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.


Racial and economic diversity are, to use a mathematical term, NECESSARY but not SUFFICIENT conditions for a truly prosperous nation. The "affirmative action" we REALLY need is to cut tax loopholes for the very wealthy and for corporations, discourage outsourcing by removing the tax breaks for outsourcing (and maybe add back some smaller ones for INSOURCING), pass a really good minimum wage such as, maybe MORE than the POVERTY level? (perhaps keep it low for the people conservatives cite as not justifying more: teenagers living with, and supported by, their parent(s) or guardian(s)!), and go back to protecting unions. Maybe cut the personal taxes of hiring managers for hiring people from lesser known colleges and people with "obsolete" college degrees who cannot afford to retire completely.

I like your thought experiment about ALL colleges having equally excellent programs, but it's really the NAME of the college that matters, not the education quality. The REAL reason managers like to hire from Ivy League colleges is that they have a better chance of getting graduates with the same SOCIOPATHIC MORAL PHILOSOPHY as themselves, who see things as a member of the "right" class. Even the "token poor student" at Yale, for example, if he or she makes the effort to fit in and make good grades, exposes himself or herself to indoctrination in these "preppy" class attitudes; often, when they go home, they criticize their PARENTS as part of the "taker 47 % of losers" because they have forgotten where their roots are. So bosses want to hire Ivy League graduates as their future replacements when they retire, but they want to hire "losers" for actual WORK (really, how much WORK does a financial analyst do compared to a Teamster?) and then pay them so little that they are KEPT losers.

Another useful reform would be to REMOVE STOCK VOTING RIGHTS from stock that is held by an entity other than a natural person (and give back REAL voting rights to natural persons who own stocks indirectly through a mutual fund; allow these stockholders the OPTION of viewing live feed of shareholder meetings, with live interaction, including votes for directors, and remove the PROXY; and not actually count the votes at the meeting, but allow a couple of weeks for mailed-in ballots). This will remove the incentive for one corporation to "buy" up another, since it will only share in the profits, NOT the control, of the bought corporation. Ideally, corporations should not own other corporations anyway. A corporation is PROPERTY divided up into many pieces owned by many persons, and property should not own other property. In other words, corporate ENTITIES, not their employees, should be treated as slaves!

Of course, to get a Congress that does these things (eventually) will require a big reform: repeal Citizens United with a Constitutional amendment; allow political advertising ONLY to the extent of a corporation (such as Exxon) or a not-for-profit (such as the Red Cross) airing ads DIRECTLY relating to its core mission (Exxon could advertise on energy issues, the Red Cross could advertise to stop Congress from banning blood transfusions) with its ACTUAL NAME in the ad (not "Citizens for More Drilling"), and disallowing outside political donations COMPLETELY. My reasoning is that if a CEO or Treasurer donates CORPORATE funds to ANY candidate or political action group, he/she is EITHER spending shareholders' funds with NO expectation of improving corporate profits, thus breaking his/her FIDUCIARY duty, which is EMBEZZLING, OR is spending them to get favors that WILL improve corporate profits, which is, by definition, BRIBERY.

Why don't we try a meritocracy? The most skilled individual gets the job? If you want something develop skills. What a concept! Duh!

The problem we've always had with this 'best educational system in the world' is that it tends to slide towards the "pay to play" end of the spectrum unless a variety of active measures are taken to halt that slide.

Affirmative action is just one of those measures, but I have to point out that "meritocracy" is actually consistent with affirmative action.

Unless a large number of HR people and trainers have been lying to me for decades, if a white male is better qualified for a job than anyone else, you hire the white male. Think about that. All the whining about "blacks stole my job" or whatever the modern variant of that is, are complete bullsh*&t. They (whoever 'they' are) stole your job because they were as good or better than you.

Affirmative action is only supposed to be applied when two candidates are equally qualified. And yes, that means that you make the choice in that case in favor of the person who improves the diversity of your workforce.

Now, does that mean that you hire the priveleged child of a wealthy black couple (who has -- let us say -- never attended a public school in his life) over a young man raised in Appalachia, in a coal-mining town, who won a merit scholarship to the same university, worked part-time to meet expenses, and just happened to finish with exactly the same GPA, and a degree in the same field? Personally, I would have to say that the white child from Appalachia improves the diversity of that workforce more than does the black child of privilege.

Hope this helps.

Amen, Brother Michaels. The overriding question is: how can we compress the income scale in the US to something like the ratios they have in Japan? And how can we make sure that jobs are full time, with benefits?

Can't really disagree with this, except for the fairly obvious quibble that Affirmative action was never really about college, it was about making jobs available. For example, you could be a cop or a fireman or a city maintenance worker. It's actually been extremely successful at integrating those kind of jobs.

Which is of course a main reason why the anti-govt. arguments that rose to prominence in the 80s and still dominate our discourse got so much traction. Govt. was fine when white people got the benefits; it was a horrible crushing liberty devouring monster when black people got jobs with the police.

So yes, American higher ed is a rotten borough and Affirmative reactions is one of the obvious spots. But think about it more broadly and the picture changes. It's not unreasonable to suggest that a significant number of those upper class Americans at Harvard got their because of affirmative cation boosting their families chances.

IMHO the only possible solution to inequality in the US is a revived labor movement. Everything else is soft headed fantasy. The people who do the lousy work have to organize to take a bigger share of the pay.


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