Affirmative Action as Secular Pelagianism

A current Supreme Court case may overturn affirmative action - is this a good or bad thing?

The Supreme Court heard oral arguments October 31 in cases from Harvard University and the University of North Carolina (UNC) involving the use of racial preferences in college admission decisions. Much of the left side of the political spectrum is in a lather, convinced that—this time—the Supreme Court may finally drive a stake through the heart of “affirmative action.”

How do proponents of “affirmative action” defend it? Justifications have shifted over time. Once upon a time, explicit racial set-asides were defended to “ensure balance.” Invoking a “history of racial discrimination,” such policies were supposed to counter its effects.  

When the Supreme Court threw out explicit quotas, practices started getting more subjective: admissions decisions, which could no longer resort to explicit set-asides, morphed into “holistic” reviews, whose determining criteria were ambiguous. The “history of racial discrimination” turned into “systemic racism,” whose chronic infection of the body politic needed redress.  

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As Americans began to question the intellectual foundations of Critical Race Theory (CRT), on which much of “systemic racism” rested, a new shuffle took place: making X (name your institution) “look like America.” 

Most people listening to the Court’s oral arguments October 31 probably walked away with the impression that Harvard and UNC’s semantic contortions to justify their continuation of race-conscious admissions should have earned their lawyers gold medals in gymnastics. Americans also probably came away with the impression that, other than “we want to keep on doing this,” universities were hard-pressed to articulate a clear rationale for its perpetuation that would be convincing to most Americans.

As a Catholic theologian, I have some thoughts. I do not represent my views as the Church’s, but I do represent them as part of the legitimate range of considerations Catholic theology must take into account to formulate an appropriate response to this question.

Racial discrimination has been part of American history, and it was evil.  Racism violates the fundamental equality of all persons as created by God.  

But proponents of affirmative action have yet to demonstrate a clear nexus between the once-upon-a-time injured and those who, as a consequence of their “remedy,” are arguably being injured today. There is a legitimate question of justice in asking concrete persons here and now to bear the consequences of policies intended to “remediate” persons they did not injure in previous times and places.

Affirmative action apologists might respond by claiming that while John may not have concretely done anything to anybody, no individual applicant has a “right” to attend a particular college and the “common good” requires that we recognize the cumulative effects of past discrimination by taking “affirmative” measures to remediate it today.  

Three problems: (i) while John may not have a “right” to attend college X, he does have a right not to have his race detract from his candidacy; (ii) it is unclear how affirmative action “remediates” someone discriminatorily denied college admission in the past who is now long past college and perhaps even dead; and (iii) nobody has proven causally that the makeup of an incoming college class today results from “the cumulative effects of past discrimination.” Once again, concrete persons now are expected to accept the deleterious impact of policies ostensibly designed to “remedy” situations whose etiology is postulated, not proven.

The universities’ line of reasoning might dispute that current applicants are “paying”—in any degree beyond perhaps passively—for past sins, but that argument is probably a smokescreen. John can control the academic and extracurricular record he brings. He cannot control his race. Should that race, therefore, justly play any determining role in his admissibility?

Individual human beings are not simply stand-ins for their races. John is John, and Mary is Mary; they are not instantiations of “black” or “white.”  To reduce them to a group is to do them injury, here and now, as individuals.  

This is a problem with CRT, with its obsessions about “white privilege,” “systemic racism,” and even “reparations.” It has generally been assumed that civilizational progress has advanced humanity beyond corporate responsibility for individuals’ acts.

Again, there is no doubt that America—and American education—did wrong out of racist motives. Wrong should be righted. But does one right past wrongs by practicing them in reverse now? That’s exactly what Chief Justice John Roberts was getting at when he wrote, in Parents Involved v. Seattle School District [551 US 701 (2007)]: “The way to stop discrimination on the basis of race is to stop discriminating on the basis of race.”

Simplistic? I would say instead, realistic, and precisely for theological reasons.  

Racism is a sin. Like every sin, it leaves consequences. “I am sorry I stole your money” does not change the objective reality that a person’s money was unjustly taken. That’s why, in addition to the thief’s sorrow, the thief needs to give the money back to his victim.  

But maybe the theft occurred years ago. Maybe the thief does not even know from whom he stole. Perhaps the thief is even dead. Would one contend his friends, whether or not they knew he was a thief, are bound to make amends in his name?

This is the problem of sin writ large: man can do it, but he can’t undo it.  

It’s said that a confessor, tired of hearing a woman incessantly confess to gossip with no signs of amendment, walked out of the confessional, grabbed the cushion he was sitting on, and led the woman to the parish parking lot. On a windy March day, he cut the cushion in two and released the feathers. “For your penance, retrieve every one.” 

Obviously, she couldn’t. That is why Christianity recognizes man needs a Redeemer and that what Christ did vis-à-vis evil could not be done by any other man. An ancient heresy, Pelagianism, claimed he could: sin was merely bad example, and man can lift himself by his moral bootstraps.

Man cannot fix what he has done. Sometimes, it’s impossible. Sometimes, it even perpetrates more injustice.  

A secular society, devoid of a transcendental horizon, consigning sin to the “unknowable theological,” and having imbibed a Rousseauean confidence in inevitable human “progress,” is essentially Pelagian. It believes the myth that it can repair evil and, by following that myth, arguably launches its own vicious cycle of injury. Woke cancellation and historical revisionism are Promethean ploys to undo what was. The rationales for “affirmative action” are likewise arguably secular Pelagianism.

[Photo Credit: Getty Images]


  • John M. Grondelski

    John M. Grondelski (Ph.D., Fordham) is a former associate dean of the School of Theology, Seton Hall University, South Orange, New Jersey. All views expressed herein are his own.

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