Thinking about affirmative action? Think harder. With the Michigan Civil Rights Initiative on November’s ballot, we’re in charge of the program’s future. That power cannot be understated: Our votes will directly affect the futures of thousands – tens of thousands – of Michigan high school students. As individual voters, we must be absolutely sure of what we believe before we exercise such power.

Morgan Morel
Suhael Momin

I stress this because I believe affirmative action is probably the most morally ambiguous public policy question to ever come before Michigan’s populace. Its not possible to have an unqualified position for or against affirmative action without deliberately or subconsciously ignoring certain arguments surrounding the issue.

It is an undisputed fact that affirmative action gives certain individuals a leg up based on their race. On its own, that tidbit should give pause to affirmative action supporters. Allowing employers, universities and government agencies to treat different races differently is a radical step – one that must be meticulously justified.

Sure, the U.S. Supreme Court – Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, to be more exact – felt there was a compelling state interest in diversity. That legal interpretation allowed affirmative action to squeak around the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment. But just because it’s legal doesn’t mean it’s morally sound: Should we be comfortable with employing racial preferences wherever there is a compelling state interest? Is it ever morally sound to allow the government to treat different races differently?

Supporters of affirmative action say yes. The University swayed federal courts by arguing that there are educational benefits that stem from racial diversity. But as any University student can attest, those benefits are severely limited in practice; self-segregation is a rampant problem on this campus. Furthermore, the importance of “diversity” has allowed conservatives to argue for “affirmative action” in faculty appointments; an op-ed contributor to The New York Times wrote last week how her college gives admissions preference to men to ensure gender diversity.

All this begs the question: What level of diversity is enough? What mix of gender, race, sexual identity, etc., is ideal for an elite university? Any meaningful answers to those questions will likely take the form of unconstitutional quotas – and raise a whole new series of questions about which groups deserve “affirmative action” and which ones don’t.

The far more persuasive moral argument in favor of affirmative action questions a fundamental assumption of our free society: Has the playing field ever been level? This is where opponents of affirmative action sometimes tune out. All too often, they frame the debate over affirmative action as a prejudicial question: Why should a less-qualified minority receive admission over a white student?

Taken at face value, that question seems honest. Looking solely at numbers, affirmative action allows an underrepresented minority with lower test scores and an inferior grade point average to gain admission over a “better-qualified” white or Asian applicant. Without any further examination, this seems to be very strong evidence against affirmative action.

But numbers lie. With enough money, anyone can pay for a better SAT or ACT score; The Princeton Review and Kaplan go as far as to guarantee it. Because of the way Michigan’s public schools work, the state’s best-off district spends almost twice as much per student than the state’s poorest. Suburban schools routinely have more expansive social, athletic and extracurricular activities, better classroom facilities, better teachers, newer books and smaller class sizes than their urban counterparts. Money matters.

If birthplace and financial status are giving some babies an automatic step up, affirmative action levels the field for everyone else. Facebook groups like “I got in because of my grades” ignore the logical conclusion that suburban children – as a factor of their more privileged births – should have higher grades, more extracurricular opportunities and better test scores.

If MCRI passes, it will significantly limit the number of underrepresented minorities who qualify for admission. Factors completely out of any child’s control – birthplace, social class, etc. – will lock certain students out of Michigan’s top institution. That, on its own, should give supporters of MCRI reason for pause.

At this point, anyone reading this column should have found lots of problems with all my arguments; I have. But there’s simply not enough space to discuss, even briefly, all the potential arguments, counterarguments and counter-counterarguments.

Instead, I’ll interpret the sheer volume of debatable points as evidence for my original assertion: It’s impossible to have an unqualified, unambiguous and morally sound view on affirmative action. If anyone thinks they have one, its merely because they’re not thinking hard enough.

Momin can be reached at smomin@umich.edu.

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