When news broke that the Justice Department plans to investigate whether university affirmative action policies discriminate against white people, it hit late night comedians like a ball of catnip landing in a room full of kittens.
Particularly excited was "The Daily Show's" mixed-race host Trevor Noah. To the notion that white people might have it worse than black people, he asked sarcastically: "Where? In the sun?"
"Finally!" he exclaimed. "You know how many times I go to colleges in America and say, 'Hey, where's all the white people?' If American colleges were any whiter, Jon Snow" -- a character on HBO's "Game of Thrones" -- "would build a wall to protect us from them."
But, alas, nothing kills satire like complications. On Wednesday, a Justice Department spokesman said the investigation would be narrowly tailored to a single complaint filed in 2015 that accuses Harvard's undergraduate admissions process of discriminating not against whites as much as against Asian-Americans.
On average, the complaint alleges, Asian students have to have SAT scores 140 points higher than white students, 270 points higher than Hispanics and 450 points higher than black students to be admitted.
That's the sort of complication that kills the laugh in late-night humor for a lot of people, especially those who fear the possibility of what conservative critics have long called "reverse discrimination." It's only fair that DOJ look into possible discrimination by race, regardless of the race of the alleged victims.
However, having covered this issue for more than 30 years, I also know that college admissions rely on more than grades and aptitude test scores.
I also know that the sort of program that comes to many and, perhaps, most American minds when they hear "affirmative action" actually died years ago. It has since been replaced by something so much more pleasant-sounding as to seem downright patriotic.
It's called "diversity."
The new era began with the double-pronged 1978 decision in white applicant Allan Bakke's case against the University of California, Davis. That decision struck down the use of hard numerical racial quotas but upheld taking race into account as only one of several factors for consideration to improve diversity.
That diversity standard has since been upheld in various forms by the high court's 2003 decision in the Grutter v. Bollinger case and again last year in the case brought by Abigail Fischer, a white woman, against the University of Texas at Austin.
At the same time, more than a third of the country's population lives in states like California, Florida and Michigan that have banned race-conscious admissions in state universities in recent years. Yet all American colleges continue to seek "diversity," and they have been allowed to do so, as long as their selection process can withstand court scrutiny.
It is also important to remember that affirmative action only applies to the nation's most selective schools. At most colleges and universities, a diverse array of applicants shows up and is admitted on its own.
Now the diversity standard is being put to the test again. After decades of debate and very close Supreme Court decisions, Asians frequently have been mentioned alongside whites as possibly being penalized by affirmative action policies. Yet studies have shown the fraction of whites and Asians who might be penalized was small enough to pass court scrutiny.
But with the new court, it is easier to speculate on the political impact of this issue than the legal outcome. Although President Donald Trump has supported each side of this debate at various times, he did not campaign on it. Attorney General Jeff Sessions, by contrast, has been so conservative as to give the department's civil rights division whiplash in reversing its leftward tilt in President Barack Obama's years.
The larger question politically is how much do voters really care. After a presidential campaign cycle that saw a surprising revolt by working-class white voters against elites, it seems like a nostalgic blast from the past to be arguing about discrimination in admissions to selective colleges.
The best outcome ultimately would open up more opportunities for students, regardless of race, who are disadvantaged by income and struggling public schools. That's the sort of affirmative action that I think every American of good will wants, even when good will seems hard to find.
(E-mail Clarence Page at email@example.com.)(c) 2017 CLARENCE PAGE DISTRIBUTED BY TRIBUNE MEDIA SERVICES, INC.