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. …