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Equality control: a Catholic perspective on affirmative action in the wake of the recent Supreme Court decisions.

Once again this summer, the practice of affirmative action has stepped into. the forefront of our national consciousness. In the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court's recent landmark decisions on the use of race in admissions to public colleges and professional schools, the issue of racial preferences in our society is receiving fresh scrutiny. The court's affirmation of affirmative action, while certainly significant, is by no means a final word. Affirmative action raises questions that are not only legal and constitutional, but also moral and religious.

The affirmative action debate challenges us to consider who really counts as an American and who we are to be as a nation. Christian faith and morality ask about the kinds of persons we ought to be, the sorts of actions we ought to do, and the kinds of communities we ought to be in light of our faith in Jesus Christ.

Then what are the ethical implications in the renewed affirmative action discussion? What wisdom can our faith offer as we struggle to build a more inclusive society and continue to wrestle with the evil of human exclusion?

What is affirmative action?

Affirmative action is an umbrella term given to practices that seek to address and rectify the pervasive discrimination and social stigma suffered by people of color and women. These measures strive to facilitate, encourage, or (rarely) compel the inclusion of these groups into the mainstream of American society.

Such practices include aggressive recruitment and targeted advertising campaigns; remedial-education and job-training programs; vigilant enforcement of nondiscrimination laws; flexible hiring goals, recruitment targets, and promotion timetables; weighting applications from members of racial minority groups by assigning these applicants additional points (much as is done for veterans applying for certain government positions); and--in the extremely rare case of entrenched discrimination and the failure of voluntary measures--mandatory hiring and/or promotion quotas.

The basic premise of affirmative action is that, given the long-standing and deeply-rooted cultural stigma attached to factors such as dark skin color, racial minorities and others will continue to suffer social exclusion without concerted, conscious, and deliberate efforts to incorporate them into public life.

Because the term affirmative action is used to describe a wide range of practices, it is possible for the courts to rule against a specific policy or approach without condemning or forbidding the entire affirmative action enterprise. Finding one particular practice to be unconstitutional does not invalidate the fundamental soundness or premise of affirmative action itself.

The U.S. Supreme Court's recent decision is a perfect example. The court held the University of Michigan's undergraduate affirmative action practice of assigning automatic points to applicants from racial minority groups was legally impermissible. However, the justices ruled that the same university's law school affirmative-action policy--a more informal process aiming to admit a critical mass of representatives from racial minority groups--did not violate the Constitution. Thus the court held that it is permissible to use race as a factor in college admissions. The key legal questions lie in how this is done.

One reason why affirmative action is such a divisive topic is precisely because it seeks to address historic wrongs and continuing injustices. As noted constitutional scholar Mary Frances Berry has observed, "The reason we need affirmative action is because we've had so much negative action throughout American history." Affirmative action is a painful reminder of how our tragic and embarrassing past still lingers and haunts us today.

E pluribus unum

The most recent census reveals that fewer than two thirds of Americans indicate that they belong solely to the racial group designated as "white." Many of our nation's cities are now so-called majority-minority. This not only means that whites are no longer the majority racial group but also that no single racial group constitutes a majority in these urban areas. Furthermore, it is estimated that by the year 2005, 85 percent of those newly entering the workforce will be women, people of color, and immigrants.

The increasing racial and cultural diversity of American life has convinced many in the academic and corporate worlds to promote affirmative action today as a practical necessity. Educational institutions argue that a diverse student population helps facilitate exposure to a broad range of perspectives--the essence of a liberal arts education. Many also maintain that being educated in a multicultural context is essential preparation for the future leaders of a diverse society.

Still others point out that affirmative action increases the availability of professional services to disadvantaged populations. Those who are culturally similar to the group being served, by virtue of their shared heritage and/or language, are able to render a quality of service that others, even with goodwill, cannot provide. Some studies also suggest that black and Hispanic graduates of law and medical schools tend to be more willing to serve the poor and communities of color than other graduates.

This major seismic shift in the composition of our population, and the resulting need to develop future leaders with the skills and abilities to navigate successfully in a multicultural world, explains why more than 300 academic and corporate organizations--including Microsoft, Bank One, General Motors, and Shell--filed legal briefs supporting the University of Michigan's affirmative action programs. As James P. Hackett, chief executive officer of Steelcase, told the New York Times, "The belief in diversity is not something that is argued anymore in business. It's a factor of being in business."

The diversity of the U.S. population also led more than 30 of the nation's top military officials to file arguments in support of affirmative action, which is a significant part of the admissions process to military academies and of the military's internal culture. High-ranking officers view the practice as essential for "combat efficiency" and for developing a body of commissioned leaders that reflects the composition of the enlisted ranks.

This line of thinking appears to have been very influential in the Supreme Court's rationale for upholding affirmative action's constitutionality. Writing for the majority, Justice Sandra Day O'Connor explicitly endorsed affirmative action as a means toward forming the leaders needed for a culturally pluralistic society. She observed, "In order to cultivate a set of leaders with legitimacy in the eyes of the citizenry, it is necessary that the path to leadership be visibly open to talented and qualified individuals of every race and ethnicity." In the same opinion, she also wrote, "Cross-racial understanding helps to break down racial stereotypes ... and better prepares graduates for the working world."

