The United States Supreme Court has upheld Michigan's 2007 referendum banning racial preferences in public university admissions. While not taking any further position on the constitutional validity of affirmative action, the Schuette decision affirmed the right of voters to outlaw such programs according to their prerogative. "This case is not about how the debate about racial preferences should be resolved," wrote Justice Anthony Kennedy. "It is about who may resolve it."
Affirmative action is a major progressive cause, so it is unsurprising that left-leaning media in Canada have covered the ruling. Neither is it strange or objectionable that they have presented it as troubling, given the effect that it is likely to have. But it remains that these media, and especially ones which claim to be "objective" in their reporting, bear a responsibility to present both sides accurately and fairly, including the side opposed to affirmative action.
CBC's The National evidently did not have this responsibility in mind when it covered the ruling last Thursday. The trouble began with Peter Mansbridge's introduction: "South of the border... [an] institution is under threat: Affirmative action, the radical idea to fight racial discrimination, began in the 1960s. A big court decision this week signals that times are a'changing." Had this been the only failure to present the other half of the argument, which also believes in fighting racial discrimination, it would be acceptable. But the report that followed belied any recognition that opponents of racial preferences have a genuine moral case to be considered.
Reporter Neil Macdonald highlighted the disparate public reaction to the terms "affirmative action" and "racial preferences", outlined the outcome of the case, and ran a clip of Michigan's attorney general announcing the victory. The piece then featured a member of the pro-preferences lobby, who said that putting the civil rights and equality of minorities before a vote was unfair and illegitimate, and that if "that were the case, we'd still have slavery."
That such a statement is ahistorical and ignores how people reasonably disagree about civil justice is not my point. What matters is that no comparative time was given to someone of the other side to give an equally-partisan statement, which would have shown that opponents of racial preferences are not attempting to limit civil rights or equality.
He gave only two nods to affirmative-action's detractors: a quotation from Chief Justice John Roberts, saying that such programs are themselves a form of discrimination -- a poignant but small part of the anti-preferences case -- and a response from the Asian-American community, which claims that at some universities, four out of five affirmative-action placements would otherwise be given to students of Asian extraction.
The effect of preferences upon Asian-Americans is a fair point, but depends nevertheless on a predilection for identity politics, when this question involves legitimate, non-identity-based disagreements about how justice should be pursued.
What the CBC altogether missed was the most important plank of opposition to affirmative action: namely, that students should be admitted to college not according to shifting conceptions of "diversity" or to sweeping assumptions about racial-minority experience, but rather according to merit. In other words, prospective students should be judged not by the colour of their skin, but by the content of their character -- in particular their academic aptitude and personal potential.
The report's bias apexed in its conclusion, when Macdonald noted with concern that alternate means of pursuing diversity, such as preferring socio-economic status instead of race, might end up advantaging poor white students over wealthy black or Latino ones. Quelle horreur! Is this really what the Left envisions: that affirmative action is a way to punish poor people, at the expense of wealthier ones, on the ground of skin colour? If so, it's pretty revealing.
It's also unfairly dismissive of a more reasonable and just proposal. Allotting spaces for the children of poor families would doubtless help to narrow the gap of economic class. In the process, it would give such students a chance to break the cycle of austerity and earn a more prosperous future.
I don't mean to seem like an old curmudgeon droning on about the liberal slant of the news media, as the CBC probably has improved its coverage of ideologically-sensitive issues in recent years. In this case, however, it has reflexively returned to its old ways and given us a distorted view of a very important subject, of which the public needs to hear both sides.
This article is also published by the Prince Arthur Herald.
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