Should Social Justice Activists Give Up on Race-Based Affirmative Action?

Pretty soon the Supreme Court is probably going to hammer the last nail in the coffin of affirmative action.  The court will be hearing the case of Abigail Fisher next week, a young white woman who was denied admission to the University of Texas, Austin and blames it on affirmative action.

I think progressives should take this opportunity to give up on fighting for race-based affirmative action.  Not because it’s a bad idea, but because those of us who care about equality in education will be much more strategic and effective fighting for class-based affirmative action.

First I want to explain why I’ve always been a supporter of race-based affirmative action.  I think institutionalized racism is so deeply embedded in every facet of our society that people’s education and economic outcomes are strongly affected by it from the cradle to the grave.  I know there are some deniers out there.  But if that inequality of opportunity wasn’t real, then why do racial achievement gaps persist so strongly?  Let’s say certain types of people usually seem to win a hypothetical contest millions of times over.  You can only really come to two conclusions:  Either those types of people have some unfair advantages in that contest, or they are just naturally better.  I’m assuming nobody who reads this blog is going to say white people are on average naturally smarter.  So that leaves unfair advantage.  Because education is so critical to success in the modern world, if some groups enjoy an unfair advantage over others, we have a moral responsibility to fight that.

As a product of the University of California system, where affirmative action was banned in 1995 by Prop 209, I’ve seen the exciting sneak preview of how this Supreme Court case will likely turn out for the country:

Yeah it’s kinda like that.

California’s affirmative action ban has led to a campus filled mostly with kids from the upper-middle-class suburbs of the Bay Area and Los Angeles.  The many attempts to promote racial diversity by the UC system since Prop 209 have largely failed.

But sometimes, it’s less important what you wish could happen, and more important what you can actually win.  

This Supreme Court, the most conservative in modern history, will probably strike down race-based affirmative action.  Neither the majority of the American public nor the majority of our elected officials seem interested in keeping it.

A good political strategist knows when to throw in the towel.  But a better political strategist knows when to seemingly throw in the towel, and when their opponent raises their hands in victory, hit them in the chin with a dirty ass upper-cut.

Social justice activists could abandon attempts to defend race-based affirmative action while organizing a broader coalition around class-based affirmative action that includes low-income whites.  This is probably more politically winnable, legally defensible, and may be just a better policy for achieving social justice.

I’d propose some kind of comprehensive economic disadvantage index that includes factors like a student’s household income, parents’ educational attainment, neighborhood poverty rate, and what percent of students from their high school go to college.

While this doesn’t address direct discrimination by college admissions officers, it would still work against the inequality affecting youth in communities of color.  Students who make it through the barriers of growing up in East Oakland or South LA will still get recognition in college admissions for the struggles they faced.

More importantly, class-based affirmative action might do more to advance equity in education anyway.

The current racial categories used in admissions are not very accurate measures of students’ privilege or disadvantage.  An observant college student might notice the disproportionate share of the campus’s black community whose parents immigrated from Africa and the Caribbean.  Or the fact that virtually all the Asians on campus seem to be Korean, Taiwanese or Indian.  Despite the fact that many Southeast Asian communities in the US have similar levels of poverty to African-Americans and Latinos, they get lumped in the same “Asian” category as wealthier groups like Indians.  And even though black immigrant communities have higher education levels and lower poverty rates, they are treated the same as black communities struggling with the legacy of American slavery.

What finally convinced me is a landmark recent study that showed racial inequality in education seems to be falling, while class inequality in education is on the rise.  (See graph on right.)

The struggle for racial justice today is largely defined by the institutionalized racism that leads to deep and persistent poverty in communities of color.   It’s a deep and complex web of oppression and no policy tool is going to be perfect.

But movements have to be built on victories.  At a time when a backwards fall seems inevitable, class-based affirmative action is something we can win.

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One comment

  1. Robbie

    Those are some excellent points, and I think that I used to feel the same way. But I think giving up on affirmative action on any front, whether it be gender, race or economic, (even if the move is rhetorical or strategic) is ultimately not the wisest choice. First of all, let’s not forget that the biggest beneficiaries of affirmative action have been women. Secondly, when you have white college kids holding “diversity bake sales” and massive numbers of whining white pieces of shit complaining about how Mexican ‘illegals’ get free health care and all kinds of other hand outs, it becomes clear that a whole lot of white people out there are entirely detached from the reality of race in America. What that tells me is that the rhetorical and political importance of standing strong for affirmative action (of all three types) has never been stronger.

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