It’s time to shift to affirmative action based on class
1. Racial preferences are highly unpopular. They contribute to the kind of resentments politicians on the right pander to in code, from Ronald Reagan’s “welfare queens” to Mitt Romney’s “47 percent.” On the other hand, polls show that most Americans are willing to give a leg up to students who have grown up in poverty. Of course, the popular thing is not always the right thing, but Americans are more likely to support the taxes to pay for high-quality education if they think the system is fair.
2. Economic inequality is increasingly recognized as an even greater menace to our national well-being than racial discrimination. Huge and growing disparities of wealth contribute to a shift of political power from the many to the privileged few, retard economic growth and productivity, and undermine the values we profess. So affirmative action that puts poor and working-class students on the on-ramp to success is good for our economy, legitimizing for our democracy and consistent with our values. Racism is still a toxic reality in our country. But the gulf between the wealthy and the poor is wider and even more socially corrosive than the gap between black and white. And basing college admissions on economic status does not mean giving up on racial diversity, because…
3. As it happens, a well-designed program of socioeconomic preference also increases minority enrollment. Racial preferences don’t help all that much in promoting class diversity, because selective colleges heavily favor minorities from middle-class and affluent families; but class-based preferences favor minorities, because blacks and Hispanics are more heavily represented among the poor.