This February, the Supreme Court made the surprising decision to hear Fisher v. University of Texas, a case brought by a white student who claims that UT denied her admission because of her race. This was a surprising decision because the Court had seemingly resolved the issue less than a decade ago in favor of using race as a factor in admissions decisions. Now, the Supreme Court is effectively thrusting affirmative action issues back into the spotlight and indicating the potential that the court’s five more conservative members may be poised to overturn their earlier judgment and prohibit the use of race in admissions decisions when they begin to hear oral arguments this October.
The Supreme Court rightly should overturn this misguided decision. Affirmative action policies do not accomplish any of the objectives furthered to justify them. In fact, they create an unfair situation for any individual who does not fit into the rigidly defined category of a “qualified minority candidate.”
There are several rationales applicable to affirmative action programs. One of the most important is the desire to promote diversity in higher education and to expose other students to unique thoughts and values. However, the way in which affirmative action programs are implemented does not promote diversity at all. Presumably, the idea behind this rationale is that people of different races automatically have different backgrounds and cultural experiences. But diversity is not synonymous with race or ethnicity. Sure, racial identity could be a sign of diverse backgrounds or ideas, but standing alone it does not make an individual more diverse than someone of a majority race with the exact same background. People can have very diverse experiences without being a racial or ethnic minority. In order to bring diversity to campus, schools should examine an applicant’s background rather than blindly making their choice based on race.
Another commendable goal of affirmative action policies is to help people who are disadvantaged, presumably due to a long history of subordination and discrimination. However, the truth of the matter is that schools still want to accept the most qualified applicants because their rankings are at stake. The inevitable conclusion is that many minority candidates selected for admission are those who benefitted from privileged upbringings and have been given every advantage in life.
How is that helping those who are disadvantaged? Ultimately, all of the benefits that affirmative action policies are designed to confer upon those who are underprivileged go to privileged minorities, often to the detriment of those less fortunate within both majority and minority groups. A much better strategy would be to base policies like affirmative action on socioeconomic status in order to give a leg up to people who actually need it.
Affirmative action policies are also defended on the grounds they counteract currently existing discrimination against racial and ethnic minorities. Discrimination does still exist, and the argument is that affirmative action is the only assurance that many racial minorities have that they can compete and be fairly evaluated for educational opportunities. However, the exact same goal can be achieved by preventing schools from using race or ethnicity in admissions decisions at all, a strategy which wouldn’t give an unfair advantage to some while effectively putting others at a disadvantage. Several states, including California, ban the use of affirmative action programs and remove race from the decision to admit students to universities. Though in practice these policies have a long way to go before they can be implemented in the manner intended, they represent an important step towards achieving real equal opportunity for all races.
The last relevant justification of affirmative action programs is the need to remedy past discrimination. There is really no good rationale for this justification. The idea that we are benefiting people who have suffered absolutely no discrimination because someone in their past experienced discrimination is unreasonable. It would be different if invariably discrimination against someone’s ancestors had a tangible effect on their daily existence, but past discrimination definitely does not automatically influence their status today. If people are suffering in any way from the historical discrimination of their ancestors, it will more likely than not show up in their socioeconomic status—a much more effective gauge for determining who merits the advantages of affirmative action.
All of these goals are laudable, but affirmative action policies directed at a generalized racial group are not the way to go about achieving them. In fact, the ways in which affirmative action policies are implemented have several very real and unfortunate effects. This fall, the Supreme Court has the chance to remedy the defects of affirmative action policies and, because the Court’s composition has changed in recent years, such an outcome seems likely. The issue is not about macro-level racial compositions in universities, but is instead about ensuring individual applicants have an equal opportunity to contribute their talents and abilities. So, while it is unquestionably appropriate for the Court to end to race-based affirmative action as we know it, we must hope they do not foreclose the option of a system that incorporates socioeconomic considerations in order to achieve the ultimate goal of equal opportunity.