Contrary to what you may believe, the U.S. Supreme Court did not ban race-based affirmative action last week. According to the best reading of legal experts I’ve read, the Court ruled such programs ought to be decided by democratically elected accountable bodies and affirmative action is not constitutionally required. The ruling upholds Michigan’s ban on affirmative action and may mean other states will soon join the handful of states that also do so.
I was surprised to read about two-thirds of Americans support affirmative action. In my small world, I would hazard a guess that two-thirds oppose affirmative action based on race. My take is many people are afraid to take a public stance against it for fear of being thought of as racist.
I’m conflicted about race-based affirmative action. I don’t dispute the well-intentioned origins of such programs or the fact that I stand up and listen when figures like Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice state that without affirmative action, they would not have succeeded in American life because of past racism. It’s also indisputable that the abandonment of affirmative action has caused a significant decrease in minority population at many schools. The downside is, at least to me, also indisputable. There are winners and losers under it. Asian-Americans are a minority. If race neutral policies were applied, many more Asians would be accepted into college.
The achievements of minority graduates are often downgraded in the eyes of the public as being the result of racial preference. And what about disadvantaged poor white students who can be bypassed for admission simply because they do not fit quotas based on racial preference? In these cases, it seems as if affirmative action, contrary to public opinion polls, can act to inflame resentment between the races.
I don’t think the time has come to do away with affirmative action. The Court has ruled that to be the case in states that no longer want to continue such policies. In writing for the majority, Justice Andrew Kennedy said affirmative action is not a legal, but an educational question. Times change. Perhaps it’s time we recognize different times require different remedies. As racial barriers have fallen, minorities have become more successful. This is not to say racial discrimination has disappeared from American life. As Justice Sonia Sotomayor said, we can’t wish away the prejudices that still infect American life. It’s also understandable that any changes to affirmative action programs eliminating race as a consideration will be justly viewed with suspicion by those who suffered discrimination for far too long in American life. Racial discrimination is much more subtle than segregationist Lester Maddox refusing to serve black people in his Georgia restaurant decades ago. At the same time, to deny progress is to deny the success of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and his followers who awakened the conscience of America to racial injustice. Maybe all these years later it is time to admit such racial progress and base affirmative action programs on economic disadvantage rather than race.
The gap between rich and poor keeps growing in America, where income inequality is a major problem. Chances to climb the economic ladder are fading. The idea that you can be anything you wish based on the fruit of one’s labor is fast becoming myth instead of reality. A college degree remains a major weapon in the fight to realize one’s potential, yet the high cost of tuition creates its own barrier to low-income people.
Opening doors based on economics rather than race makes sense in dealing with the new reality. Affirmative action programs based on helping the economically disadvantaged are not going to eliminate helping racial minorities, but will more sharply focus where the help is needed most.
Substituting economic disadvantage for race should also help erase some of the stigma attached to minority achievement as being due to some kind of unfair favoritism. It could also serve to ease some of the friction between the races and be perceived as more fair.
Keep in mind last week’s Supreme Court ruling allows race-based preference where it has been decided upon democratically. There will still be situations where it makes the most sense to implement affirmative action programs based on racial preferences. In fact, last week’s ruling by the Court actually is a warning against judicial activism in the opinion of some legal experts.
One should not view changing preferences from race to economics as backtracking on our goal as a society of achieving racial justice, a goal on which we have made progress. There are laws on the books to deal with racial discrimination should any college admissions office view such a change as a green light to do so.
I expect that change in affirmative action to be met with a jaundiced eye. It will also require fair administration to allay such fears. By opening college doors to the most needy, we will be closer to achieving a more just society.
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