Race is back in the public eye.

The California Senate has sent a bill to the Assembly to permit California's public universities to once again consider race and ethnicity in admissions. Although that bill is likely to die in the Assembly, largely because of a backlash from Chinese-American parents who fear it will make it harder for their children to get into UC schools, the dilemma facing Californians regarding racial preferences is ongoing. What's more, Californians' questions about race mirror the nation's.

A Gallup Poll last July found that 67 percent of Americans believe that college admissions applicants should be admitted solely on the basis of merit.

However, the seemingly straightforward condemnation of current university policies at selective institutions that do consider race masks a fundamental problem with the Gallup survey.

That problem is highlighted by the poll also finding that even though Americans largely reject the idea of using race as a factor in college admissions, 58 percent still support affirmative action programs more generally.

One explanation for the poll results is that respondents were hamstrung because the pollsters reduced the term "merit" to an irreducible objective quality. But merit is multifaceted and often rests subjectively in the eyes of the gatekeepers.

Is winning a prestigious science award more meritorious than writing and publishing a book of poetry, for example? Should it matter that a university has already accepted several book authors but has only one applicant that medaled in the science contest?

College admissions is not a black-or-white decision-making process in which admissions officers solely consider either race or merit.

While it is possible to eliminate considerations of race at universities, as California and several other states have done, the concept of merit is both amorphous and fluid.

To suggest that eliminating race from admissions criteria results in selections made exclusively according to an individual's merit misrepresents that concept as wholly objective.

Besides the difficulty with parsing the term "merit," there are admissions preferences extended to applicants unrelated to a school's academic bottom line.

The most selective UC schools -- for example, Berkeley and UCLA -- recruit student athletes and accomplished performers in the arts. I worked at a high school that offered exotic sports like lacrosse and crew, allowing our students admissions opportunities unavailable to most California kids.

No one should be fooled into thinking that eliminating race has resulted in an objective meritocratic system.

Last June the U.S. Supreme Court reaffirmed earlier decisions allowing race to be one factor in admissions when no workable race-neutral alternatives produce the educational benefits of diversity.

When race is left entirely out of the diversity equation, as it has been in California since the passage of Proposition 209 in 1996, universities become less diverse and more dependent upon other subjective factors.

California should reinstitute affirmative action.

Patrick Mattimore is a California attorney and former high school teacher who served on the faculty/student admissions committee at the University of California/Hastings College of the Law. He is a currently a resident of Thailand.