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Compromise best on race issues

When the Gallup Poll asked Americans in July 1964 to identify the top challenge facing the country, 60 percent named racial issues. In the summer of 2012, 1 percent picked race.

Obviously, these findings reflect the great distance the United States has traveled. In the current issue of the magazine the American Interest, Walter Russell Mead credits a post-civil rights “Compromise of 1977,” encompassing such policies as race-conscious university admissions and the Voting Rights Act, which helped build a black middle class and boost minority representation in government.

Yet by the summer of 2013, that compromise could be shaken and race could once again roil American politics. The Supreme Court is poised to take up race-conscious admissions and a key provision of the Voting Rights Act. Five conservative-leaning justices are skeptics of both.

So it’s worth recalling that these policies have lasted as long as they have because of compromises – in which Republicans played a crucial part.

In 1977, white applicant Allan Bakke asked the Supreme Court to strike down a University of California program that awarded a fixed number of spots in medical school to blacks and other historically disadvantaged minorities.

Justice Lewis Powell crafted an opinion that forbade quotas while permitting schools to take individuals’ race into account for “diversity.”

Powell’s amorphous rule satisfied neither civil rights advocates nor critics. But it proved workable – increasingly so as prosperity lessened students’ sense that admission is a zero-sum contest. Asked to overturn Powell’s ruling in 2003, the Supreme Court sustained it.

In 1982, Congress considered an extension of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. The debate pitted a rising conservative movement against liberal civil rights organizations determined to expand the law’s scope.

Congress approved a Powell-like standard, barring proportional representation but taking account of “the extent to which members of the minority group have been elected to public office in the jurisdiction.” The architect of the compromise was then-Sen. Robert Dole, Republican of Kansas.

Subsequent history has shown the benefits and defects of each compromise.

Between 1976 and 2010, the black share of college enrollment rose from 9.4 percent to 14.5 percent. The number of black elected officials rose ninefold nationwide between 1970 and 2000; Deep South states have made the most progress. This is revolutionary.

Still, using race as “one factor” has often become a euphemism for using it as the decisive factor. That understandably rubs many Americans the wrong way, especially in a multiethnic society. And access is not the same as success: Black college students graduate at about half the rate of whites.

Race-conscious gerrymandering arguably fuels political polarization, in that it encourages the two parties to split the electorate into white and minority districts, then to pitch them mutually exclusive policies. It’s not clear that minorities have more power as the dominant group in a non-competitive district or as the swing vote in a competitive one.

It’s in the nature of constitutional litigation for each side in these cases to play down such nuances. Each wants the court to rule clearly and unequivocally in its favor.

I would agree – if I were equally confident that the rights and wrongs could be so readily defined, constitutionally or otherwise. But we still need practicality and compromise. We need the realism, and wisdom, of Powell and Dole.

Charles Lane is a columnist for the Washington Post.