The Affirmative Action Debate Is An Opportunity for Left-Liberal Solidarity

Yesterday I wrote about the need for both sides of the 2016 primary battle to come together in solidarity by respecting one another’s core concerns. It should be possible for class-focused and identity-focused progressives and liberals to come together in mutual support on most issues.

One superb example of the potential for productive unity lies in the issue of affirmative action and college admissions. As Trump’s popularity sinks and the White House devolves into chaos, Trump has been hitting reliable conservative outrage hot buttons: transgender military personnel and white college applicants, just to name a few.

On college admissions, the usual response from each side of the Bernie-Clinton wars would be for social liberals to deride college admissions concerns among whites with less than stellar grades as whiny deplorables using racism to cover for their own mediocrity. Many democratic socialists would hastily agree, but dismiss the entire discussion as a grand distraction from broader economic inequality, the cost of tuition and the agenda of universal free college for all. Neither of these approaches is likely to satisfy or win over the voters with whom anti-affirmative action propaganda resonates.

But there is a discussion that can serve the agenda of both sides of the left coalition, and might even persuade a few angry whites anxious about their kids’ college prospects along the way. As Christine Emba writes in the Washington Post, the reality is that it’s not black people keeping white Americans out of college–it’s the rich.

What is essential to understand is that it’s not a vast crowd of black or brown people keeping white Americans out of the colleges of their choice, especially not the working-class white Americans among whom Trump finds his base of support. In fact, income tips the scale much more than race: At 38 top colleges in the United States, more students come from the top 1 percent of income earners than from the bottom 60 percent. Really leveling the admissions playing field, assuming the Trump administration actually cares about doing so, would involve much broader efforts to redistribute wealth and power. A focus on fringe campaigns against affirmative action suggests it does not.

Addressing inequalities in K-12 education, for instance, could help at-risk students of all races increase their chances of attending a top college — or any college at all. Policies such as property-tax-based funding for schools and the curiously slanted allocation of talented teachers (in Louisiana, for instance, a student in the poorest quartile of schools is almost three times as likely to be taught by an ineffective teacher as a student in the wealthiest quartile is) give a tremendous boost in college admissions to children from high-income families, often at the expense of their lower-income peers.

And right up to the application-writing doorstep, the beneficiaries of the biggest extra edge in admissions are more often than not the children of alumni. At Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Georgetown and Stanford universities, the acceptance rate for legacy applicants is between two and three times higher than the general admissions rate.

So as it turns out, middle-class whites are in fact being denied entry to the colleges they deserve. It’s just that the legacy admissions of the top 1% are getting the welfare and attending in their place. Preferential admissions for minorities barely even make a dent.

Trump’s decision to use this hoary old racist chestnut to whip up his base creates a teaching tool for progressives to educate and win over some of the voters who may well be racist, but are also motivated by real concerns over their children’s futures. Instead of dismissing these voters as deplorable or treating the whole issue a distraction, progressives and liberals alike can rally against the practice of legacy admissions, so that more top-tier higher education can be opened to lower-income students of all races and backgrounds.

Economic populists would get the class leveling and accountability for the top 1% of incomes they crave, social liberals would get more racial equity in admissions, and both sides would treat anxious middle-class whites with the concern and respect necessary to win some of their votes. A conversation about who is really denying their kids access to college might even make some middle/lower income whites rethink a bit of their racism–at least, it’s much likelier to have that salutary effect than dragging and shaming them as unreachable deplorables.

That seems like a win-win-win to me.

David Atkins

David Atkins is a writer, activist and research professional living in Santa Barbara. He is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal and president of The Pollux Group, a qualitative research firm.