THE EFFECT of the six opinions produced by the Supreme Court in the Bakke case is remarkable: Everybody won. Mr. Bakke gets into medical school. Those who supported him have made their basic point: Special admissions programs to colleges and graduate schools cannot be based solely upon race. On the other side, the University of California gets a chance to revise its special admissions program. And those who supported the university have also won a point: Those programs can still be used to increase minority representation in student bodies as long as factors in addition to race are involved in them.
That is about as satisfactory an outcome to an unusually complex case as we can imagine. Its puts college and graduate-school admissions programs in their proper perspective. Those schools that want a diverse student body - and that is what most of them should want these days - can have it. They can give added points in the selection process to applicants because of their race just as they give added points to applicants because they are athletes, musicians, children of alumni, artists, poor, rich or residents of places from which few applications come. They are barred only from treating individuals who want to be students as racial statistics.
This, no doubt, will be seen by some as a subterfuge that will permit schools to reach, by means of a sophisticated selection process, the same result they would have reached if they had set aside a specific number of slots for minority applicants. That may happen in some instances. But we agree with Justice Lewis F. Powell that schools will try in good faith to meet his holding that the Constitution is not violated by an admissions program "where race or ethnic background is simply one element - to be weighed fairly against other elements - in the selection process." In any event, we think that boundary line, tenuous as it may be, is better than one that either specifically authorizes or bars race as a basis for selection.
It is important to keep in mind, however, that this logic is totally acceptable to only one member of the court: Justice Lewis F. Powell. Four justices voted to permit the use of race as the prime factor in the selection process. Four others said such a system violates the civil-rights laws. Justice Powell came down in-between, permitting consideration of race, but only among other criteria - which is a test the University of California's plan did not meet.
This split on the court leaves undecided the fundamental question raised by the Bakke case: the extent to which the government can consider race in making decisions that help a particular group. That permits some doubts about how the court will handle future cases involving affirmative-action programs in areas other than education. Our guess, based on the views set out in the six opinions, is that the present membership of the court will find ways to uphold most of them, including all of those that have been created to remedy prior discriminatory practices.
This indecisiveness by the court is neither surprising nor distressing. The basic issue is difficult, and the court's prior decisions do point in different directions. It may be too early now in the nation's history to have the question resolved.After all, it was less than 25 years ago that the court seriously began to remove racial discrimination against minorities. The danger now is that in attempting to redress that long era of discrimination, the wheel will turn so far in favor of using race to give preference to those who were previously harmed that it will never disappear, as it ultimately should, as a factor in decisions.
Perhaps the most useful aspect - at the moment - of the position taken by Justice Powell, and thus in practical terms by the court, is its soothing effect. Special admissions programs based solely on race are perceived by the general public as unfair regardless of their constitutional validity. That is why the Bakke case, despite all its complexities, became a cause celebre . By resolving the case they way it has, the court has removed the element that appeared unfair without disturbing the foundation on which can be built genuine special admissions programs that work to benefit both black and white students.