The US Supreme Court recently struck down race-based affirmative action as a basis for college admissions. Americans are now busy entertaining new ideas about how to account for historical disadvantage suffered by ethnic groups.

And well they should. Blacks, the group affirmative action was aimed at, suffered centuries of slavery and then almost a century of brutal segregation. The results of all this did not end with the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964. The legacy persists as does discrimination. History is long with us.

It will take generations for American Blacks to catch up to their fellow citizens. Aiding them is more than justified, it is a moral imperative. Black labour was intrinsic to establishing the wealth of the nation, labour that for a very long time they weren’t paid for.

But while affirmative action is demanded, is race the best basis for applying it, even if race is at the root of the problem?

Affirmative action based on socioeconomics would seem to be a superior approach. It has the advantage of avoiding the aggravation of racial tensions. Race-based affirmative action does nothing for poor whites and can actually discriminate against ethnic groups other than Blacks.

The Supreme Court case was called Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard and represented a group of anonymous Asian Americans rejected from Harvard who believed that affirmative action worked against them. One supporter of the Court’s decision, Yukong Zhao, president of the Asian American Coalition for Education, “These discriminatory admission practices undermined the integrity of our country’s civil rights laws.”

Socioeconomics-based affirmative acton would benefit poor whites as well, and other ethnic groups would benefit or contribute as appropriate. The inherent tensions in involving race would be avoided.

It is of no small importance that the income gap between rich and poor in the US has grown to be twice that between white and Black. Rich/poor diversity should be every bit as important on campuses as white/Black diversity.

The University of California, Davis, medical school is already successfully applying a socioeconomic yardstick rather than race. The school’s socioeconomic disadvantage scale ranks applicants on life circumstances, such as family income and parental education, as well as the usual grades, test scores, recommendations, essays and interviews. UC Davis is one of the most diverse medical schools in the country in a state that banned affirmative action years ago.

The race-neutral approach was supported by civil rights leader Martin Luther King who recognized that a class-based approach could make working-class whites political allies whereas a race-based approach would alienate them. And indeed, whereas Americans are dubious about factoring ethnicity into college admissions a strong majority support class-based preferences.

And how does all this apply to our country? We, too, apply race-based affirmative action in our schools and universities.

For example, Dalhousie University’s nursing program reserves seats for Indigenous and Black students. Its law school maintains a specialty admissions stream for Indigenous students and students from Nova Scotia’s historic Black population. The University of Calgary’s law school offers an admissions program for Black students that considers those who were unsuccessful in the regular stream. There is also a Black admissions pathway for medicine.

However, unlike the American constitution our Charter of Rights and Freedoms leaves no doubt race-based affirmative action is constitutional.

Section 15 (1) establishes our equality before the law without discrimination by race, religion, sex, etc. Then Section 15 (2) chimes in with “Section (1) does not preclude any law, program or activity that has as its object the amelioration of conditions of disadvantaged individuals or groups including those that are disadvantaged because of race, national or ethnic origin, colour, religion, sex, age or mental or physical disability.”

Race-based affirmative action isn’t causing the ruckus here that it is in the US, nonetheless race is a poor basis. We, like the Americans, will best be served when we focus on socioeconomic barriers, relying on methods of inclusion rather than division.

One thought on “Affirmative action—race or socioeconomics?”
  1. I really am an advocate of the best people for the job based on character, intelligence and aptitude rather than the pseudo re-ordering on externals whether rich or poor, color, race, etc. There are horrible dentists and doctors around here (all white ) that had the money to fail and repeat years until they passed.
    Affirmative action helps who it helps and debases the results of whatever pool it gets used for. Starting poor is no better at finding candidates than color or race was.
    It is simple really … imagine a basketball team with a starting line up with general population equal representation. Is what is absurd in sports a very good idea for finding our doctors and engineers?
    How about letting anybody and everybody do an online first year for free regardless, and all in a double blind and fill the available second year seats from the top percentages? Look for good and nothing else.

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