Earlier this month the Supreme Court once again took up the issue of affirmative-action. Many who have not closely followed the bizarre, soap opera saga that is the Supreme Court and affirmative action may be surprised to know that the Supreme Court is only willing to accept as constitutional affirmative action regimes that cite “diversity” as their raison d'être. This is because in the original Supreme Court decision on the subject four members of the court ruled that affirmative action was unconstitutional and four ruled that affirmative action as it is popularly understood (as a program to address racial injustice) was not. To overcome this stalemate Justice Powell concurred and dissented in part with both factions. He decided that affirmative action meant to address racial injustice was in fact unconstitutional, but it could be constitutional if the program was meant to ensure “diversity.” Of course this meant as liberal thinker Elizabeth Anderson pointed out that affirmative action as it is currently practiced is “divorced from the aims of social justice.” See Elizabeth Anderson. The Imperative of Integration. Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press, 2010. Pg. 142.
The Supreme Court is constitutionally incapable (pun intended? maybe...) of dealing with structural racism. However, much of the public discourse surrounding affirmative action (including that which is in response to the recent Supreme Court hearing) deals mostly with the traditional issues of racial injustice that affirmative action was designed to address. Because I am merely writing a humble blog and not arguing before the Supreme Court or structuring an affirmative action program for a major university, I am going to ignore the bizarro world of the Court and an actual argument against affirmative action that I frequently hear parroted.
One of the most common criticisms I hear against affirmative action, including from liberals, is that affirmative action is racial discrimination and racial discrimination is wrong. As Justice Roberts opined “The way to stop discriminating on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.” Clearly the sort of insightful legal analysis becoming only of the presiding member of America’s highest court.
However, people who had advance this claim neglect an important point. Affirmative action isn’t racial discrimination. Racial discrimination happens when affirmative action is not in place. Racial discrimination happens when disproportionately fewer numbers of minority students are admitted into higher educational institutions. When a program is put in place and the demographic make-up of those admitted reflect society at large that is not discrimination, but a counter to actual racial discrimination.
I would even be willing to concede for the sake of argument that reverse discrimination is in itself a form of discrimination and is thus deplorable. These arguments are fallacious when applied to affirmative action because they fail to understand the nature of affirmative action. While it would be nice to live in a “colorblind” society the simple fact is that Americans do not. If such, widespread, institutional discrimination (check out our prison system for proof of that) exists shouldn’t society at large take it into account?
If so called “race neutral” or color blind college admissions were really race neutral admissions would reflect the racial make-up of our society. They do not because we do not live in the colorblind society opponents of affirmative action imagine. Ignoring this fact will not help us to achieve such a society, but instead it will just help to perpetuate widespread, systemic institutional racism. Eliminating affirmative action does not create a “colorblind” admissions process. The argument of reverse discrimination made by opponents taken at face value may appear logical, but they are merely sophisms.