WASHINGTON — President Barack Obama said Thursday the Supreme Court is "moving the ball" to limit affirmative action, but he stressed that its ruling in favor of white firefighters still allows employers and educators to take race into account in hiring, promotions and admissions.
The president, a former constitutional law professor, avoided criticizing this week's 5-4 ruling even though it reversed a decision his own high court nominee, Sonia Sotomayor, had endorsed as an appeals court judge.
"This was a very narrow case, so it's hard to gauge where they will take it," Obama said in an interview with The Associated Press. The justices sidestepped a broad constitutional ruling on remedies for racial disparities and instead merely told public and private employers they could not easily discard promotion exams just because the results left no African-Americans likely to be promoted.
As a senator, Obama voted against confirming two justices in the majority in the firefighters case: Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito, the two nominees of President George W. Bush.
Obama was critical of the process that New Haven, Conn., used to administer promotion exams and then toss them aside because of the racially skewed results.
The president said the city might have prevailed if it "had thought through how it was going to approach the issue ahead of time and said, 'We think merit and highly qualified firefighters are absolutely important. That doesn't contradict our desire to make sure that there is diversity in a city that's 60 percent black and Hispanic. Let's design promotion approaches that reconcile those two things.'"
Instead, Obama said, "I think what people instinctively, probably, reacted to on that particular case had more to do with the fact that the people that studied for those tests already had a set of expectations that were thwarted."
Critics of racial preferences have argued that Obama's election demonstrates that affirmative action is no longer necessary. But the president noted that "the Supreme Court didn't close the door to affirmative action, if properly structured."
He said such programs have not been nearly as helpful to minorities or damaging to whites as they have been portrayed.
"Crude quotas" are unnecessary and constitutionally impermissible, he said. But, "I do think that there are still circumstances in which on a college admissions or on a hiring decision, taking into account issues of past discrimination or taking into account issues of diversity of a workforce or a student body can still be appropriate," the president said.