Will Republicans Exploit College Admissions Case?

As you probably know, the U.S. Supreme Court is hearing oral arguments today in a case that many have predicted will produce a judicial ban, or at least major new restrictions, on race-based admissions policies for colleges and universities. To make a long story short, a white student rejected by the University of Texas Law School as part of a secondary pool of applicants competing on criteria in which race was one of many factors is asking the Court to ban race-conscious admissions policies–however secondary–altogether. And this is on a Court with three members who were part of the dissenting minority in a 2003 case narrowly upholding use of race as “one factor” in college admissions, and led by a Chief Justice who once famously said of all race-conscious remedies for discrimination: “The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.”

And so, as is often the situation, it’s expected the decision will turn on the unpredictable views of Justice Anthony Kennedy, who’s said in the context of K-12 desegregation efforts that racially classifying students may be constitutionally permissible if it’s a “last resort.” So his questions and comments during oral arguments will be watched and interpreted closely by the Kremlinologists of the High Court.

But much as this case could prove to be a judicial landmark, I’m interested in its potential political significance, right here, right now. With the presidential contest tightening, and Republicans focusing more intently than ever on white non-college-educated low-information undecided voters, it’s got to be tempting to inject this case and its racial content like a toxin directly into the bloodstream of Campaign 2012. The pretext, if any is needed, is that the Obama Justice Department has filed an amicus brief fully supporting the University of Texas and its current admissions policies.

I suggested week before last that exploitation of this case could represent an “October Surprise” for Republicans. That’s still the case, even if the GOP’s electoral situation is a bit less perilous than it was when I expressed this concern. As everyone is watching the Court today, it’s worth watching the major political actors–and particularly conservative media–as well.

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Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.