Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, as the swing ideologue on a much-divided Supreme Court, cast the deciding vote in the University of Michigan Law School decision that - for now - allows racial preferences in the long and difficult cause of achieving racial equality nationwide.
Writing perhaps as much about her role as the first woman on the court as for the majority, she stated: "In order to cultivate a set of leaders with legitimacy in the eyes of the citizenry, it is necessary that the path to leadership be visibly open to talented and qualified individuals of every race and ethnicity."
But in the majority opinion, she all but admitted the clock is ticking on how long the court and the Constitution can tolerate the use of racial preferences, even when not done in a "mechanical" way by the numbers. (The court rejected the quota-like way of Michigan's undergraduate affirmative-action admissions.)
"We expect that 25 years from now, the use of racial preferences will no longer be necessary to further an interest" in student body diversity in higher education, Ms. O'Connor wrote. In other words: Suffer it to be so now.
The decision is another example of the court's role in guiding the nation out of racial segregation (Brown v. Board of Education, 1954) toward a more understanding society free of stereotypes.
As O'Connor wrote: "Effective participation by members of all racial and ethnic groups in the civic life of our Nation is essential if the dream of one Nation, indivisible, is to be realized."
This decision will force institutions seeking to hire or promote minorities to avoid stereotyping and look at each individual in a "highly individual, holistic" review, letting race be only one element in their decisions. The vagueness of such an approach, however, could open the way for more challenges in court.
And the decision leaves open the question of when an institution has reached a "critical mass" of minorities through careful use of racial preferences. Again, a future court case might see quotas at work in how "critical mass" is interpreted.
Still, by placing both legal limits and a time limit on the use of racial preferences, the Supreme Court defines a clearer path for a nation still struggling to reduce racial divisions.