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Affirming Affirmative Action

When I was a high school student, I had clear-cut ideas about affirmative action: it wasn’t fair. Inspired by that great principle of American Democracy that “all men are created equal”, it seemed simply unjust that students who might not otherwise be as qualified as others should be granted admission to top universities on the basis of their racial background. If all people were created equal, then objective measures should be the only standards used for admission, employment and more: anything else was simply unfair.

This was a remarkably easy conclusion for a young white male teenager of privilege to reach in the comfortable confines (if not ivory tower) of an upper-class suburb. While I knew about the generalities of injustice in the world, and had been taught by my parents’ actions how to see to the needs of the vulnerable, I never questioned the role that the accident of birth plays in determining so many lives. I imagined a talented teenager from the South Bronx had as good a chance of becoming a corporate CEO as an equally endowed student in Great Neck. I never considered that children growing up in poverty might go through half the school day hungry, until they eat their first food of the day at a federally-funded lunch program; so how could I have imagined the impact that severe hunger (let alone the emotional angst that might have accompanied it) on a student’s academic performance? After school, I could choose between being a Jock or a Theater Geek; there were no gangs tempting me to drop the charade of public education to live a different life on the street.

Not knowing any of these things, I certainly couldn’t have encompassed the remarkable role race often plays in issues of poverty and policy. I didn’t dwell on the inherent biases of SAT and ACT tests; I wasn’t equipped to consider how a growing test prep industry turned these purported examinations of intelligence into an inquiry of the financial resources students’ families had to properly prepare them to game the system. I had learned about the victories of (my personal hero) Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., and honestly (and naively) thought that Civil Rights in America had been secured for all.

There was a lot I didn’t know when, as a teenager, I believed Affirmative Action was wrong. I rejected this unfair policy because I genuinely didn’t know the world wasn’t fair. My textbooks and privileged reality prevented me from learning just how unfair our world, our nation, is for so many people.

Our world remains unfair. And, this morning, I woke up to the sad news that for those in our nation who tend to be the disproportionate victims of injustice, the balance has skewed even further against them. Our Supreme Court, in a 6-2 decision, upheld a Michigan constitutional amendment that bans affirmative action in public universities. Chief Justice Roberts, writing for the majority, stakes out a position as naïve and uniformed as the one I have outgrown since high school: “The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.” It sounds as perfect and tautological as any argument ever mounted. And it works very well if you are male, white and privileged.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERANot surprisingly, our Court’s two female Justices dissented from this disappointing decision. Justice Sotomayor, herself the beneficiary of Affirmative Action policies, recast Roberts’ ruling: “The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race,” she wrote, “is to speak openly and candidly on the subject of race, and to apply the Constitution with eyes open to the unfortunate effects of centuries of racial discrimination.”

When I was a child, I had dewy optimistic eyes that looked at our nation through its lofty rhetoric and aspirational ideals. Part of meaningful maturation is opening our eyes to the world around us and allowing reality to challenge our preciously held positions. With a ruling made, in my opinion, with six sets of eyes widely shut, our Supreme Court yesterday made it harder for all of us to overcome the unfortunate effect of centuries of racial discrimination in America.

Rabbi Seth M. Limmer is rabbi of 
Congregation B’nai Yisrael of Armonk, New York.  

5 replies on “Affirming Affirmative Action”

I suggest you read for an opposing view.

My family came to the US escaping Argentinian anti-Semitism. My brothers chosen career as an aeronautical engineer was denied him because he could not be an Air Force officer and a Jew at the same time, and that was a pre-requisite for college in his chosen career.

In the 60’s I supported “Affirmative Action” as a way to mitigate the harm done in the South to Blacks through the discrimination against them by the White Establishment. I accepted applying it throughout the states as a means to speed up the process of integration, even though it was clearly discriminatory and prevented deserving whites from attending colleges through the system of preferences.

To continue and enshrine this discrimination forever is to foment racism rather than eradicate it. As Martin Luther King so eloquently stated, let’s judge people by their achievements and the contents of their character rather than by the color of their skin.

Leon Rogson

“It is impossible to create a formula for the future which does not take into account that our society has been doing something special against the Negro for hundreds of years. How then can he be absorbed into the mainstream of American life if we do not do something special for him now, in order to balance the equation and equip him to compete on a just and equal basis.”
– Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.

Don’t quote people just to turn their words into something they never believed.

The applicable word is “now”. As I have stated, affirmative action was correct in spite of its innate injustice to the majority of Americans. But MLK’s “now” was almost 50 years ago, and needs to end eventually or his ‘I have a dream’ address is meaningless.
Don’t misquote people without taking their meaning into account! I worked for integration, and am an ardent supported of all our civil rights, just like MLK was.

I think that the salient factor here is time. Though in a sense unfair, affirmative action was a therapeutic remedy necessary to improve American society. From the very beginnings in the 1970s, there was the caveat that the unfairness of it was worth enduring for a limited time–until things were better and color was not the great inhibitor of education and employment. We can argue about how far we’ve come–about whether we have gotten far enough yet, but implicit in the system of affirmative action is the awareness that it should not be permanent. In this particular Supreme Court ruling, there were some pretty liberal justices voting with the majority; I think it’s a little precipitous to throw this into the “obvious racisim” file.

One other point: over the years of Affirmative Action (now over 35), the simple black-white analysis has proven too simplistic. There are blacks and Hispanics from middle-class backgrounds and good schools who benefit from Affirmative Action quotas, and there are poor whites who suffer from the same plethora of social problems outlined by Seth, and they are not helped because their skin is the wrong color. There is also the almost amusing category of “Hispanic” which somehow is translated as disadvantaged. I had a friend in college named Gonzalez who got affirmative action assistance, but he was totally middle-class and his family hadn’t been in Spain or Mexico for 200 years. There is also the whole question of whether Justice Sotomayor is the first Hispanic justice. Doesn’t Justice Cardozo qualify as an Hispanic?

Though an important tool, affirmative action and the quotas it usually involves is ultimately–and eventually–incompatible with a color blind society where people are judged by the content of their minds rather than the color of their skins. The question is as it has been for over 35 years: how long do we need this therapy?

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