JULY 3 — Last week, the US Supreme Court dealt a major blow for affirmative action in the context of college admissions in the country when it ruled 6-3 against such programmes by the University of Carolina and Harvard.
As with controversial topics, the responses were split down the middle. Conservatives celebrated it as a victory for meritocracy and a “colour-blind” Constitution. Liberals panned it as a tragedy for diversity in college campuses, especially given historic racial discrimination.
It does look like a classic parallax, with the two sides seemingly orbiting a different planet with no “bridge” between them.
For conservatives, it simply cannot make sense for, say, a white student with a CGPA of 3.8 to not be admitted mainly because a black kid with a CGPA of 3.1 took his place.
This sounds like blatant discrimination or favouritism based on skin colour.
Liberals, on the other hand, will point to the discrimination and prejudice already having occurred throughout history. Affirmative action, under this perspective, is viewed not unlike reparations meant to undo a past injustice.
As per Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who dissented, colour-blindness is a luxury not afforded to some ethnicities because “the inevitable truth is that race matters in students’ lives” and hard work simply won’t suffice.
Interestingly enough, Justice Clarence Thomas, one of the judges with a concurring opinion (also only the second Black man to serve on the Supreme Court ), declared that to continue such action would be to live in the 1860s or the 1960s; affirmative action, for Thomas, was “cancerous on young minds” and (presumably acknowledging the States’ racist past on which affirmative action is based) “two discriminatory wrongs cannot make a right.”
Another argument against affirmative action is that in the long-term the market may view with suspicion those who benefitted from such policies, especially if the quality isn’t forthcoming — which then more or less defeats its purpose.
At the heart of things, it does appear to boil down to how much priority or emphasis we wish to put on the individual vis-à-vis groups.
Am I called to be all I can be to get as far as I can (ignoring almost everything about history or society), or is society obligated to give me a leg up (even at the expense of a more deserving individual) simply because I belong to a particular ethnic group?
This question will, I suspect, be debated even a century from now.
Affirmative action in Malaysia?
By sheer coincidence, the Supreme Court decision happened about a day or two after Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad posted some controversial tweets about race in Malaysia.
According to Mahathir, affirmative action must continue because Malay students and businesspeople would not be able to compete with non-Malays otherwise.
We must note, however, that affirmative action in Malaysia occurs within a different context. In the States, people of colour are not the dominant ethnicity whereas in our country Malays have been both the majority ethnicity as well as the custodian of political power since Independence.
As such, if affirmative action faces challenges in the States, it would be even harder to justify in Malaysia — or would it?
More than a few folks follow Mahathir in reading our current political situation as continuing to necessitate hand-outs and favouritism.
They would insist that more than six decades of such institutional discrimination have not done much in terms of elevating the Malays vis-à-vis the non-Malays and levelling the playing field would potentially spell disaster.
On the other hand (one I confess I lean towards), it’s hard to see how much more affirmative action can help if it’s still required after more than half a century.
Ultimately, I hope all deserving Malaysians get a chance to prove themselves. Equality of opportunity is, thankfully, the one thing very few people disagree on.
The question is how critical is ensuring equality of outcome in an ethnically complex society? What are the pitfalls and promises?
And, perhaps urgently for both the US and Malaysia, are there less controversial ways forward?
* This is the personal opinion of the columnist.