Class-Based Affirmative Action Is Not the Answer

AP Images/Charles Rex Arbogast

The reason affirmative action matters is not because of the possible educational benefits of diversity but because it raises a more fundamental question: do race-conscious admissions policies amount to unjustifiable discrimination against white people or are they an appropriate response to both past and present discrimination against black people? But even though racism against blacks and Latinos remains a real issue in American society (the idea that whites are also its victims is a joke the Supreme Court has never gotten), the fundamental inequalities in American life today—the rich getting richer while the poor get poorer—are not produced by discrimination and cannot be resolved by anti-discrimination. And affirmative action—whether class-based or race-based—is only a way of buttressing those inequalities. As is, indeed, the entire emphasis on education as the key to a more economically just society. In other words, the reason both affirmative action and education matter in the way they do is not because they solve the problem we actually have but because they conceal it. And the increasingly popular idea that we can fix affirmative action by making it work for poor people as well as or instead of for people of color is just another turn of the neoliberal screw. The problem is not unequal access to the elite; it’s the very idea of the elite.

Whether you’re for affirmative action or against it, you can’t understand the political importance of the debate you’ve taken a side in without understanding the economic context in which that debate has taken place. In 1978, the year in which the Court first allowed race to play a role in university admissions, the United States was already an economically unequal country, about the same as France and a little worse than Germany and the United Kingdom. Since then inequality has grown everywhere, but the U.S. has emerged as the uncontested champion; in 1978, the top decile of Americans earned about 33 percent of all income, in 2011 it was more like 48 percent.

And that inequality is reflected in college attendance. At the University of Michigan, for example, a school that’s led the way in the fight for affirmative action, around 60 percent of entering students (in 2011) came from families with incomes of over $100,000; less than 20 percent came from families with incomes under $60,000. And the state’s median household income was $48,669. Half of the state’s households make less than that; fewer than 15 percent of the university’s students come from those households.

So while the U.S. has gone from unequal to spectacularly unequal and while our elite colleges and universities have devoted themselves almost entirely to catering to the needs of the beneficiaries of this process, the debate about their social role has focused entirely on the question of whether true social justice consists of making sure that a suitable number of the rich kids you educate are rich kids of color or in refusing to take race into account, even if the rich kids you then wind up with are all white and Asian. The supporters of affirmative action, in other words, want the oligarchy that runs and owns the U.S. to be (in the old Jesse Jackson tradition) a rainbow oligarchy (yay Obama!). The opponents don’t mind (might even prefer) something a little more vanilla, although with a substantial admixture of Asian (the new white: yay Bobby Jindal! Yay Nikki Haley!).

The debate around Fisher, however, has been a little different from previous iterations of the affirmative action struggle, mainly because the recent economic crisis and the so-called recovery have made the fact of economic inequality more visible. Which in turn has made both the advantage of going to truly elite schools and the exclusion of the poor (i.e. the majority of the American population) from them more obviously consequential. So the question of whether our elites are insufficiently composed of people whose parents are black and Hispanic has been supplemented by the question of whether they’re also insufficiently composed of people whose parents are working class. Hence the call for racial diversity to be replaced by economic diversity, to move, as Bill Keller says in the New York Times, “from race to class.” 

But economic diversity is just as irrelevant to actual equality as racial diversity has been. Why? For one thing, insofar as diversity (which amounts here to enhancing the rich kids’ education by exposing them to what one of the defendant’s amicus briefs described as “difference”—i.e. poor kids who are good at math) really is the thing we care about, the gains in social justice will remain minimal. It’s not just that economic diversity can hardly be understood along the same lines as racial diversity—black kids don’t go to elite colleges hoping to become less black but poor kids are definitely looking to be less poor—it’s that economic diversity is more or less in principle a kind of tokenism. It’s imaginable that elite schools could have racially proportionate student bodies—at 10 percent African American students, the Harvard Class of 2016 is almost there. But it’s completely unimaginable that that they could have economically proportionate ones. Right now almost half of Harvard students come from families making over $200,000 a year; if they took economic diversity seriously, they’d have to send nine tenths of those kids home.

The real problem with economic diversity is not that we can’t get it. It’s that it isn’t worth getting. As a simple, albeit utopian, thought experiment shows: Suppose instead of trying to make our best colleges more diverse, we succeeded in making all our colleges as good as our best. Now everybody, black and white, rich and poor, has a great education; everybody’s on track for those “financial services” jobs that have been and continue to be the favorite destination of young Ivy Leaguers. The only problem is if you look at the Bureau of Labor Statistics job projections for 2020, the services America needs most will not be financial. The fastest growing jobs are personal care aides and home health aides, and not only do they not require a Michigan or Texas B.A. They don’t even require a high school diploma. And they pay accordingly: $19,640 for personal care, $20,560 for home health. Today, only about 20 percent of jobs require a four-year degree; in 2020, that number will grow, but only to 20.5 percent. In the real world, because most people can’t go to selective colleges (that’s the definition of selective), the ones who can are saved from those jobs. But those are the jobs there are and will be. So even if every student in America got the best possible education, the overwhelming majority of them would still end up doing work that didn’t require and didn’t reward it. We would have made the inequality of education go away but left inequality itself undiminished.

In fact, the debate over affirmative action has never had anything to do with reducing inequality; it’s always been about justifying it. That’s what it means to call affirmative action a class project. The economic function elite colleges perform is to separate the few winners from the great mass of losers in American life and the function of both racial and economic affirmative action is just to make sure that everyone believes those winners are chosen fairly. What the dispute’s about, in other words, is what color the elite will be and whether or not a few more of them will come from working class families, not about how to diminish the gap between them and everybody else. So whoever wins, the vast majority loses. And this is true not only of affirmative action but of all the commitments to anti-discrimination that have come to occupy the center of American social justice. After all, the whole point of anti-discrimination is not to make people less poor but only to make sure that their poverty is not an effect of racism or sexism—to make sure that the average worker at, say, Wal-Mart, earns only 1/523rd as much as the CEO not because she’s black or a woman but because she’s only 1/523rd as valuable as the CEO.

In other words, anti-discrimination is a class project as well. Its ideal is not a world where the worker is a little less poor and the CEO a little less rich; it’s a world where the worker deserves her poverty and the CEO deserves his wealth. Which isn’t to say that anti-discrimination is, in itself, bad; it’s to say instead that it’s not in itself good, or at least not good enough. Unlinked to any project of redistribution, it functions less as the critique of inequality than as its good conscience.

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