Turning back the clock?

The best that can be said for the Supreme Court's ruling on affirmative action in college admissions is that it did not immediately and totally ban the practice. But the decision to send a University of Texas at Austin case back to the appeals court from which it came with instructions that the circumstances be scrutinized more closely certainly suggests that the justices are dubious about the continued need for the policy.

That's hardly an encouraging sign as the court readies for a ruling in a case on whether a critical section of the Voting Rights Act — one that requires certain Southern states to have changes in voting law screened by the U.S. Department of Justice — is not constitutional after nearly five decades in use (and despite unsuccessful legal challenges in the past). Based on the justices' questioning when the case was argued — admittedly, an imperfect predictor of how the court will rule — the odds of Section 5's survival look slim.


In sum, this looks to be the week when the Supreme Court renders its verdict on where race relations in this country stand. Does the court believe that the United States is truly in a post-racial phase, or is it entering a post-post-racial time with tensions just as high as ever but being expressed in quite different ways? Does the election and re-election of an African American president mean we have finally moved beyond these centuries-old frictions, or are they merely less obvious?

As the justices ponder these questions, they might do well to switch their sets from C-SPAN and CNN to the Food Network to observe what has happened in the week since celebrity chef Paula Deen was accused of fostering a hostile work environment, using a racial slur and once planning a plantation-theme wedding with all black waiters. Despite a public apology, the Food Network announced she will shortly be dropped from their lineup, and now loyal fans are outraged and rising to her defense, threatening to boycott the cable network.


As weighty as the court's opinions on race may be, they likely won't capture the public's ambivalence on race relations — and the divide that continues to exist on the subject — quite like the uproar over Ms. Deen, the 66-year-old celebrity chef from Georgia previously known for her bubbly personality, down-home cooking and affection for butter and other high-fat ingredients. She has been criticized on this page and elsewhere for not embracing healthier approaches to cooking, particularly after it was revealed that she suffers from diabetes.

But that uproar last year was nothing compared to the outpouring that accompanied the recent revelations contained in a lawsuit filed by a former employee who claimed, among other things, that Ms. Deen used the n-word in casual conversation. Her network's choice not to renew her contract at the end of this month seemed fairly routine, considering the chef's high public profile and the bad press she has garnered.

But the backlash in support of Ms. Deen has been impressive, with long lines forming outside her restaurant in Savannah and a fan base rising in her defense in social media. Interestingly, part of that defense — and an observation made by the woman worth a reported $17 million herself in a series of apologies — is that she is a victim of her upbringing.

All of which begs the question, has the South, as well as the rest of the country, changed, or hasn't it? The Supreme Court appears to be operating under the assumption that it has — and that it's time for the legal standards to evolve in reaction to this social progress.

The high court's decision in the University of Texas case can hardly be seen as a victory for those advocating greater diversity on campuses. While it's not an outright reversal of previous rulings like the landmark 2003 University of Michigan case, the court's stricter standard at the very least puts greater pressure on schools to achieve diversity through "race-neutral" alternatives.

The pending Voting Rights Act decision could prove more far reaching. Should the court decide in Shelby County v. Holder that Section 5 protections are no longer needed, one could easily imagine a number of states moving forward with discriminatory voting laws — from burdensome ID requirements to drawing voting districts that marginalize minorities.

Without the pre-clearance provision, states may adopt discriminatory policies first and allow questions to be asked later. In other words, they'll put them on the books and put the burden on minorities and the civil rights community to challenge them in court, a process that can take years and allow flawed election results to stand.

Yet the case of Paul Deen suggests that sensibilities that made the Voting Rights Act and affirmative action necessary remain deeply ingrained. Some people have surely changed, many haven't.


When Justice Sandra Day O'Connor wrote the majority opinion in Grutter v. Bollinger, the case that supported the University of Michigan Law School's affirmative action program, she observed that racial preferences may no longer be necessary in a quarter-century. A decade later, the country appears to be backsliding prematurely.