Supporters of affirmative action in the United States were yesterday dealt a heavy blow by two Supreme Court rulings that can only strengthen the political campaign to do away with federal programmes designed to protect blacks and other racial minorities. They may also portend a broader reshaping of US civil-rights laws.
In the first case, regarded as a crucial test by affirmative- action friends and foe alike, the court sided with a white Colorado businessman who claimed he had been a victim of reverse discrimination when he lost a federal roadbuilding contract to a minority-owned company, despite an lower initial bid.
Overturning a lower-court dismissal of the complaint, the court declared that henceforth affirmative-action schemes at all levels of government should be subject to "strict scrutiny"- that is, used only in specific instances to counter clear cases of discrimination. That has long been the guideline for state and local programmes. It will now apply to federal laws, traditionally broader and more symbolic.
In a second ruling the justices, by a 5-4 margin, sided with the state of Missouri in a desegregation battle, deciding a lower federal court had exceeded its authority when it told Kansas City it had to continue a desegregation plan until student standards had reached the national average. Here, too, the court was saying measures against past school segregation had done as much as could be expected; to extend them risked distorting the system.
Far more important than their direct impact on the cases in question was the broader message on the future of affirmative action - an issue that contributed to the Republican sweep of Congress in November and which is bound to feature in the 1996 presidential contest.
The celebrated "white male anger" that helped to fuel the Republican victory was largely a product of resentment at programmes held to discriminate unfairly against whites. Nowhere is the movement stronger than California, where a proposal to eliminate such programmes is likely to be on the ballot next year.
No one, though, was scrutinising yesterday's rulings more closely than the White House. Only too aware of the growing hostility to affirmative action, President Bill Clinton ordered a review of federal programmes four months ago. But release of the findings has been delayed, in the hope that the Supreme Court might help Democrats off the horns of a political dilemma.
To scrap the bulk of existing schemes would cause outrage among blacks, the Democrats' most loyal constituency; to come out squarely behind affirmative action, however, would dent Mr Clinton's chances of retaining white middle- class votes, essential to win a second term.
Affirmative action, in short, is a dream "wedge issue" for Republicans.