Revisiting Competing Conceptions of the Justice of Affirmative Action by Elizabeth Vozzola

On October 10, 2012, the U.S. Supreme Court heard opening arguments in the controversial Fisher v. University of Texas affirmative action case in which Abigail Fisher, a white 2008 Texas public school graduate, charges that she was a victim of racial discrimination. Fisher narrowly missed out on admission to the state’s flagship institution under Texas’s Top 10% Law that guarantees admission to any Texas high school student ranked in the top 10% of her or his class. This race-neutral law accounts for 60-80% of each year’s matriculating students. The rest of the class is selected through a combination of academic factors and a “Personal Achievement Index” that takes into account a variety of factors including race. The University has argued for the importance of its affirmative action policy to ensure diversity—specifically; a greater number of more affluent minorities than were being admitted under the Top 10% Law. Given the roots of affirmative action policy in the principle of justice, the fact that the arguments for fairness came from theanti-affirmative action side presents an irony of particular relevance to the field of moral development.

As a former university affirmative action officer whose dissertation research examined college faculty’s moral reasoning about affirmative action, I have been following this case with great interest. While fully acknowledging the barriers still posed by racial discrimination, I believe that a policy designed to achieve diversity by admitting more affluent and better-educated minority students over less affluent and privileged white ones will ultimately prove impossible to defend.

However, if you had asked me 20 years ago what I thought about the fairness of affirmative action I would have said that there was absolutely no question about its justice. Given our country’s long history of discrimination, not to mention the findings of social psychology about aversive and latent racism, it seemed reasonable and fair to increase the number of under-represented women and minorities in institutions and businesses by careful workforce analyses, reasonable and flexible goals and timetables, aggressive outreach efforts, and preferential treatment to women and minority candidates whose credentials were relatively equivalent to those of majority candidates.

Today I would offer a different response. In 1961 we may have needed a tool such as President Kennedy’s Executive Order 10925 to combat racial discrimination. However in 2012, I find myself agreeing with literary theorist and author Walter Benn Michaels whose book, The Trouble with Diversity: How we Learned to Love Identity and Ignore Inequality,argues that a focus on ethnicity masks the differences that really matter in our society—genuine discrepancies of class and wealth.

In writing this piece, I went back to my 1994 doctoral research to re-examine my findings in light of our field’s current acknowledgement of the complex interplay between moral reasoning and moral intuitions. Working with mentor Ann Higgins, I had surveyed college faculty about hypothetical affirmative action hiring dilemmas in which we varied the race of the minority candidate between African American and Asian (the so called “model minority”). We also examined differences in support for hiring a minority candidate presented as “relatively equivalent” (fully meeting merit criteria but perhaps not exactly equivalent in amount of scholarship or teaching experience) versus one described as having excellent potential but significantly less experience than the majority candidate.

Findings suggested that decisions to hire minority candidates were more strongly related to the rater’s use of principled (more complex) moral reasoning than to the candidate’s race.  However, relevant to the current Fisher case, we also found that decisions to hire minority candidates were much more likely when the moral dilemmas concerned relative equivalency rather than the sort of potential implicit in the University of Texas’s Personal Achievement Index.

Today, I would suspect that the moral reasoning complexity of our participants might have had less influence on their decisions about hiring dilemmas than did their intuitive response to the fairness of the scenarios.  For most respondents, if two candidates were relatively equivalent and there was a policy in place to ensure that universities became more diverse, then justice was well served. However, no matter the candidate’s race or the rater’s preference for principled reasoning, not hiring a more experienced candidate just because he was the wrong race may have tapped an intuitive sense of a violation of fairness.

And it is this intuitive reaction to the University of Texas’s use of affirmative action that highlights the flaws in using a tool for achieving racial diversity in isolation from economic factors. Simply admitting graduates in the top 10% of their graduating class from all Texas high schools not only brought in significant numbers of Black and Latino students, but also working class Whites and Asians from less competitive high schools.  Where once I would have given great weight to the moral reasoning underlying people’s competing conceptions of the justice of affirmative action, today I am more sensitive to the power of Americans’ gut reactions to the policy.  If our focus on diversity has indeed distracted us from addressing the deep injustice of socioeconomic inequality, then perhaps the time has come for serious consideration of new solutions and policies.


Elizabeth Vozzola is Professor of Psychology and Director of Honors at the University of Saint Joseph, West Hartford, CT.

Opinions expressed in these Op Ed pieces are solely those of the author and not intended to represent AME. AME chooses to publish pieces that will foster discussion on issues related to moral psychology, philosophy, development, and education.