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DN Editorial: Mad men

Retro court. Retro country? Whatever happened to the '60s?

AFTER Tuesday's Supreme Court decision on affirmative action, we have a better idea why "Mad Men" is such a popular TV show.

The series, set in the '60s, doesn't strike a note of nostalgia for the fashions, the glamour or the incessant smoking, but for the period in the country when actual progress was being made.

Consider some of the milestones of the '60s: the court's Brown v. Board of Education decision, which prohibited segregated schools; the Civil Rights Act that outlawed discrimination; the enforcement of affirmative action for the first time; the Voting Rights Act; and the war on poverty, to name just a few.

It was a time of high ideals and strong leaders who pushed the country to reach for racial, social, civic and financial equality.

Which our retro Supreme Court seems determined to undo.

Tuesday's decision struck down a Michigan ballot passed by voters that banned the consideration of race on college acceptance. The court didn't ban affirmative action. It said that it's not a protected right, but a political choice. If voters in states want to ban it, that's OK. The decision read in part:

"The mandate for segregated schools, Brown v. Board of Education, and scores of other examples teach that individual liberty has constitutional protection. But this Nation's constitutional system also embraces the right of citizens to speak and debate and learn and then, as a matter of political will . . . to act through a lawful electoral process, as Michigan voters have done."

In other words, it appears that voters can trump individual liberty.

Eight states have already banned racial preferences in college admissions, including California, Texas, Florida and Washington. The high court apparently didn't read the studies about how Hispanic and black enrollment has declined in state universities in the majority of those states. Or worse: It did, but decided that states could still ban racial preferences.

When the justices rolled back parts of the Voting Rights Act, states immediately moved to put up barriers to voting. It's sickening to think that more states could do the same with college admissions, especially in the year that will celebrate the 60th anniversary of Brown v. Board of Education.

One of the underlying tenets of that decision was that education is at the crux of equality. Affirmative action attempts to make education more accessible by leveling the playing field for those who arrive at the college admissions process socially and educationally disadvantaged against their more privileged peers.

Justice Sonia Sotomayor read a strong dissent of the decision. But equally eloquent on the subject was Lyndon Johnson, in a speech delivered in those glory days of 1965:

"You do not take a person who, for years, has been hobbled by chains and liberate him, bring him up to the starting line of a race and then say, 'You are free to compete with all the others,' and still justly believe that you have been completely fair. Thus it is not enough just to open the gates of opportunity. All our citizens must have the ability to walk through those gates."