the student who worked a part-time job throughout high school, managed a 3.0 GPA in semi-rigorous school work, did community service and also lettered in one sport?

Who “deserves” the slot in the freshman class more? Who might be the more diligent student? Who will add to the experiences of other students by their unique background?

America’s public colleges and universities, after all, are simply reflections of the quality of the nation’s school districts. Hispanic, black and Native American students statistically fare worse in elementary and secondary schools, and are often racially isolated in low-income areas. No Child Left Behind has made that case eminently clear with endless data on standardized test performance.

Those same minority students also make up 39 percent of the current K-12 population. They are a large proportion of the future workforce, and the pressing problem we face is extending educational opportunities to them so they can be productive and prosperous.

Affirmative action was meant to be a way to right old wrongs. “Diversity” is a more recent rationale.

An interesting footnote is that the man credited with coining the slogan “A mind is a terrible thing to waste” is also known as the father of affirmative action. Arthur Fletcher was a Republican who served under Nixon, Ford, Reagan and George H.W. Bush. He decried the divisive attitudes that came to surround affirmative action.

Fletcher simply wanted to address the inequities that resulted from generations of legalized segregation and accepted discrimination. He helped fund the famous Brown v. Board of Education desegregation case. Segregation ended, but the inequities persist.

Fletcher died in 2005, distressed that what he considered his legacy — educational opportunity for all — was in deep disarray. In 2003, he told me, “If they can keep us out of undergraduate and graduate schools, then they have robbed us of the one thing we need to make the system work for us, the opportunity to get an equal and advanced education.”

As the court takes up the Texas case, those concerns are as alive as ever.

(Mary Sanchez is an opinion-page columnist for The Kansas City Star. Readers may write to her at: Kansas City Star, 1729 Grand Blvd., Kansas City, Mo. 64108-1413, or via email at msanchez@kcstar.com.)

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Jeff Danziger lives in New York City. He is represented by CWS Syndicate and the Washington Post Writers Group. He is the recipient of the Herblock Prize and the Thomas Nast (Landau) Prize. He served in the US Army in Vietnam and was awarded the Bronze Star and the Air Medal. He has published eleven books of cartoons, a novel and a memoir. Visit him at DanzigerCartoons.

Doug Mastriano

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Doug Mastriano is a QAnon conspiracy theorist and January 6 insurrectionist who this week won the Republican nomination for Pennsylvania governor. Mastriano is also anti-Muslim: He previously shared an image with the words, “Stop Islam” and a post claiming that “the American People have a right to be fearful of the prospect of a large number of muslims being elected to congress, specifically if they practice Sharia law.”

In addition to running for governor, Mastriano is a Pennsylvania state senator, a right-wing commentator, and a frequent guest in right-wing media. He regularly pushes lies about the 2020 election being stolen from former President Donald Trump.

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