For years I’ve spoken out against government racial preferences, euphemistically known as “affirmative action.” Sometimes I felt like a voice in the wilderness, shouting into the wide expanse and hearing only the echo of my own words. A government policy in which individuals receive favorable or unfavorable treatment from their government based on the color of their skin seems to be a low-priority issue.
Racial preferences are back in the news. The U.S. Supreme Court recently heard arguments in Abigail Fisher v. University of Texas. Fisher alleges that the University of Texas at Austin denied her application based on her race. We’re still dealing with this issue because nine years ago the high court, in Grutter v. Bollinger, gave taxpayer-supported schools the go-ahead to use race as a “plus” factor in admissions, as long as the policy was “narrowly tailored” to further the state’s “compelling governmental interest” of increasing diversity. The court also said schools must consider race-neutral alternatives first. Racial preferences are unconstitutional in any case, but the ruling gave colleges and universities too much leeway.
The American Center for Law and Justice (ACLJ), a non-profit organization whose mission is to protect religious and constitutional freedoms, filed an amicus brief in Fisher, arguing that the court should bar government racial preferences. In its brief, the ACLJ brings up an important point: How does the government decide who should get preferences in an increasingly multiracial society?
“[I]individuals can take great pride in asserting their own ethnic identities, whether Irish, African-American, Italian, Chinese, or what have you. But it is an entirely different matter for the government to attach legal significance to such a label, whatever its source.”
This is one of many reasons why government policy should be racially neutral. But what about the very real differences in performance and achievement levels among the races? The Palm Beach Post reported that the Florida State Board of Education recently approved performance goals for students based on race. For example, the board wants 90 percent of Asians, 88 percent of whites, 81 percent of Hispanics, and 74 percent of blacks performing at or above grade level in reading by 2018. But based on current performance levels, blacks and Hispanics are expected to make a greater share of improvement (see story for numbers). Florida’s plan leads to a discussion few people want to have in mixed company: whether intelligence is genetic, environmental, or both. Messy, isn’t it?
Juan Lopez, a magnet coordinator at a predominantly black school in Riviera Beach, Fla., expressed sentiments similar to my own. “To expect less from one demographic and more from another is just a little off-base,” he told The Palm Beach Post. “Our kids, although they come from different socioeconomic backgrounds, they still have the ability to learn. To dumb down the expectations for one group, that seems a little unfair.”
Racial groups do perform differently, regardless of the reason. Has my opposition to racial preferences all these years been unrealistic? More important, is our government justified in treating individuals different based on group performance?