Affirming Justice: More Than Just an Acceptance Letter (Part II)

Now that the Supreme Court has once again upheld the use of race in college admissions with its decision in the Fisher case, what are the implications of the ruling? First, it appears that much backlash against race-based affirmative action is because people believe diversity can be achieved through race-neutral means. While the Court did not find this applicable to the University of Texas at Austin, the question remains whether race-neutral methods can work to replace the conscious focus on race.

Why are some people vehemently opposed to the consideration of race? Justice Thomas, who wrote a dissenting opinion alongside Justice Alito, referred to his concurring opinion from the 2013 Fisher decision, reiterating that ‘“The Constitution abhors classifications based on race because every time the government places citizens on racial registers and makes race relevant to the provision of burdens or benefits, it demeans us all.”’ Justice Thomas supports the notion of color-blindness, the belief that race should not be considered in decision-making because using race as a factor is a form of racial discrimination. Color-blind supporters do not think equality can be achieved if racial differences create preferential treatment. In a previous concurring opinion on Adarand Constructors, Inc. v. Peña (2004),  Justice Thomas shared his view that, “government sponsored racial discrimination based on benign prejudice is just as noxious as discrimination inspired by malicious prejudice. In each instance, it is racial discrimination, plain and simple.”

As stated earlier, race-based inequalities plague the American reality. While race-neutral affirmative action policies may be able to achieve greater diversity as well, race necessitates consideration. The central reasoning for this argument is that race is central to people’s identity and often serves as a factor in life outcomes, associations/relationships, the actions of a person of the disadvantaged racial group, and the actions directed toward that person by other members of society [1]. Since race is a driving factor in the formation of public and private institutions and can impact life outcomes and opportunities, if society adheres to the ideal that all people should have fairness of equal opportunity [2], then race must be accounted for to some extent. Thus, the ruling in Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin et al. was appropriate, and, arguably, not far-reaching enough in recognizing the importance of race to people’s identities.

Race is a social construct designed for the exact intent of oppressing specific groups of people in order for others to benefit, primarily Caucasians. The theory that everyone should be treated equally and race should not be a factor in this treatment ignores the truth that this is not feasible. It is not hard to see that since the beginning of humanity, there have been entrenched systems of discrimination and denigration. In The Imperative of Integration, political theorist Elizabeth Anderson explains the different conceptions of race. There is minimal race, the conception that there are real or imagined differences between people that result from real or imagined ancestors from a common location. The character race conception agrees with this and adds that these differences are normatively significant. The third conception of racialized group takes these two conceptions and adds an assessment component, which is using these differences to justify practices of categorical inequality. Anderson argues that it is okay to have preferential treatment for those in a racialized group because they had unjust differential treatment acted on them. So, simply treating everyone equally and ignoring these entrenched inequalities can by no means achieve the goal of justice. Anderson thinks that tools are needed to block these patterns of discrimination, which includes discrimination that cannot be counteracted by formal anti-discrimination laws. Additionally, there needs to be a racially integrative approach that will yield a society that is actually just and can dismantle causes of race-based injustice. This requires that institutions and their policies actually represent the people they intend to serve. Since society has currently not reached this predetermined ideal of justice, affirmative action is warranted.

If society aims at the ideal of equality but reality does not meet this ideal, it is irresponsible to ignore systematic inequalities that have prevented the realization of that social ideal. Furthermore, the argument that race-based policies are forms of “reverse discrimination,” is a fundamental misunderstanding of racism and how it is based in a system of power and oppression.  According to Anderson, racism is conscious antipathy directed toward a group based on intrinsic characteristics. Race-conscious affirmative action is not reverse discrimination because it does not concern intrinsic characteristics of individuals, but rather aims to ameliorate the external circumstances that created a systematic inequality between groups. Understood in this light, affirmative action cannot be deemed reverse discriminatory.

Because racial injustice has created systematic inequality and negative differential treatment for racialized groups, injustice that has spurred inequalities in opportunities and attainment, race must be accounted for in policy-making processes. Thus, a color-blind principle cannot hold in college admissions, a process that can help block discrimination and help foster an integrative society that can truly radiate the ideal of equality. Actions that use race as a factor have worked in the past to create a more just society (e.g. Brown v. Board), and because affirmative action is a means towards a legitimate goal, it should not be legally barred. This is not to say that race-neutral methods do not hold merit or that other socio-economic factors should not be used in tandem. However, due to the the centrality of race in historical and present inequities, race-conscious admissions standards should not just be considered legally acceptable to remedy systemic racial inequality – but a necessary means for justice.

 

References:

[1] Loury, Glenn C. “Racial Inequality and Developmental Affirmative Action.” The Western Journal of Black Studies 27, (2003): 15-19.

[2] Rawls, John. A Theory of Justice. Cambridge, MA : Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1971