Bishop on Affirmative Action: Why the Church Should Speak Up

The recent decision by the majority of the Supreme Court justices to end Affirmative Action based on race in the college admissions process should alarm all justice-seeking Americans. Christians—and those who value a more equitable society that values diversity in higher education and the workforce—should mark this as a setback in the goal of ending systemic racism.

The purpose of affirmative action with race as a basis for corrective action is to implement policies that favor those previously discriminated against on the basis of race. However, all affirmative action was not ended by the Supreme Court vote.

Affirmative Action has always existed for those with privilege. Those with wealth, legacy admissions, employees’ children, high-performing athletes, and donor-designated scholars benefit greatly. High test scores plus high net worth have been pathways for some, while college diversity rarely reflects the racial diversity of the general population.

The action of the Supreme Court advances the cause of white supremacy and those complicit with the belief that historical racism and its legacy of discrimination has been eliminated because opportunity without impediments is now equally available to all. 

I am in agreement with Dr. Wornie Reed of Virginia Tech, a longtime sociologist and human and civil rights activist who writes that the Supreme Court action carries out the objectives of the “white nationalist and supremacists who deny the existence of systemic racism, and second, they stand against efforts to minimize, if not eliminate, racist practices (since they argue none exist).”

The argument against Affirmative Action policies designed to advance opportunity for Black Americans because of the systemic racism and institutional roadblocks that are documented parts of our American history is that by opening doors to ensure more diversity, institutions close doors to otherwise qualified caucasian and Asian students.

How long should America seek to address past injustices with strategic value-based policies and programs? Until the moral arc of the universe has been fully bent toward equal opportunity. Until racial justice is partly defined by racial equity. Until access to education and economic empowerment is no longer an express lane for those who are privileged while the BIPOC community traverses a highway full of construction barriers of social determinants of disparity. 

There should be no expiration date on intentional efforts to advance the diversity of student bodies, workforce, or leadership tables. Data has shown that society benefits from diversity, equity, inclusion, and equal and fair treatment for all people. 

When the vestiges of slavery and post-slavery institutional racism are gone, then Affirmative Action will no longer be needed.

In sermons preached at the 2022 North Central Jurisdictional Conference and the National Black Methodist for Church Renewal annual meeting in 2023, I have declared, without apologizing or fearing contradiction, that “The Gospel is Affirmative Action.” The Gospel we preach and proclaim as good news to the poor is, in its essence, God’s Affirmative Action on behalf of humanity. 

“God so loved the world that God gave Jesus.” Jesus —in practice and parables—is time and time again reversing the order of privilege and breaking barriers of exclusion. Love of God is expressed in the love of neighbor. Our religious rituals or recorded laws are never placed above relationships that restore people to wholeness. 

When Jesus is chastised by the Pharisees for not washing his hands before a meal, the Lord said to him, “Now, you Pharisees clean the outside of the cup and platter, but your insides are stuffed with greed and wickedness. Foolish people! Didn’t the one who made the outside also make the inside? Therefore, give to those in need from the core of who you are and you will be clean all over. How terrible for you Pharisees! You give a tenth of your mint, rue, and garden herbs of all kinds, while neglecting justice and love for God. These you ought to have done without neglecting the others”(Luke 11:39-42 CEB).

The Gospel we preach and live by has a broader utility than preparing people for the highway to heaven. It has convicting claim on us as we are called to “do justice, love mercy, walk humbly with God”(Micah 6:8).

When Jesus comes, as John’s Gospel describes as the Good Shepherd, he clearly distinguishes between his purpose and that of the enemy. “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly”(John 10:10 NRSV). 

Affirmative Action is justice work that can benefit the whole of our society.

A shout of thanks goes to the General Secretaries of the United Methodist Boards Agencies and Commissions. They issued the following collective statement, “Supreme Court ruling unconstitutional the use of affirmative action is antithetical to the social teachings of The United Methodist Church.” This is a reminder that United Methodists are willing to work alongside others to bring remedy to the damaging effect of racism and the effects of long-standing discrimination.

A shout of gratitude and affirmation also goes to college presidents and leaders in the public and private sectors who have made it clear there will be no retreat in the commitment to providing pathways of diversity and inclusion and accessibility to both education and economic opportunity.

We champion Affirmative Action as United Methodists because we believe in Jesus, who came to bring good news to the poor, proclaim release to the captives, recovery of sight to the blind, and liberation to the oppressed. We believe that creative and sustained efforts to bring about equality are also the work of the Church.

Not everything that is faced can be changed.

But nothing can be changed until it is faced.(James Baldwin)

Be encouraged, 

Bishop Julius C. Trimble