the Beacon Journal editorial board

Affirmative action seeks to compensate to lesser and greater degrees for centuries of slavery, Jim Crow and other forms of discrimination against black Americans. It doesn’t call for tipping the scales unfairly or unjustly in their direction. It aims to provide opportunities long and cruelly denied — with the right idea that the country is stronger when it embraces diversity.

Worth adding is that this country is just six decades beyond the landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision of the U.S. Supreme Court, and five decades from the enactment of sweeping civil rights legislation. It is going to take considerable time to unravel and repair the destructive legacy of slavery and prejudice.

The Supreme Court has taken up affirmative action on several occasions, notably in 2003, when a majority upheld college admissions policies that consider race as one factor among many in making selections. On Thursday, the court, by a 4-3 vote, reaffirmed the idea in an important way.

Writing for the majority, Justice Anthony Kennedy argued that universities must be permitted sufficient room in designing their admissions programs. That is, in large part, he reasoned, because of “those intangible characteristics, like student body diversity, that are central to its identity and educational mission.” What is required is diligence in fitting “the pursuit of diversity” into a broader commitment to equality and dignity.

The case dealt with the admissions policies at the University of Texas. One aspect is the Top 10 Percent program, guaranteeing admission to top students in every high school across the state. Because the high schools are segregated for the most part, the program advances diversity at the university. The question before the justices was whether the university was in right in concluding that this result wasn’t enough.

The university added to its pursuit of diversity by making race one factor in weighing the admission of additional students. What Justice Kennedy recognized is that the court hardly could strike down the second element because the Top 10 Percent program clearly takes race into account in view of the segregation at work.

In dissent, Justice Samuel Alito denounced the majority, declaring the outcome affirmative action “gone beserk.” Actually, this ruling has been achieved carefully and deliberately. An earlier iteration of this case found a federal appeals court looking closely to see whether the second element of race serving as a factor was necessary to achieve the university’s objectives of diversity. The high court now has concluded that it is.

Justice Kennedy reminded that public universities often are described as “laboratories of experimentation.” They are no less so in seeking to address something as pernicious as racial prejudice. With so many factors at play in the admissions process, from athletics to legacies to geography, there surely is room to consider race, the country still burdened by the consequences of past actions.