Recently, the Supreme Court of the United States overturned 40 years of law supporting affirmative action in education – a policy that allowed universities to be “race-conscious” during their admissions process. The practice aimed to provide opportunities to marginalized groups, but many saw it as a practice that gave special benefits to certain races while leaving others without that same opportunity.
When it comes to affirmative action, there are two questions to consider – is it morally right to use race in admissions? Second, does using race-based admissions help the communities targeted by the practice?
When it comes to the first, there is a resounding “no” from most Americans. A 2022 poll found that 74% of Americans don’t want race and ethnicity to be a factor in admissions decisions.
This makes sense, as America was founded on the idea that everyone is equal – and should be treated as such. As Martin Luther King Jr. said, we should judge each other “not by the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” The classically liberal idea of egalitarianism is still strong in the mind of everyday Americans, and that idea helped America becomes the greatest country in the world.
Yet, the second question deserves a more delicate conversation. That’s because, while Americans want people to be treated as individuals who deserve respect based on their individual self-worth instead of their skin color, there is no question that certain racial and ethnic groups are struggling in many respects.
When it comes to crime, for example, Black Americans are typically the hardest hit. Meanwhile, in terms of homeownership, Black Americans finish last with only 44% of them owning a home while White Americans own homes at a rate of 72.7% as of 2021.
As Critical Race Theorist, Ibram X. Kendi declares, “The only remedy to racist discrimination is antiracist discrimination. The only remedy to past discrimination is present discrimination.” Here, Kendi acknowledges the inherent discrimination of affirmative action-type programs. Yet, he argues that this type of discrimination is necessary to help minority Americans who have been struggling as a result of racist practices suffered by past generations.
When Affirmative Action is taken within the context of helping “marginalized groups”, Americans tend to change their tune. Framed that way, 63% of people tend to support the practice.
At the same time, this assumes affirmative action actually helps people. There is no question that there are many success stories of recipients of affirmative action, such as Justice Sonia Sotomayor and Justice Clarence Thomas, two minority Americans who sit on the Supreme Court. But when looking as a whole, affirmative action is more likely actually to hurt the people it’s trying to help.
For example, a 2007 report by the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights found that the practice of using racial preferencing in admissions “not only led to high dropout rates but increased the black-white income gap.” Conversely, when California banned the use of affirmative action in their colleges in 1996, dropout rates for minority students were sharply cut. There is also some evidence that suggests that getting rid of affirmative action would result in more Black attorneys.
The debate over affirmative action in education is complex. Many Americans reject the idea of using race in admissions decisions, believing in the principle of equality and treating individuals based on their character rather than skin color. Yet, there is a recognition that certain racial and ethnic groups continue to face challenges in various aspects of life.
Even if there was nothing inherently immoral about using race as a factor in college admissions, it fails to benefit the communities it purports to help.
The Supreme Court struck down affirmative action because it violates the idea of equal opportunity for all. But Americans should recognize that affirmative action actually hurt more people than it helped.