The Supreme Court’s recent decision on affirmative action struck many observers as a sensible compromise. The issue was whether to uphold the principle of giving minorities, especially blacks, a little help in gaining admission to our nation’s colleges, or to prohibit using race as a consideration. The nation was getting polarized between those in favor of affirmative action, and those opposed, much as it already is on the abortion issue. We say we are one nation, indivisible–but there are far too many issues on which we remain deeply divided. This time, the court found a middle way.
The majority opinion, written by Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, upheld affirmative action, but for a limited period of twenty-five years. I shall avoid technical analysis of that time limitation. I’m more concerned with the broader implications for future race relations.
Opposition to affirmative action has various roots, including the fact that race-based systems of preference in college admissions discriminate against whites, perpetuate racial distinctions, and are not working very well anyway. On the other side of the argument, the main justification for affirmative action is that the majority should help certain groups catch up because of a historical legacy that unfairly kept the black minority behind. Centuries of slavery followed by several generations of various forms of discrimination have left their mark. Expunging that mark is a moral obligation for the white majority, which should be willing to put up with some derogation of its own interests to that end.
This is a moral argument and a strong one. If we really believe in the basic principle of human rights for all, we should be willing to put our money where our mouth is and get on with the job of achieving complete racial equality. Putting a time limit on affirmative action meets the opponents of affirmative action half way and may actually encourage everybody to get together and force through necessary societal change. It seems like a fair compromise to me. It is an application of sorts of the grandfather principle, which specifies a time during which a difficult transition must be accomplished.
The trouble with the grandfather principle is that it assumes that at some point in the future, grandfather will die, and the condition requiring application of the principle will end. In the present instance, that assumption may be flawed. The evolution of our race relations over the past couple of generations suggests that things are getting better, but slowly, with only a gradual improvement foreseeable, but no actual end in sight. If, in AD 2028, we still have a substantial underclass, mostly black, with a high percentage of dysfunctional families, a high crime rate, and a high incidence of drug abuse, what do we do?
In the USA today, the condition of being black has less and less to do with race or bloodlines; by now it is mostly a social construct, a cultural artifact, rather than a physical condition. One must ask whether fairness is served by giving an individual whose ancestry is 90% European the same leg up as one whose bloodlines are 90% African. Our culture sidesteps this problem by pretending everyone is either black or white, but this kind of distinction is bound to create difficulties since it flies in the face of reality.
In fact, there are a lot of dysfunctional whites in our society, as well as blacks. It would help if the national attention presently focused on race would focus instead on dysfunctionality in general. Translating our national concerns in this fashion would recognize that most of the so-called black Americans are fully participating in our society, and that increasingly, the more important cleavage in our society is between a multiracial, multiethnic underclass and a multiracial body of fully participating citizens. As and when this new way of looking at our society approaches becoming a national consensus, present programs for affirmative action in college admissions can be expected to expire almost unnoticed, because most of the so-called black Americans applying for college simply won’t need them any more. The students who will need that kind of help will be coming out of the multiracial underclass, and something like an affirmative action program for them will be entirely appropriate.