On June 29, 2023, the Supreme Court struck down affirmative action programs at Harvard and the University of North Carolina. The Court effectively overturned a previous ruling that universities could consider race in their admissions process in order to combat historic discrimination against minorities. Harvard’s argument in the case highlighted the value of a diverse student body in which everyone benefits from a range of perspectives in the classroom. Under its affirmative action policy, Harvard, which admits only 4% of applicants, had by 2021 achieved a diverse undergraduate student body that was over14% African American. In an amicus brief filed in the Harvard case, University of California chancellors said that when California banned affirmative action policies in 1996, there was a huge drop in diversity at its state’s elite universities and that alternative approaches have fallen short of achieving racially diverse campus environments.
The Supreme Court decision generated a variety of responses. In dissent in the North Carolina case, Justice Jackson called the majority decision unjust, a tragedy for us all that will hamper our elite universities from a diverse student population to the benefit of every American. Harvard vowed to look for other ways to achieve a racially diverse student population. Leaders of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) suggested that their schools will now draw a greater number of talented black students, which prompted the Brookings Institute to call for greater investment in HBCUs by corporations, philanthropies and individuals.
The American bishops responded to the Supreme Court decision by reaffirming their support for affirmative action. In their 1979 pastoral letter “Brothers and Sisters to Us,” the bishops recognized that an “unresolved racism permeates our society’s structures and resides in the hearts of many among the majority.” In this context, the bishops endorsed “affirmative action as a constructive way of addressing” the long-standing imbalance in minority representation on our campuses. In their 1986 pastoral letter “Economic Justice for All” the bishops again endorsed affirmative action policies. They argued that all persons have a right to participate in society and where the effects of past discrimination persist, society has the obligation to overcome the “legacy of injustice.” In meeting this obligation “judiciously administered affirmative action programs in education” play an important role in achieving the participation that is “at the heart of true justice.”
Through their Ad Hoc Committee Against Racism, the bishops pointed out that education is a “gift and an opportunity” not always within the reach of marginalized racial minorities. They promised that Catholic universities would continue their efforts to make education possible and affordable for everyone.
The Association of Catholic Colleges and Universities (ACCU) blasted the decision for undermining the decade-long work of higher education to find solutions to the social evil of racism. The ACCU went on to declare it would “continue to be guided by Catholic social teaching” to increase minority representation on our campuses. Seattle University, a Jesuit school, suggested that the Court’s ruling raised questions about how the university can remain faithful to its Jesuit, Catholic values in recruiting and retaining a diverse student body.
Catholic social teaching supports affirmative action for several reasons: racism is a continuing problem that calls Christians to search for effective solutions; the victims of racism are underrepresented on college campuses; a diverse student body benefits all students; and a work force that includes highly educated, talented minorities serves the good of the whole society.
What do I think of the arguments for affirmative action?
About the Author
Fr. James J. Bacik has served as a priest of the Diocese of Toledo since his ordination in 1962. He is a widely regarded theologian, writer, lecturer and pastor who served as campus minister and adjunct professor of humanities at the University of Toledo for more than 30 years. Fr. Bacik is an AUSCP member. Visit his website at frjimbacik.org.