June 29, 2023, will be a day to remember in American political culture. It is a day that widens the division between Americans, between conservatives and liberals. Indeed, the United States Supreme Court, which is the highest court in American jurisprudence, ruled to overturn Affirmative Action.
While conservatives consider this decision to be a massive victory as it would advance meritocracy in academic and professional milieux, liberals mourn this decision as they consider it a regression that would take America back to the separate-but-equal doctrine. Why is the overturn of Affirmative Action a critical and consequential decision in American political history?
Affirmative Action, which is also known as positive discrimination, involves sets of policies and practices within a government or organization seeking to include particular groups based on their gender, race, sexuality, creed, or nationality. In other words, Affirmative Action is positive discrimination in the sense that in the selection process, priority is given to individuals within a particular group of people who are selected based on their gender, race, sexuality, creed, or nationality rather than their skills and abilities.
Affirmative Action has been a major controversial subject. Conservatives argue that Affirmative Action harms those that it intended to help because the selection process is not objective. They argue that there is no correlation between a person’s qualitative attributes, such as his gender, race, or religious beliefs, and his ability to perform. Thus, since universities select individuals on their race rather than their abilities, the skills that the individuals selected lacked eventually catch up to them, and they end up performing lower than their peers.
Liberals, on the other hand, argue that positive discrimination is necessary because certain groups have suffered racial, gender, sexual, and religious discrimination, and these discriminatory practices prevented them from accessing economic opportunities and climb the socioeconomic ladder. They, therefore, believe that it is the role of the federal government to enforce measures that will enable people from underrepresented groups to be included in the organization. Liberals essentially insist that members of underrepresented groups shall have priority in the selection process over members of majority groups.
In rendering the Court’s decision, Chief Justice John Roberts stated that for too long, universities have “concluded, wrongly, that the touchstone of an individual’s identity is not challenges bested, skills built, or lessons learned but the color of their skin. Our constitutional history does not tolerate that choice.”
In a separate but concurring opinion, Associate Justice Clarence Thomas, the second-Black Supreme Court Justice and a staunch opponent of Affirmative Action, wrote that the decision “sees the universities’ admissions policies for what they are: rudderless, race-based preferences designed to ensure a particular racial mix in their entering classes.”
The overturn of Affirmative Action will then force institutions of higher education to look for new ways to achieve diverse student bodies. The Court’s decision does not claim that universities aren’t allowed to have diverse student bodies. The decision focused on the criteria used by universities to select students from underrepresented groups, which in the opinion of the Court, aren’t objective metrics to adequately determine the skills of the students and their ability to perform.
The Court’s decision created a social uproar. Students have been taking the streets to protest against the Court’s ruling. So far, it ought to be said that no empirical evidence was presented to establish the correlation, let alone the causation, between someone’s skin color, sex, gender, religious beliefs, and his skills.
The overturn of Affirmative Action is a defeat for identity politics and a reaffirmation of the commitment to meritocratic rule.