The reason affirmative action matters is not because of the possible educational benefits of diversity but because it raises a more fundamental question: do raise-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.
“The rich are different from you and me” is a famous remark supposedly made by F. Scott Fitzgerald to Ernest Hemingway, although what made it famous -- or at least made Hemingway famously repeat it -- was not the remark itself but Hemingway's reply: “Yes, they have more money.” In other words, to Hemingway, the rich really aren't very different from you and me. Fitzgerald's mistake, he thought, was that he mythologized or sentimentalized the rich, treating them as if they were a different kind of person instead of the same kind of person with more money. It was as if, according to Fitzgerald, what made rich people different was not what they had -- their money -- but what they were, “a special glamorous race.”