Reasonable people can disagree about affirmative action. But it is important that we do not lose the sense of history, the compassion and largeness of vision that defined the best of the civil-rights era, which has given rise to so much of what is good about America today.
– Lee Bollinger, President of Columbia University, Newsweek Jan, 2003.
“Do We Still Need Affirmative Action?” was the cover story for the January 27, 2003, issue of Newsweek. It seems that this question will be the subject of dialogues and debates in schools, universities, places of employment, and other settings all over the U.S. in light of the recent Supreme Court decision concerning race and integration in Louisville and Seattle.
Many people are aware of some of the landmark cases. Still, I will name just a few: Plessy vs. Ferguson (1896), Brown vs. Board of Education (1954), University of California vs. Bakke (1978), Grutter vs. Bollinger (2003), and now Meredith vs. Jefferson County Board of Education and Parents Involved in Community Schools vs. Seattle School District (2007). The issue in these cases is the integration of school districts or the use of race as one factor for entrance into some institutions of higher education.
I remember taking an ethics methodology seminar in which one professor reminded us that you cannot do ethics without history. There are two major positions around this issue (with some nuance and complexity around each position). First, some feel that affirmative action policies have already done what they set out to do and that to continue to implement these policies would be, in their eyes, tantamount to “reverse discrimination.” Others feel that affirmative action is still very much needed to prevent re-segregation and exclusionary practices against minorities in higher education and employment, just to mention a couple places. In short, there is a fundamental difference of interpretation as to the benefits of affirmative action and its continued viability at the beginning of the 21st century. The 5 to 4 decision (with a strong dissenting opinion) in the highest court in the land is a manifestation of just how polarized these opinions are.
I have friends who have a strong position against affirmative action because they feel it has worked against them. While I understand this position, here’s what I say in response: Affirmative action policies are an attempt (however imperfect and flawed) to address a historical and still-prevalent gap in society. Due to the history of slavery, Jim Crow segregation, sexism, colonization, and economic disparities, large groups in our society have disproportionately been excluded from access to a good education, meaningful employment, and quality housing. The affirmative action policies are a way to intentionally provide access to a group that has been historically marginalized or excluded. While some progress has been made, much work still has to be done. So if you ask me, “Do We Still Need Affirmative Action?” I will reply, “Absolutely!” Can these policies be improved? Yes, but certainly we are not at the point of abolition, considering the problems solved. This would be a giant step backward and re-segregation would be one ghastly by-product.
As a person of faith who believes in the reign of God, integration is at the heart of my vision of God’s shalom. Neighborhoods and education and employment communities can benefit from diversity and exchange that historically has been missing. Still more important than this is to understand that turning back to the pre-Brown vs. Board of Education days is not to learn from history. Separate often means unequal. This is a question of justice. In the Bible, justice is often translated as righteousness. In the words of Dennis Hollinger, “There are multiple theories of distributive justice; merit, equality, and need.” The issue for our time and place is that we continue to honor merit and value equality without ignoring the blatant disparities that contribute to lack of education, employment, and housing for so many of our fellow human beings across racial, economic, and gender lines. Until the reign of God comes or we can do away with savage inequalities, affirmative action should be part of our national policy.
Rev. Gabriel Salguero is the pastor of the Lamb’s Church of the Nazarene in New York City, a Ph.D. candidate at Union Theological Seminary, and the director of the Hispanic Leadership Program at Princeton Theological Seminary. He is also a board member for Sojourners/Call to Renewal.