Few public policy issues generate more heated debate than the issue of affirmative action. While a 2021 Gallup poll showed a growing trend of Americans supporting affirmative action for racial minorities, a 2022 Pew Research Center report found evidence that public support for affirmative action is ailing across all racial groups. These discrepant poll results underscore the complexity of attitudes about affirmative action and begs the question: Has affirmative action outlived its usefulness?
This question is being addressed as the Supreme Court deliberates over the arguments from two lawsuits against the University of North Carolina and Harvard University.
Based on questioning from the court’s conservative majority during the oral arguments, the Supreme Court is skeptical about race-conscious college admissions and is likely to ban affirmative action. For example, Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas pressed the university's lawyers to explain the educational benefits of diversity.
In addition to moral and legal arguments against affirmative action, Thomas’s concerns are essentially psychological in nature. Thomas has argued that affirmative action is benign discrimination that teaches racial minorities they cannot compete without help and stamps racial minorities with a badge of inferiority.
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If affirmative action was so psychologically damaging to racial minorities, one would expect the trauma and stress of constantly feeling inferior to be so debilitating that it would result in a majority of these students dropping out of school. This is not supported by data.