There is no gainsaying the fact that race-based affirmative action is an emotional subject in the U.S. It has been around at least since 1978 when, in a case called Regents of the University of California v. Bakke, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that affirmative action was lawful. Since then, the apex court has ruled in 2003, and again in 2013 and 2016 that affirmative action is lawful.
However, on June 29, in what seems like a stunning volte face, the same high court, albeit one with a distinct conservative majority, appears to have shredded the notion of stare decisis and ruled that race-based affirmative action was unlawful.
This decision is long overdue. To see why, it is helpful to first comprehend the purpose of race-based affirmative action. At the college level, the purpose of this kind of affirmative action is to ensure equal opportunity and to right the wrongs perpetrated by past racial discrimination in the U.S. including the abominable practice of slavery. It is directed primarily, but not exclusively, at African-American and Hispanic high school students seeking admission to elite colleges and universities.
This laudable purpose notwithstanding, to understand the high court’s decision, a key question we have to ask ourselves is whether race-based affirmative action, as practiced by colleges and universities today, is fair. There are two ways to look at fairness: fairness over time or dynamic fairness, and fairness at a point in time or static fairness.
Affirmative action is dynamically unfair because it implicitly assumes, for instance, that a white high school student today, no matter how poor, is somehow responsible for the discriminatory actions of his or her ancestors. In other words, there is intergenerational guilt and one must therefore atone for the sins of one’s ancestors. However, in our multicultural society, does it really make sense to hold responsible today, the descendants, often hundreds of years later, of past wrongdoers? Does this kind of officially sanctioned behavior not perpetuate a permanent class of victims and an “us versus them” mentality in society? Moreover, even if there is intergenerational guilt, how long does it last? To my knowledge, no supporter of affirmative action has ever provided a meaningful answer to this question.
Affirmative action is statically unfair because it attempts to correct one wrong by committing another. There is no question that African Americans, for instance, have been historically discriminated against and some continue to suffer from discrimination. But, how is this the fault of Asian Americans today? Asian Americans came to the U.S. in appreciable numbers only beginning in the 1960s when U.S. immigration laws were loosened to allow for expanded non-white immigration. Moreover, the ancestors of many of these Asian Americans were themselves colonized and discriminated against by the British in India and the French in Vietnam. So, the idea that an Asian American high school student today, whose ancestors were also subject to discrimination, is somehow responsible for past wrongs committed against African Americans is untenable. Yet, Asian American high school students pay the price for race-based affirmative action, as practiced today.
Instead of looking at the notion of disadvantage holistically, race-based affirmative action, as practiced today, puts blinkers on and looks at disadvantage only in terms of one dimension and that too a dimension that a high school student cannot control: his or her race. As a result, an economically disadvantaged white high school student from Appalachia who may be as or more disadvantaged than a middle-class African-American student along the income dimension would not benefit at all from race-based affirmative action because income or one’s class is irrelevant in the typical practice of affirmative action today. Therefore, it is hardly surprising to see that relatively wealthy African American students—who may well need no boost—are often the beneficiaries of contemporary, race-based affirmative action.
There is no doubt in my mind that disadvantaged kids in our country need affirmative action to get a leg up in society. That said, the concept of disadvantage must be holistic, arguably placing more weight on a person’s class and less weight—if any—on this person’s race. In addition, the first-best way of practicing affirmative action would be to act at the elementary school stage and not intervene, as we currently do in our second-best way, at the high school stage when, metaphorically speaking, most “student ships” have long left the harbor. These two steps would take us a considerable distance in our ongoing attempt to form a “more perfect Union.”
Amitrajeet A. Batabyal is a Distinguished Professor, the Arthur J. Gosnell professor of economics, and the interim head of the Sustainability Department, all at Rochester Institute of Technology, but these views are his own. The Beacon welcomes comments and letters from readers who adhere to our comment policy including use of their full, real name. Submissions to the Letters page should be sent to [email protected].