Some of us are old enough to remember the Supreme Court’s 1978 Bakke decision, wherein the plaintiff — a white man named Allan Bakke — sued the University of California, claiming that the institution’s affirmative action quota was responsible for the rejection of his medical school application.
With this case, the words “reverse discrimination” became part of the American lexicon. Considering the sensitivity of the subject of race in our society, it’s no surprise that affirmative action — and its ramifications — remains a heavily debated issue today.
The court found that Bakke had been wronged by the quota system, and should be admitted. At the same time, it reaffirmed affirmative action in general as a remedy for past racial injustices. There were no fewer than six separate opinions written by the justices both for and against the ruling, which gives us some idea of how difficult this topic is to grapple with.
What keeps affirmative action so volatile is that it defies a neat, definitive solution. Society would definitely benefit from racially blind equality of opportunity, but sadly, such a perfect state of affairs has always eluded us. In order to right a historic wrong, we came up with affirmative action as a way to place a thumb on the scale in favor of the disadvantaged — a thumb that had heretofore reinforced the status of the inherently privileged.
How one perceives the legitimacy of affirmative action depends on the breadth of one’s perspective. If you are, say, a white applicant for a university slot who sees that minorities are being accorded a race-based advantage, you probably feel that you are being unfairly asked to pay retribution for the sins of ancestors long dead. If you are a person of color who, for once, benefits from his race rather than being penalized for it, you view the policy as long-delayed justice.
There are no “perfect” solutions to the problem of inequality of opportunity. There are better solutions, and there are worse ones. Studies have shown that where affirmative action is not practiced, minority representation at higher levels of education drops. That is a fact. It’s a tidy rationalization that minorities are robbed of their self-esteem unless they are allowed to compete on a level playing field. How would they even know? For them, the playing field has never been level.