During the 1960 presidential campaign, Republican Vice Presidential candidate Henry Cabot Lodge stated that a black man would be appointed to the cabinet if his running mate, Richard M. Nixon, won the election. Democratic Presidential candidate John F. Kennedy rebuffed that he would hire the best-qualified people to government jobs regardless of their race.
Nearly sixty years later, Lodge’s token promise has expanded into a society-wide policy of racial preferences called "affirmative action." Currently, Students for Fair Admissions is suing Harvard and Princeton for discriminating against Asian Americans with its race-based affirmative action program. Others have claimed that colleges' admissions policies also disadvantage whites by admitting minority students with lower academic credentials.
Unlike 1960, the sides have flipped. Now, liberals defend the practice of giving racial preferences while conservatives argue for a race-blind meritocracy. This swap was the result of a complicated past where the Republican Party took apart government programs designed to fight injustice, created their own superficial policies to nominally do the same, and then were adopted by the Democratic Party to win minorities’ votes as the Republicans peddled white resentment. Today's racial preference policies are contrarian to the original intent of affirmative action and should be abolished.
The term "affirmative action" was coined in President Kennedy's Executive Order 10925. It instructed government contractors to take "affirmative action" that ensured applicants were hired, "without regard to their race, creed, color, or national origin."
After Kennedy's assassination, President Johnson ensured the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which expanded Kennedy's executive order by banning discrimination on the grounds of race, color, sex, and national origin in school, employment, and public accommodations. Johnson then constructed social welfare programs — collectively known as the "Great Society" — that provided housing, strengthened schools, and ensured health insurance for disadvantaged families.
Under the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, affirmative action was intended to end school and workplace discrimination. It didn't resemble its current distortion of racial preferences and was never meant to correct for historical injustices. That job was left to Great Society programs. But this changed with the election of President Richard Nixon.
Following the 1968 race riots, Nixon had to keep his campaign promises of preserving "law and order" among infuriated minorities while following the conservative principles of reducing government spending. To do this, he dismantled the Great Society and concocted a program — called "The Revised Philadelphia Plan" — of timetables, quotas, and racial preferences for government contractors hiring new employees.
He expanded this system further to all institutions receiving federal funding and then to government employment. Nixon's affirmative action aimed to satisfy angry middle class blacks. For poor urban blacks — the group instigating race riots — he started the "War on Drugs" to incarcerate them.
Middle class whites suffered from unemployment during the recessions in the 1970s and counted on conservative Ronald Reagan to help them by ending Nixon's policies. But support for affirmative action could garner the votes of minorities, and liberals thought that they were socially just. So, the left decided to fight for it.
Although the Supreme Court outlawed racial quotas in college admissions, it permitted the use of racial preferences as a criterion for applicants, most recently in Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin (2016). The Court stated that college's desire to promote racial diversity in their student bodies is a compelling reason to allow affirmative action. Proponents of affirmative action point to this ruling as a reason why current preference programs ought to continue.
But the Supreme Court only ruled that this practice complies with the Constitution. It doesn't mean that affirmative action is the right thing to do or that it will work as intended. A recent New York Times study found that black and Hispanic students are more underrepresented now — after three decades of affirmative action — at the country's top universities than they were in the 1980s. While the total number of black and Hispanic students in college has increased, it has not kept pace with their representation in the national college-age population. The New York Times concluded that, "persistent underrepresentation often stems from equity issues that begin earlier."
While fighting racial injustice is a noble endeavor, a racial preference system at the country's colleges and elite businesses isn't going help the majority of minority Americans escape from substance abuse, mass incarceration, de facto housing segregation, inadequate access to quality public education, and inability to provide basic household necessities. But Presidents Kennedy and Johnson's goal of an ideal meritocracy can.
It is one where governments, along with private charities, launch programs that fight poverty and injustice as anti-discrimination laws ensure that individuals can advance to the best of their abilities without discrimination on the basis of race, color, sex, religion, age, class, or any other kind of identity.
Liam O’Connor is a sophomore from Wyoming, Del. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.