Two weeks ago, the Supreme Court ruled to uphold a proposed ban on race-based affirmative action at the University of Michigan, much to the chagrin of many who champion diversity on campuses and in the workplace. But this decision, as Supreme Court decisions go, was not terribly controversial—that is to say, there wasn’t a merely ideological split along party lines. The final decision was actually sustained by a 6-2 majority, with Justice Elena Kagan justice recusing herself due to previous involvement.
That bipartisan majority—which included a black justice—is indicative of a changing attitude among Americans on this touchy issue. Formal affirmative action policies have been around for more than 50 years, but the current zeitgeist suggests that they are finally falling out of favor, at least in the university setting. This decline impels students like us to think closely about where we stand on the matter and reconsider if the 5Cs need to adapt their own policies to the changing times.
The legal rationale behind this ruling came, perhaps surprisingly, from the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause. This is the amendment that came about in the post-Civil War era to ensure equality for blacks by extending equal rights to all citizens. That’s right—the Supreme Court took the very legislation that had been established to ensure the equality of minorities and used it to strike down a program that purported to do the same.
How could this be? It seems incomprehensible that affirmative action, a policy designed to secure the rights and liberties of the Constitution for all, could itself be unconstitutional. People who are confused, however, are likely overlooking the possibility that affirmative action might not actually be succeeding in what it sets out to do. Affirmative action might be perpetuating the inequality it is meant to resolve.
When we talk about affirmative action, we talk about the practice of selecting for race over other qualities—like academic merit—in the college admissions process. This policy was originally conceived in order to prevent discrimination in that process. For much of the 20th century, it was not uncommon to find academic institutions actively engaging in racist attempts to restrict the matriculation of minority groups.
But to suggest that such a mentality remains today is preposterous, especially at schools like the 5Cs. We now live in an era when diversity statistics are championed and printed on friendly pamphlets for all to see. We love diversity; we love appearing open-minded and tolerant of everyone. It’s difficult to think that our admissions officers, affirmative action notwithstanding, would be inclined to deny acceptance to a black student who is equally qualified to a white one.
So the present justification for affirmative action has shifted to the explanation that it is necessary as a form of reparation for past and current injustices done to minority groups. The numerous barriers to advancement imposed on blacks as a result of slavery may be the most immediate example, but the concept also extends to fundamental inequalities entrenched in the way our government works, inequalities that encumber opportunities for other minorities as well. The theory is that because a minority student may not have had the same chances that a white student had, we should use affirmative action to correct for that in the college admissions process.
But this is a poor solution, as it stands, precisely because it is based on race. Those chances were denied to the minority student not because he is a minority, but rather because of the economic hardship that often accompanies being a minority. It is not skin color, but financial access to education that is the true social barrier in America today.
Affirmative action, by selecting for race instead of income, actually inadvertently affirms the racist concept that race is still the biggest differentiator today in terms of academic success. It presumes that all minorities are alike because they are minorities, and simultaneously asserts that they should be given special treatment because they have something unique that cannot be found anywhere else. Neither of those claims is particularly palatable.
Right now, the benefits of affirmative action end up accruing asymmetrically to minorities who already happen to be doing OK economically. A 2004 study found that 86 percent of black students at America’s most selective colleges are actually from the middle or upper class. And research from a 2000 study found that only 3 percent of students at those most selective colleges come from the bottom quintile of income distribution.
This is a gross affront to the principles of equality that we all hold dear. Instead of using race as a proxy for income, affirmative action should just select for income in the first place, since that’s where most real disadvantages come from today. Thankfully, it looks like this Supreme Court ruling will force exactly that. If we too want to take a similarly affirmative stance, let’s push for such a policy at the 5Cs.
Matt Dahl PO ’17 hails from Newton, Mass., and is a committed member of Pomona College Mock Trial.