'Not By the Color Of Their Skin': Is Affirmative Action Moral?

Like many Texans, President Lyndon Johnson was a practical man. He knew when something wasn't working.

Despite the 1964 Civil Rights Act, he realized racism persisted in America. Blacks and other minorities continued to be barred from job opportunities and school admissions in many parts of the country.

This made social and economic mobility for them impossible.

Discrimination continued to tear the nation apart. Johnson didn't like it. He shared Martin Luther King Jr.'s vision of a just America. He decided not to dodge the problem or pretend it didn't exist but fix it. What did Johnson do? On June 4, 1965, he told the American people his plan:

“This is the next and more profound stage of the battle for civil rights. We seek…not just equality as a right and a theory but equality as a fact and as a result.” Three months later, he signed executive order 11246 creating a policy that would become one of the most divisive issues in the United States: affirmative action.

Today affirmative action faces a decisive legal battle. The U.S. Supreme Court has agreed to decide if the University of Michigan may use race as a factor in its admission policy. The outcome will determine if affirmative action is legal.

Yet the affirmative action debate is not only legal. There's a far more important question at hand: Is affirmative action morally acceptable? This is the key question for Christians.

While the Supreme Court possesses legal power to uphold and strike down laws, it does not always exercise sound ethical and moral judgment.

For example, the U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that abortion is legal, but that decision is morally deplorable. For moral clarity, we need the Gospel and the teachings of the Church, not the U.S. Supreme Court.

To judge the morality of affirmative action, we need to consider a few questions: Why was affirmative action established in the first place? What was originally understood by affirmative action? What insight does Catholic moral teaching provide?

When Johnson signed into law the 1964 Civil Rights Act, it dealt a fatal blow to legal segregation. The act restored the federal government's power to bar racial discrimination:

E Title II required access to restaurants, gas stations, lodging and all public accommodations.

E Title VI prohibited discrimination in programs accepting federal funds.

E Title VII outlawed employment discrimination. While the Civil Rights Act assured Blacks and other minorities equality in theory, it did not in practice. Johnson knew this. Johnson was not only practical but also optimistic. He believed in the American dream. On March 16, 1964, he announced to Congress that “for the first time in our history, it is possible to conquer poverty.” Then he declared an “unconditional war on poverty.”

Yes, Johnson was optimistic, but he wasn't naive. He initiated affirmative action as a temporary measure to “level the playing field” for all Americans. The result? Minorities enjoyed for the first time the same opportunity for career advancement, salary increases and school admissions as everyone else.

The aim of affirmative action was simple: to permit race and class to be considered as a factor among others in education and employment. So when and why did all the controversies start?

By the late 1970s some affirmative action programs (not all) endorsed strict quota systems that unfairly discriminated against whites.

Claims of reverse discrimination fueled resentment. “Preferential treatment” and “quotas” became expressions of disdain for affirmative action policies in general.

Thus, a civil rights initiative of the 1960s came to be seen as a civil rights violation of the 1990s. Affirmative action critics argued that this policy had no place in a country that prides itself on self-reliance and merit. Everyone should learn to pull up his own bootstraps.

Nonetheless, affirmative action advocates counter, America has not always been a land of opportunity for all. Historian Roger Wilkins points out that “Blacks have a 375-year history on this continent: 245 involving slavery, 100 involving legalized discrimination and only 30 involving anything else.”

All of this brings us back to our key question: Is affirmative action morally acceptable?

If affirmative action means strict quota systems based only on race, the answer is No. It's wrong to support any policy that causes reverse discrimination.

On the other hand, if affirmative action means giving a helping hand to minorities based on many factors and not just race, then the answer is Yes.

Affirmative action of this type originates from the moral principle of solidarity. It implies the just sharing of material and spiritual goods. The Catechism of Catholic Church calls solidarity “an eminently Christian virtue.”

It says, “Rich nations have a grave moral responsibility toward those which are unable to ensure the means of their development by themselves or have been prevented from doing so by tragic historical events. It is a duty in solidarity and charity” (No. 2439).

Johnson did the right thing. That takes courage. Martin Luther King Day reminds us all to do the right thing by working to make America “one nation under God with liberty and justice for all.”

Father Andrew McNair writes from Providence, Rhode Island.