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Column: A new challenge to affirmative action

SAN DIEGO -- Is it time to end affirmative action?

As you would expect from someone who has written about this subject for more than 25 years, my answer is nuanced.

If the goal of the program is to make amends for past injustice, then we should end it. Growing up Mexican-American in the Southwest in the 1940s and '50s, my parents routinely faced discrimination. But that should not entitle my own children, who are being raised in an upper-middle-class neighborhood, to a leg up when they apply to college. One has nothing to do with the other.

But if the goal of the program is to produce leaders who look like America in the 21st century, then we should ratchet it up. U.S. Census officials estimate that, in two decades, whites will be a statistical minority in the U.S. population. It would be self-defeating to educate mostly those people who look like the country that we used to be rather than the one we've become.

I support soft forms of affirmative action, such as outreach efforts or attempts to advertise in minority communities. But I oppose hard racial preferences, as when a university sets a numerical quota or puts minority applications in a separate pile. My opposition is based on the fact that the more aggressive forms of affirmative action hurt intended beneficiaries, but not because they amount to a systematic "reverse discrimination" against white people. That's not happening.

It would be nice to get some guidance from the Supreme Court, which is considering a case that challenges the admissions policies of the University of Texas at Austin.

That institution is no stranger to dustups over affirmative action. In the 1990s, Cheryl Hopwood successfully sued the University of Texas law school over its race-based admissions policy. In response the Legislature passed the "10 percent rule," which admits the top tenth of the graduating class of every high school in the state to achieve diversity without explicitly using race or ethnicity. After the Supreme Court ruled in 2003 that schools could take race into account as one factor in admissions, UT revised its procedures to consider race in admitting students who didn't make it into the top 10 percent.

This is the policy now under fire. Two white students who didn't get into the University of Texas as undergraduates in 2008 -- Abigail Fisher and Rachel Michalewicz -- are convinced that their race kept them out, since minority students who they consider less deserving were admitted.

The plaintiffs have a weak case. University officials make thousands of tough admissions choices each year. It's hard to know what led to the decision to not admit Fisher and Michalewicz, but we can assume that it wasn't the fact that they were white. Of the thousands of students offered admission that year, it's almost certain that most of them were white. Fisher and Michalewicz have to come to grips with the likelihood that they were simply outgunned by more stellar white candidates.

Nevertheless, court watchers predict that the justices -- some of them itching to do away with affirmative action -- will likely strike down the Texas policy. It'll be a victory for critics of the program who have been fighting it since most of the justices were old enough to go to college.

It's been more than 50 years since President John F. Kennedy signed Executive Order 10925, which required that U.S. government contractors take "affirmative action to ensure that applicants are employed, and that employees are treated during employment, without regard to their race, creed, color, or national origin." And in the decades since, the concept has become more controversial.

That is especially so when it comes to the touchy subject of college and university admissions. Students and parents dread going to the mailbox on spring days and finding letters that begin: "Thank you for your interest. But we regret to inform you ..." When those letters come, it hurts. And it helps to blame someone. Why not the Latino or African-American classmate who fared better in the admissions process?

Right about here, a good parent would resist the urge to feed his child's newfound victimhood. Instead, he should explain that life is full of failure and that we have to learn from it and press on. Or, if you're not up to that, mom and dad, you can always take the easy way out and hire a lawyer.

Speaking of failure.

Ruben Navarrette's e-mail address is