In a landmark decision, the supreme court in the United States of America recently ruled that it is legal to give preferential treatment to disadvantaged minorities. But it emphasized that racial preferences should be temporary, and that periodic reviews were needed. In a second decision, the court struck down the undergraduate-admissions process of the Michigan University based on a points system. Instead, the court has called for individual examination of applicants.
This will force several state schools and others who depend on state funds to revise similar methods of admission. It could also affect companies that employ quantitative evaluations in recruitment. Colleges with affirmative action programmes have been given the go-ahead to continue with them. The ruling also overturns lower court bans on affirmative action, giving public universities the option to resurrect racial preferences.
Affirmative action has been part of American public policy since the Sixties when John F. Kennedy introduced the phrase in a 1961 executive order about government contracts specifying affirmative action so as to ensure that applicants were employed, and treated in the workplace without regard to race, creed, colour or national origin. By the Seventies, though, opinions that saw affirmative action as reverse discrimination began to be aired. In a 1978 judgment, the court struck down so-called “racial quotas” which set aside a certain number of places for minority candidates, though race remained one of the factors guiding admissions.
The present ruling will have wide-ranging implications for American society. A number of companies have applauded the court’s endorsement of their efforts to diversify the workplace. The military’s brief had also contended that an integrated officer corps was necessary for preserving armed officers’ morale.
The decision however will not go down well with the Bush administration’s conservative base. The White House had advocated race neutral substitutes in place of affirmative action. That would give the automatic right of admission to students in the top 10 per cent of their high school class, which could help schools in poor neighbourhoods with a largely minority student body. Mainstream America too remains ambivalent about the whole issue. Opinion polls before the ruling showed only a narrow majority of Americans reluctantly endorsing the idea, but outright racial quotas was regarded repugnant.
Cause for concern
In the case of college admissions, affirmative action has less practical effect than is believed. According to The Economist, only a fifth of four-year colleges and universities and only the most selective, engage in it. The real problem for minorities is in fact, low test scores, which exclude them from the more prestigious institutions. More than half the students of the top US colleges come from the wealthiest top quarter of the population. Universities also privilege “children of alumni”.
The political ramifications of the decision will be widespread. The dilemma before the Republicans is that while they have been increasing their appeal in south US, and among conservatives who have opposed affirmative action; on the other, Bush has stressed the need to reach out to minority groups. The two rulings are also in tandem with more recent decisions by the court, which have taken it to a more centrist position. The court also recently voted to strike down a Texas law that bans gay sex. The fact that the key decision in the present ruling was 5 to 4 is cause for concern, however. A single change in composition could lead to just the opposite result in a few years.
The judgment will influence the debate about social advancement globally too. In Britain for instance, the Labour government is about to announce the powers of its proposed access regulator to monitor efforts of universities to recruit students from poor backgrounds and ethnic minorities. Universities in turn, are already considering legal action against the regulator.