In a pluralistic society with citizens who originate from all around the globe, how are students to be selected, government workers hired and public contracts awarded? This question is particularly appropriate in a state such as California, which is undergoing profound demographic changes.
The answer to this question for some — and I am among them — is selection based on the individual merit of the candidates involved. For others, affirmative action should be part of the decision-making process.
After 50 years of experience with affirmative action, there can be no denying that it constitutes a system of preferences that frequently favor blacks and Latinos and discriminate against Asians and whites. At the outset, affirmative action was not perceived as or meant to be discriminatory in nature. The basic notion was that affirmative action would be a series of programs and policies that give the intended beneficiaries an opportunity to compete. Many were also of the opinion that affirmative action would be limited in duration.
In the fullness of time, all “racial” and ethnic minorities have been included in the application of these programs, and their intent has been enlarged beyond the scope of mitigating discrimination and providing opportunity to the objective of achieving “diversity.”
As it has become certain that affirmative action is often a system of preferences and discrimination, a significant number of the members of the U.S. Supreme Court and others in key positions have sought to rein these policies in. For example, former Supreme Court justice Sandra Day O’Connor observed in one of her opinions that we cannot “enshrine” a policy that our Constitution barely tolerates.
The conventional wisdom is that affirmative action is beneficial to those toward whom the policies are targeted. In recent years, however, there has been a growing body of evidence that suggests that affirmative action is actually harmful to its intended beneficiaries because of a “mismatch” between the competence of the individual and the academic institution for which the individual is selected.
The most compelling reason for opposing affirmative action, however, is the element of fairness. The United States is a nation rooted in the principles of equality and fairness. These principles are the guiding values of U.S. society. Equal treatment is enshrined in our Constitution, and fairness is a centerpiece of our culture. Of course, there are those who believe that it is not “fair” that some young people are consigned to K-12 schools that inadequately prepare those students for higher education. This fact then becomes the rationale for providing affirmative action to compensate for inadequate preparation. The defenders of this argument view it is a means of “leveling the playing field.”
While it is true that many K-12 schools do an inadequate job of preparing students for higher education, the fact remains that Asian students attend such schools along with black and Latino students. Why, then, are Asians succeeding at such schools while blacks and Latinos are failing? This fact serves to dispel the claim of unfairness and to work against the rationale for affirmative action.
When the Supreme Court confronted this issue, the court concluded that the claim of unfairness could not be used at one institution to compensate for the alleged unfairness of another.
The reality of affirmative action is that the policy is often argued as an abstraction, while the practices affect specific individuals. As a regent of the University of California, this fact became all too apparent to me.
It is difficult to defend a general practice when there are specific individuals who complain that they worked hard to excel, and others are rewarded based on the color of their skin or their ethnic background.
It is clear to those who are familiar with the U.S. Constitution and U.S. history that practices such as race or gender-based affirmative action cannot long endure, especially in a society such as California’s.
The problem is that many argue in favor of ending race-based affirmative action without offering an option to replace it. I contend that it is perfectly acceptable to end race-based preferences and to adopt policies that benefit lower-income individuals from disadvantaged backgrounds. This approach ensures that affirmative action truly benefits those in need, rather than operating on the flawed premise that all individuals of a certain skin color or ethnic background are disadvantaged. While there will be those who oppose affirmative action even based on socioeconomic conditions, they will constitute a distinct minority. Americans oppose race preferences by a decisive margin, but they are generally sympathetic to providing assistance to those in need.
Ending affirmative action, which I believe is a virtual certainty, also suggests the use of school choice. If the claim of inadequate preparation has any legitimacy (and I believe it does), the obvious solution is to embrace expanded opportunities for those who are consigned to inferior schools.
The debate about affirmative action should not entrap Americans into permanent and intractable camps of opposition. Rather, it should inspire us to seek acceptable solutions for resolving the social problems for which affirmative action has been the answer for half a century.
Ward Connerly is the president of the American Civil Rights Institute and a former UC regent.