Thirty years ago this past week, Supreme Court Justice Lewis F. Powell Jr. condemned our nation's selective colleges and universities to live a lie.
Writing the deciding opinion in the case Regents of the University of California v. Bakke, he prompted these institutions to justify their use of racial preferences in admissions with a rationale most had never considered and still do not believe – a desire to offer a better education to all students.
To this day, few colleges have even tried to establish that their race-conscious admissions policies yield broad educational benefits.
The research is so fuzzy and methodologically weak that some strident proponents of affirmative action admit that social science is not on their side.
In reality, colleges profess a deep belief in the educational benefits of their affirmative-action policies mainly to save their necks. They know that, if the truth came out, courts could find them guilty of illegal discrimination against white and Asian Americans.
Selective colleges began lowering the bar for minority applicants back in the late 1960s to promote social justice and help keep the peace. They felt an obligation to help remedy society's racial discrimination, even if they generally weren't willing to acknowledge their own. And with riots devastating the nation's big cities, they saw a need to send black America a clear signal that the establishment it was rebelling against was in fact open to it – and that getting a good college education, not violence, represented the best path to wealth and power.