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(CNN) —  

Pull yourself up by your bootstraps.

No leg up or handouts in America.

Why take a spot away from a more deserving student?

Those phrases are part of the rhetorical toolkit opponents of affirmative action have long used to attack the policy. But defenders of using racial preferences in college admissions now have a new response to complaints that undeserving black and brown students are getting help:

What about the college cheating scandal?

The outrage over the scam laid out by federal prosecutors has opened a new battleground in the affirmative action war. Opponents of the policy say the allegations bolster their arguments that elite colleges can’t be trusted to vet students impartially. Defenders of racial preferences say, “There’s a lot more kids at elite colleges because their parents are rich than because they’re brown or black.”

Looming behind this debate is a big question that may take years to answer:

Could revelations from the cheating scandal actually save affirmative action, if and when the US Supreme Court takes up the issue again?

So far, there’s little indication to think the scheme uncovered by the feds could sway the court’s conservative majority – which has been shaped by a legal movement long opposed to affirmative action.

Some affirmative action critics, when asked why preferential treatment for racial minorities is wrong but giving a leg up to wealthy students, children of donors and legacy admissions is OK, say both are dubious.

Whether an unqualified student gets into college from the “racial preference pool” or the “celebrities-and-cheaters pool,” it’s not right, says Walter Olson, a senior fellow at the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank in Washington.

“If racial preference is unjust, then it doesn’t magically become just because people notice some other injustice that has different beneficiaries,” Olson says. “Two things can be unjust at the same time, and two injustices do not add up to one justice.”

‘The whole system is rigged, you guys’

At first glance, the admissions scam seems to have little to do with affirmative action. The allegations revolve around the abuse of wealth, Hollywood celebrity and brazen acts of deception. Federal investigators say 50 people took part in a scheme that involved cheating on standardized tests and bribing college coaches and school officials to accept students as college athletes regardless of their abilities.

Actresses Lori Loughlin and Felicity Huffman are among the dozens of parents facing federal charges. Others charged include nine coaches at elite schools. Most of the faces of the scandal are white, wealthy and well-connected.

But the scam strays into the affirmative action minefield because it raises questions that have long driven the debate over racial preferences: What’s the difference between a deserving or undeserving college student? When is preferential treatment justified, and when is it wrong? Should there be a level playing field for all students?

People are already answering those questions by filtering them through the lens of the college admissions scam.

Some supporters of affirmative action cite the scandal as evidence that the real scam in college admissions is how wealthy white parents game the system from cradle to campus.

“The college admissions scandal just made affirmative action complaints look completely ridiculous,” reads the headline of a recent Esquire column by Charles Pierce.

“Legacy admissions are affirmative action for the rich,” reads the headline of an article by Jeni