Rabbi Avi Weinstein

Archive for June 9th, 2009|Daily archive page

A Jewish Look at Affirmative Action

In affirmative action, Parshat Noach, Santomayor on June 9, 2009 at 5:31 pm

Judge Sonia Satomayor’s nomination to the Supremes has raised the hackles of conservatives, and they point to her dismissive response to a lawsuit where a white fireman was denied promotion after having passed the required exam. The reason given was that no minorities had passed, so because of concerns for diversity in the department, nobody was promoted.

It is clear to me that anyone who believes in fair play should have a problem with what can only be construed as reverse racism. Because of advances in race relations, I do believe that such a decision would no longer fly, but years ago, when whole groups were closed out of certain professions, redress for past wrongs was a much more resonant justification than it might be today.

The Biblical Noah, was called “A righteous pure man of his generation…” The Talmudic commentators wondered why was it necessary to say “of his generation”? One opined that it was only in such a wicked generation would he have been considered righteous, while the other disagreed saying that if Noah could maintain his morality among these folks, any other generation would be a breeze.

If a child goes to school hungry every day, and on his way to school passes two crack houses, maintains a good attendance record and a “B” average, that is a feat of profound commitment, at least according to the second opinion. He has exhibited exemplary character, and should be given “extra credit” for overcoming the obstacles of poverty, and crime. He should be given credit for the tested content of his character. According to the opinion that praises the good man in a morally challenged neighborhood, where one begins is more important than where one ends up. We are interested in the whole trajectory of achievement and not just the bottom line.

In other words, we reward on merit alone, but the definition of merit has to reflect the entire reality, and not just test scores. How many suburban kids with all their advantages would have fared as well in these circumstances.

Redress for past wrongs encourages bitterness among those who feel guiltless. My being white does not make me responsible for past injustices of other groups, but my advantages over one who is disadvantaged, should matter, if we are to be a fair society.

For a look at the two opinions and their intriguing metaphors, click here.