On the Mind of the Rev. Dr. Nathaniel Jung-Chul Lee

Jul 7, 2023

Last week, the Supreme Court brought racial affirmative action programs in higher education to an end. As a second-generation, biracial Korean American–who also happens to be a scholar of race and critical identity theory–I offer some scattered, personal reflections below.

(i) “Affirmative action” was an important and necessary policy meant to advance racial equality on multiple fronts (i.e. not just in higher education).

(ii) The need that affirmative action was instituted to address has not been fully addressed, as racial bias and inequality remains a systemic problem in this country.

(iii) Affirmative action as a whole was not banned by the Supreme Court’s ruling, just *racial* affirmative action in *higher education.* This focus raises two equal and opposite questions:

(iii.a) Why institutions of higher education?

(iii.b.) Why only institutions of higher education?

(iv) The Supreme Court was wrong to ban affirmative action, even just for institutions of higher education, especially without a clear plan on how to address ongoing racial inequality (more on this below).

(iv) Affirmative action is also a flawed and imperfect policy, and its limits have been made more clear in recent years. Two important examples of its limits include:

(iv.a.) At most elite universities, economic inequality has increased under affirmative action.

(iv.b.) At some elite universities (like Harvard, UNC, and others), affirmative action has been used to deny racial minorities–specifically, Asian-Americans–entrance to institutions of higher education (i.e. in some places, enrollment of Asian-Americans was being capped due to too many being accepted).

(v) At the same time, I am inherently suspicious of any “solution” to a racialized problem that pits marginalized people against each other, whether this is framed as a “rich Black v. poor Black” problem, or a “Black v. Asian” problem. When marginalized people are pitted against each other, the only people who win are those in whom power is currently centralized (i.e. those whose position in the “center” keeps both groups on the “margins”).

(vi) The limits of affirmative action are part and parcel of the limits of the identity theory on which it was built, which has been overdetermined by a “black-white” binary.

(vii) Reading all our racial politics through a “black-white” binary has elided what is particular about the history and identity of non-black racial minorities (not just Asian-Americans, but also Latin@ groups, indigenous peoples, etc.), and also, forced these minorities to accept solutions that may not address the unique problems they face. It also, often, leaves class and economic concerns unaddressed, or addressed only indirectly.

(viii) We need better identity theory and politics, and I would highly recommend this book (published in 2021 by our neighbors at Oxford University Press) as outlining the sort of new ways of thinking that we need right now.

(ix) In the meantime, we still need policies, and our politics should be less “perfectionistic” and more “pragmatic.” That is to say, even if affirmative action is flawed and imperfect, it is still the best policy we have, and should not be banned until we have something better. And, as we search for that something better, the answer is not to step backward to a world prior to affirmative action, and pretend as if the issues don’t exist; but rather, to step forward from affirmative action, to a policy that honors the work of affirmative action, recognizes the ongoing struggle for racial justice, and addresses our growing understanding of these issues–as we continue to grow, and learn, and increasingly improve our understanding (and our policies, again and again) in the future.

(x) Finally, we Christians need to ask: What does Jesus call us to in all of this? A lot, I would argue. But let me highlight one thing in particular.

Racial justice advocates often talk about using one’s own privilege on behalf of those without the same access. In some cases, that may require those with privilege to offer their own privileges to others, even at the expense of our own privilege (e.g. Asian-Americans being willing to see others offered places at institutions of higher learning at the expense of their own, in order to correct embedded power differentials).

The thing I would want to ask in light of this advice is this: Don’t we as Christians have even more reason to do this? Having “the same mindset as Christ Jesus”? (Phil. 2.5). Who did not consider his power “something to be used to his own advantage, but rather made himself nothing, by taking on the very nature of a servant”? (Phil. 2.6).