Assessing race-based affirmative action in South African universities

A thoughtful essay today from Max Price, the vice-chancellor of the University of Cape Town about the dilemmas of affirmative action. While acknowledging many adverse consequences, he ultimately concludes the policy is still necessary, and I think rightly assesses broad consensus about this. Nonetheless, the debates in South Africa are obviously reminiscent of those in the United States, where we also continue to wrestle with how to address a history of institutionalized discrimination without contributing to the furthering of group division.

…There are two fundamental arguments against the use of race. The first is that racial categorisation undermines our national commitment to nonracialism.

It forces us, and especially youngsters born at the time of the first democratic elections, to view the world, themselves and others in terms of racial categories.

The second argument against race as a basis for affirmative action is that it may include black students who are certainly not disadvantaged, may come from wealthier homes than most whites and may have had the benefits of 12 years of private-school education.

These are the reasons we ought to move away from a race-based policy. We should accept it in the interim only if there is no ¬≠better solution and only if the advantages outweigh the disadvantages. Unfortunately, the University of Cape Town’s experience is that this is still the case.

If the task were only to identify economic disadvantage, this could be done by asking about income or by looking at the school a potential student attended. But the problem is that educational disadvantage has been the consequence of many determinants — including, but not limited to, economic disadvantage..