Racial admissions at UCT: A reply to Max Price

David Benatar says we must get beyond unscientific and harmful race-based thinking

Fairness without racial preference - A reply to Dr Price

When, in 2007, I initiated a debate about race-based affirmative action in South African universities, those responding to my critique of this practice unashamedly defended the use of race in admissions and appointments. I am pleased to see that the current leadership at UCT has a more nuanced view.

Dr Max Price, writing in the Mail & Guardian in recent weeks (see here and here), recognizes that the use of race in admissions is regrettable - something his predecessors did not concede. He argues, however, that a race-based admissions policy is still necessary because a suitable alternative proxy for disadvantage has not yet been found.

Dr Price is correct that those who have been educationally disadvantaged should not be judged, in admissions decisions, by the same standards as those who have not been disadvantaged. He also recognizes that while "blacks" have in general been disadvantaged relative to "whites", it is not the case that all "blacks" and no "whites" have been disadvantaged.

However, he denies that an affirmative action policy could be based on which school one has attended rather than on one's purported "race". This, he says, is because even "blacks" who have attended privileged schools may be educationally disadvantaged in other ways.

Dr Price mentions three such disadvantages. The first is the educational level of a person's parents. If parents had inadequate education, they are unable to help their children with their schoolwork and their children will thus be disadvantaged irrespective of which school the children attend.

The second disadvantage, he says, is that the South African school system favours those with a good command of English and those who have an "intimate familiarity with Western culture".

The third disadvantage Dr Price lists is the "persistence of racism and racial stereotypes". He says that the "daily experience of black students at high-quality, racially integrated schools, and also outside the schools, does not protect them from these stereotypes and their effects and may even exacerbate them".

These sorts of disadvantages, Dr Price says, may explain why "black" students at UCT's main (and privileged) feeder schools are "performing an average of seven percentage points lower than white students".

If we assume, at least for the sake of argument that Dr Price's analysis is correct, we are well on our way to alternatives to the use of race in admission decisions. In addition to favouring those from disadvantaged schools, we could favour those whose parents did not complete school or do not have a university degree and we could favour those who are not fluent in English. Those who are both fluent in English and who have attended privileged schools for long enough will very likely also have sufficient access to so-called Western culture (or at least to those aspects of it that are alleged to be favoured in South African education).

It is harder to test or control for the effects of insidious forms of racism. However, it is arguably the case that tenaciously adhering to "race" as the best proxy for "disadvantage" is feeding the stereotype that "blacks" are educationally inferior, and it is hard to see how this could foster self-confidence in "black" children and students.

Those of us who are steadfastly opposed to the use of race-based affirmative action want South Africa to get beyond this unscientific and harmful racial thinking. The continuing requests to South Africans, including those applying for admission to university, to categorize themselves racially, is a betrayal of non-racialism.

I know that UCT, after years of being challenged, is finally investigating alternatives to the use of "race" in its admission decisions. This is a welcome development, but the progress is painfully slow. Cynics might wonder whether this is because UCT really is looking for non-racial proxies for disadvantage or whether it is instead looking for non-racial proxies for "race" - that is to say, whether it is actually looking for non-racial ways of replicating or further "normalizing" the current racial profile of the student body.

Given the overlap between disadvantage and "race" in South Africa, these intentions are hard to tell apart. Whatever the cause, the delays are regrettable.

No proxy for disadvantage is going to be perfect. Whatever proxy one chooses, there will be some disadvantaged people who do not have the proxy characteristic and there will be some advantaged people who do have it. However, the use of "race" is a particularly toxic proxy. It is steeped in South Africa's appalling past and it reinforces the racial thinking that is both morally reprehensible and damaging. There are alternatives that are much less obnoxious and they should be embraced.

David Benatar is Professor and Head of Philosophy at the University of Cape Town

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