What about "reverse discrimination"?

Despite these rationales for affirmative action programs, many still harbor misgivings and apprehensions over these measures. One of the most frequent is that affirmative action requires admitting "less qualified" racial minorities at the expense of "better qualified" white applicants. The white applicant is then seen as a victim of so-called reverse discrimination.

The debate over admitting less qualified applicants is often cast in terms of performance on standardized tests. Many presume that those with higher test scores are better qualified than those with lower ones. Admission, they argue, should be granted solely on the basis of one's performance, not one's race.

There are at least two problems with this line of thinking. The first is that standardized tests are not objective measures of scholastic aptitude or ability. Performance on such tests can be improved through intensive coaching and preparation. This is why many pay hundreds of dollars for such coaching courses and preparation guides. It is also a fact that those who take the test twice score better the second time around. Thus at times these tests are not true measures of ability or merit. Rather, they reflect are quality of an applicant's preparation, which--given the time and expense involved--is often affected by one's economic resources.

The second and more significant problem with an overreliance on standardized test scores is that these tests cannot measure many qualities that are essential for success in college and beyond. Drive, commitment, responsibility, intellectual and personal integrity, readiness to learn, and responsiveness to critique can all enable a student to achieve at a level far greater than predicted by a raw test score.

My personal experience illustrates this point. I am an African American who has benefitted from affirmative action. Without the benefit of a scholarship targeted for black students, I would not have been able to attend a prestigious Catholic university and earn my degree summa cum laude. I emphasize this distinction because my SAT score was only 1230--a respectable score, but hardly stellar. It certainly was borderline for being admitted to that university's select honors program.

Yet I graduated third in my class and with the highest grade point average of the honors program's graduates that year--all of whom entered with higher test scores than I did. In what sense, then, was I "less qualified" than other white applicants with higher test scores? I invoke this experience not to call attention to my academic achievements, but as a concrete--and not so unique--example of both the promise of affirmative action and the fallacy of defining merit or qualifications exclusively or principally in terms of performance on standardized tests.

The perspective of faith

What does all of this have to do with our faith? A central conviction of Jesus's disciples is that every human being--of whatever race, gender, class, or ethnicity--possesses equal human dignity. For all are created in the image of God.

This is why the church opposes practices or attitudes, such as racism, that deny the fundamental equality of human beings. As the Second Vatican Council declared in its Pastoral Constitution Gaudium et Spes, "Every type of discrimination, whether social or cultural, whether based on sex, race, color, social condition, language, or religion, is to be overcome and eradicated as contrary to God's intent."

In this context the church has endorsed the principle of affirmative action. The Pontifical Commission for Justice and Peace's 2001 document The Church and Racism notes the need to over come the weight of history that often impedes the progress of racial groups. The statement also calls attention to the increased interdependence that marks culturally diverse societies.

The summons to eradicate racial divisions, the need to overcome the legacy of past discrimination, and the fact of growing cultural intermingling lead the church to support targeted programs of preferential redress. The document declares, "It cannot be denied that the weight of historical, social, and cultural prece dents requires at times positive action by states.... It is not enough to recognize equality--it has to be created."

The church recognizes that such policies are bound to be controversial, and it takes no position on any specific affirmative action measure. Rather, it calls for these measures to be implemented with prudence, in such a way that they do not create "different rights for different groups," and that they be maintained no longer than necessary to achieve their intended purposes.

In the Supreme Court's majority opinion, O'Connor expressed a similar sensitivity to the need for affirmative action programs to be both measured and temporary. She hoped that 25 years from now such programs will "no longer be necessary."

Yet faith is more than formal church statements or doctrines. Christian faith, at its deepest level, is being inspired and. motivated by the example of Jesus. Jesus, of course, never addressed the issue of affirmative action. But he welcomed and embraced the socially outcast and the publicly despised to his table. Jesus actively sought out the lost and rejected. In his parables he taught that the uninvited were to be brought to the banquet table. Jesus' witness is both a challenge and an inspiration for us, his disciples. We are called to imitate Christ by embracing the socially stigmatized and by struggling to build more inclusive communities where all are welcome.

In the light of faith, the real question is not the existence of affirmative action. The decisive issue is the eradication of the injustices that make such programs necessary. Thus the moral debate should not center on the legitimacy of affirmative action but rather on the continuing reality of racial discrimination and other forms of exclusion.

This is the true task of Jesus' disciples: to create a society marked by real solidarity, authentic equality, effective justice, and respect for cultural difference. Christian faith calls us not only to defend affirmative action but also to work for that day when such policies and practices will be truly unnecessary. The most moral way to end affirmative action is to eliminate those injustices that create the need for it.

To that, let the church say, "Amen!"

FATHER BRYAN N. MASSINGALE is associate professor of moral theology at St. Francis Seminary in Milwaukee.
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Author:Massingale, Bryan N.
Publication:U.S. Catholic
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Sep 1, 2003
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