Affirmative Action

Saturday, May 17, 2003



Throughout this year, affirmative action has been under fire in the courts and by Republicans. What does the Church and the Gospel have to say about affirmative action, if anything?

The Scriptures say: There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free person, there is not male or female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. (Gal 3:28)

Being a White male with a Black wife who will bear Black children (God willing), I am concerned for my children's future.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church says the following:

1938 There exist also sinful inequalities that affect millions of men and women. These are in open contradiction of the Gospel:

Their equal dignity as persons demands that we strive for fairer and more humane conditions. Excessive economic and social disparity between individuals and peoples of the one human race is a source of scandal and militates against social justice, equity, human dignity, as well as social and international peace. (CS 29 no. 3)

1947 The equal dignity of human persons requires the effort to reduce excessive social and economic inequalities. It gives urgency to the elimination of sinful inequalities.

The question I wish to explore is whether the equal treatment of all individuals meets the requirements of pragraph of 1947, and in the quote italicized under paragraph 1938, I am keying in on the notion of fairness which I am suggesting may be different than equal treatment.

Is fairness and equal treatment the same thing - especially in light of racial inequality in the United States?

Does the Church teachings have something to say to this political issue?

If so, does the Church teaching make sense?

In our society, we recognize that equal treatment is not always fair treatment. For example, we require handicapped parking and handicapped access to public buildings. This treatment is not "equal" or the same as treatment of the larger society, but it is considered fair.

I do not mean to imply that Black people are "disabled" in anyway incapable of pulling themselves up by their own bootsraps. However, there is a clear history of racism in this country, seen as recently as comments made by Trent Lott. This history of racism has created un un-level playing field, and it is right to ask if correcting the inequity through some unequal treatment might not be the fair thing to do.

Often times, opponents of affirmative action state that we are not obligated to rectify the wrongs of our ancestors. This is true to some extent, but affirmative action is not solely about past wrongs. It is about current inequity. It is about rectifying the existence of an un-level playing field in the here and now!

Many people oversimply the issue of race based college admissions, believing that unqualified minority candidates are given preference over qualified Whites. This is not quite how race based college admissions preferences work.

For example, in the University of Michigan, there was a scoring system that comprised 80 percent of academic criteria such as SAT scores, difficulty of high school courses, high school GPA and the entrance essay. The remaining 20 percent of the overall score considered factors such as athletics, economic status (preferences for the poor), alumni parents, and so forth. Race was one of the factors considered in this 20 percent. The Republicans made it sound as though race alone was a decisive factor guarenteeing minority candidates enrollment. In reality, only for two candidates otherwise equal would race play into the equation, and the admissions boards argued this helped ensure a diverse learning environement.

In my analogy to handicap access, while pointing out treating people the same is not always fair, I do not account for the fact that handicapped access does not exclude others - equal treatment and fairness are simultaneously met with ramps. The analogy I created fails to address that there is a preference of one person over another.

Even though race was not a sole deciding factor for all admissions, there are certainly cases where minority racial status played a role in a choice of one student over another. Is this moral? Is it acceptable to choose one person over another based on a minority status?

Doesn't God do the same thing throughout Scripture. In Mary's Canticle in Luke 1:47-55, our Lady says: He has cast the mighty from the thrones and lifted up the lowly. The hungry he has filled with good things, while the rich have been sent away empty.

In response to the critique that affirmative action is simply reverse racism, I am simply asking a question based on the witness of almost all the Old Testament prophets: aren't we obligated to take a preferential option for the poor?

Many White folks have been upset by race based preferences in college admissions, even though such admissions programs have demonstrated that only qualified candidates are admitted. The critique is aimed at addressing a perceived wrong to those White students who were excluded. Does anyone have an inherent right to try to earn a college degree?

What I am driving at in this question is that racial preferences in college admissions address an inequaility that exist in society. It is not that a Black person has a right to go to college - perhaps nobody has such a right!

Yet the Black person's not being in college preserves the status quo of inequality, so we admit him or her while denying someone else. The question is whether we denied the rights of that other person. If nobody has an inherent right to attend college, nobody's rights were violated. What is being addressed is fairness and equity in the larger society after college.

Some conservatives deny that racial inequity still exists in our society. We can all rejoice at the success of so many Black Americans. Even the Bush administration boasts of Colin Powell and Condoleeza Rice, and we have had two Black Supreme Court Justices now.

Yet, racial inequity is an ongoing measurable fact:

This table form the Census Beaurea indicates that in our most recent census 23.6 percent of the Black population is still below the poverty line, while only 7.7 percent of the White non-Hispanic population is below poverty:
Census data on poverty

This table indicates that 11.4 percent of the Black poulation holds a bachelor's degree compared to 18.6 percent of Whites - and that high school drop out rates are 21.5 percent for Blacks and 11.6 percent for Whites, and post graduate school for Whites is almost double Blacks at 9.5 compared to 5.1:
Census data on college education

In this next table, we see that unemployment in the Black population is 7.7 percent compared to 3.1 percent for Whites. As I looked at some other material, I noticed that this trend of 100 percent difference in employment has not changed at all since the 1960's.
Census data on unemployment

Given that racism is an existing reality that creates unfair inequity, I believe the Church teaching calls us to address the issue with legislative corrective measures. Maybe affirmative action is the moral thing to do.

Peace and Blessings!


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posted by Jcecil3 11:47 AM

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