Judging Not by the Color of One’s Skin

Ethically speaking, judging a person on racial terms is intrinsically evil

February is observed as Black History Month. This year was also the 95th birthday of Martin Luther King Jr. Both events are relevant to renewing our commitment to a colorblind society, especially after last summer’s Supreme Court decisions on discrimination in college admissions.

The man who spoke at the Lincoln Memorial in August 1963 dreamed [speech text here] of a time when “my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” Do we still believe that?

2024 is the first Black History Month since Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard and Students for Fair Admissions v. University of North Carolina, the Supreme Court decisions striking down racial preferences in college admissions. Although various groups tried to present those decisions as nightmares, one could argue that last June 29, Chief Justice Roberts and five associate justices took a huge step forward towards realizing Martin Luther King’s dream for his children.

Harvard defended its racial slicing and dicing — to the disadvantage of Asian-American applicants — on claims of “diversity.” Critics attacked the arrangement as a racial spoils system. Despite mantras of the benefits of diversity to the educational enterprise, Harvard never explained why racial slicing and dicing was more important than ideological, viewpoint, and economic diversity. In the wake of the pro-terrorist demonstrations at Harvard and on other campuses, using slogans that advocated a genocidal agenda, Americans got a clear view of the monochrome ideological lack of diversity at Ivy League schools. Anyone who doubted only needed to watch attempts to close ranks around Claudine Gay’s and the other presidents’ moral relativism when they proved “context”-challenged to answer whether use of those slogans violated student expectations. And, in all honesty, if Harvard et al. were truly serious about diversifying their student bodies, a focus on economic background would likely more realistically variegate student experience while avoiding dubiously-constitutional resort to race.

As I wrote last June [here], Catholic ethical principles can illumine this controversy. Catholic moral theology understands a moral act as made up of three components: the act in itself, the intention of the person acting, and additional circumstances. The act is what is done, regardless of intention. Example: I give an innocent man a shot. The intention is why I did it. I gave you a shot of antibiotics to cure you, or a shot of poison to kill you. Note, however, that what I do can already necessarily “say” something independently of my stated intention. Giving that person a shot of deadly carbolic acid is always going to be wrong, regardless of why I say I did it, because that deed in itself is always going to be lethal and, therefore, intrinsically evil. Circumstances can change the nature of an act; having sex with somebody I am not married to acquires a different character if one of us is married to a third person, making it adultery.

For an act to be good, it must be good in all three components. Intentions do not make bad acts good; that is the end justifying the means.

As I read the plain text of Martin Luther King’s dream, judging a child by race is bad—period. That child should not be judged by race but, rather, by the “content of his character.” In ethical terms, judging that child on racial terms is intrinsically evil.

That’s exactly what the Supreme Court said: Using race as a decision-making category inherently taints the process and, therefore, is unconstitutional. That’s why Harvard’s and UNC’s racially-gerrymandered admissions systems were struck down. But don’t think that’s the end of the game. West Point is currently in federal court facing these same questions in admissions discrimination, with the claim that military academies’ unique place in American life makes them exceptions to the colorblind norms imposed on Harvard and UNC. Even those two schools — and many others — want to escape from colorblindness by tinkering with admissions processes (e.g., importing racial narratives via admissions essays).

Advocates of such approaches seem to want to rewrite Dr. King. For them, what matters is not that you used race to judge a child but how or why you used race. In this revisionist picture, the wrong is not in the use of race itself but in the intention behind it. When race is used against somebody, that’s wrong. But when race is used to benefit somebody, that’s allowable.

While superficially appealing to some, this model is ultimately dishonest, for two reasons. First, in the real world, one cannot benefit X on the basis of race without simultaneously hurting Y on the basis of race. Why? Because the pool of potential beneficiaries is finite, so it’s not that if X gets in, Y will get in, albeit lower ranked. No, in a fixed admission pool, X getting in means Y does not get in because of race. One person’s benefit is another’s bane. Second, even if this system is justified on grounds of “repairing historical injustices,” the truth is it forces a concrete living person today who had nothing to do with others’ choices long ago to forfeit an eligibility he otherwise should have in order to “compensate” for those others’ past injustices. Collective responsibility arguably went out with the scapegoat.

So, as Americans mark Black History Month and celebrate the contributions of Martin Luther King to civil rights, let us rededicate ourselves to his vision of a color-blind society, one where a person rises or falls on merit, on the “content of his character.”


John M. Grondelski (Ph.D., Fordham) was former associate dean of the School of Theology, Seton Hall University, South Orange, New Jersey. All views expressed herein are exclusively his.

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