WHEN JUSTICE Sandra Day O’Connor gave affirmative action a 25-year reprieve, it seemed like more than enough time. Surely after another quarter-century of progress in racial relations, “the use of racial preferences,” as Justice O’Connor wrote, “will no longer be necessary.”

That was 11 years ago. Given the loathsome racism exposed in the past few days, it’s harder to be sanguine about that quarter-century. First it was Nevada rancher Cliven Bundy, whose lawbreaking was being celebrated by Republican senators Rand Paul (Ky.) and Dean Heller (Nev.) until Mr. Bundy began extolling the virtues of slavery for African Americans.

Then came the taped remarks ostensibly of basketball team owner Donald Sterling chastising his girlfriend for associating with African Americans: “It bothers me a lot that you want to broadcast that you’re associating with black people. Do you have to?” In a curious response, Mr. Sterling and his Los Angeles Clippers organization said they “do not know” if the tape is “legitimate” but that Mr. Sterling “feels terrible that such sentiments are being attributed to him.” As Post columnist Sally Jenkins and others have pointed out, this is not the first time that offensive comments have been “attributed to” Mr. Sterling.

Whenever such ugly sentiments surface, many white Americans who like to think that the country has moved beyond rank racism profess astonishment. Many black Americans see in that astonishment proof of the obtuseness, willful or otherwise, that prevents whites from acknowledging the obstacles African Americans still face. Optimists in this case might note that Mr. Bundy (age 67) and Mr. Sterling (80) are of a generation that Justice O’Connor expected would be gone from the scene by her deadline. Yet even optimists have to be dispirited by the revelation of such casually accepted racism.

Two data points don’t prove Justice O’Connor wrong, nor do they make a definitive case for or against affirmative action. They do, however, take us back to the rationale for diversity that Justice O’Connor was defending in 2003. To consign Bundy-style ignorance to history, the country needs younger people of all races interacting, including in law schools (the subject of the 2003 case) and other educational venues.

As the justice wrote then, in Grutter v. Bollinger: “The Law School does not premise its need for critical mass on ‘any belief that minority students always (or even consistently) express some characteristic minority viewpoint on any issue.’ To the contrary, diminishing the force of such stereotypes is both a crucial part of the Law School’s mission, and one that it cannot accomplish with only token numbers of minority students. Just as growing up in a particular region or having particular professional experiences is likely to affect an individual’s views, so too is one’s own, unique experience of being a racial minority in a society, like our own, in which race unfortunately still matters.”

Only 14 years to go, and Justice O’Connor’s observation seems no less true.

Read more about this issue:

Eugene Robinson: The racists among us

Kathleen Parker: Erasing the race card

Ed RogersL Ignore the Bundy sideshow and focus on the issues

Jonathan Capehart: Cring-worthy moments in race

Dana Milbank: Bundy saga reveals the risk of cozying up to extremists

Jonathan Capehart: Bundy, Sterling and a ‘nation of cowards’