For more than a decade, Ive been appearing at forums on affirmative action and playing a strange role. Panels typically include a proponent of affirmative action, an opponent of affirmative action, and then there is mea supporter of affirmative action based on class rather than race. In these discussions I ask my fellow liberals, Why is it progressive to support a college admissions program that favors the son of a wealthy black doctor over the child of a poor white waitress? Why not give a leg up to the children of poor black secretaries, poor Hispanic gardeners, and poor white waitresses, and let the doctors kids make it in on merit?
At first I appear to be making some headway with the audience, arguing that hidden beneath racial issues are deeper issues of class inequality. Then Im stopped cold. Invariably, someone from the audience gets up and accuses me of trying to change the subject and avoid the issue of race. No one in America wants to talk about race, the individual will say. Heads in the audience will nod in unison. The idea that America runs from race is part of the catechism. Suddenly I become the sellout, the guy who wont face up to the reality of race in America.
Now, along comes Walter Benn Michaels, a professor of English at the University of Illinois at Chicago, to argue that the catechism has it exactly wrong. In his slender new book, The Trouble With Diversity, Michaels writes, Although no remark is more common in American public life than the observation that we dont like to talk about race, no remark … is more false. He explains, [I]n fact, we love to talk about race. And, in the university, not only do we talk about it; we write books and articles about it, we teach and take classes about it, and we arrange our admissions policies in order to take it into account.
Affirmative action in college admissions is a perfect example of what Michaels is talking about. A 2004 Century Foundation study by the researchers Anthony Carnevale and Stephen Rose found that racial affirmative action at 146 of the nations most selective colleges and universities ensured that three times as many African American and Latino students got in than would have based on grades and test scores alone. By contrast, while virtually every university will tell you that they also give a preference to low-income students who overcome obstacles, Carnevale and Rose found that economically disadvantaged applicants receive no boost in admissions. Former Princeton President William Bowens study of selective institutions came to the same conclusion. Most (though not all) of those universities that pursue class-based affirmative action do so because they are banned from using race. They are less interested in aiding poor students per se than in trying indirectly to produce racial diversity.
As a result, while selective colleges and universities have made some significant (though still insufficient) strides in diversity by race, poor kids are virtually absent on their campuses. Michaels cites Carnevale and Roses finding that at the institutions studied, just 3 percent of students came from the lowest socioeconomic quarter of the population, while 74 percent came from the richest quartera 1:25 ratio. These disparities have moved a few higher education leadersPrincetons Bowen, former Harvard President Lawrence Summers, and Amherst President Anthony Marx, for exampleto call for socioeconomic affirmative action. The primary focus in higher education, however, remains on race.
Consider the reaction to a recent report that the University of California at Los Angeles had admitted a freshman class that was just 2 percent African American. Appropriately, the story received heavy press coverage. A commission was formed, and action plans were detailed to address the problem. For black students to be underrepresented by a factor of six (blacks constitute about 12 percent of the U.S. population) was rightly considered unacceptable. But according to Carnevales research, poor children are underrepresented by a factor of eightand not just on one campus, but at selective colleges nationwide. Where is the outrage about that?
Some accept class inequality at universities as a manifestation of merit discrepancies. David Brooks claims that the rich dont exploit the poor, they just outcompete them. Michaels bitingly replies: And if outcompeting people means tying their ankles together and loading them down with extra weight while hiring yourself the most expensive coaches and the best practice facilities, [Brooks is] right.
Consider another area of controversyone now before the U.S. Supreme Court: the issue of school integration in elementary and secondary education. The social science research has long found that if a school wants to boost academic achievement, getting the right economic mix is vital. Racial integration boosted black test scores in places like Charlotte, North Carolina, but not in places like Boston, Massachusetts, because in Charlotte, blacks went to school with middle-class whites, and in Boston they went to school with poor and working-class whites. The research is clear: blacks dont necessarily do better when they sit next to whites, but poor kids do better in middle-class schools, where they are surrounded by peers who have big dreams and plan to go to college, parents who monitor and volunteer at the school, and good teachers with high expectations.
Nevertheless, school integration is usually seen as an issue of race, not
class, even after most districts have been released from court-ordered desegregation plans addressing the vestiges of past segregation. Hundreds of districts use race as a factor in student assignment; only about forty look at socioeconomic status. And, as with affirmative action in higher education, much of the interest in income integration in those districts is that it will produce a racial dividend in a way that the courts consider perfectly legal.
Finally, consider the Bush administrations outrageous response to Hurricane Katrina. Most commentators emphasized the race of the New Orleans residents who were left behind. Cornel West, for example, declared, Lets be honest, we live in one of the bleakest moments in the history of black people in this nation. He went on to describe
conditions in the Superdome, where many of the homeless residents were temporarily housed, as a living hell for black people. But Michaels rejects the George Bush doesnt care about black people theory, pointing out that Nobody doubts that George Bush cares about Condoleezza Rice. Instead the lesson is, Michaels says, that Bush doesnt care about poor peopleor at least doesnt care about poverty. Michaels writes, We like blaming racism, but the truth is that there werent too many rich black people left behind when everybody who could get out of New Orleans did so.
The obvious retort to Michaelss line of thinkingand to the entire race vs. class debateis: Why not address both? Discrimination and deprivation, and prejudice and poverty, are distinct ills, and all need to be fought. Pitting race against class is a false choice, noted Alan Wolfe in Slate magazine: Lyndon Johnsons Great Society, the highpoint of postwar liberalism, featured both a Civil Rights Act and a War on Poverty. On one level, Wolfes criticism is obviously true. There is absolutely no conflict between enforcing antidiscrimination laws and fighting povertythey are complementary and mutually reinforcing efforts. Likewise, on the school integration issue, one can favor socioeconomic integration to raise academic achievement and also favor explicit measures for racial integration to further the role of the public schools in fostering tolerance and social cohesion.
But as Michaels points out, many of those who say we need to simultaneously address race and class never get around to the class piece of the bargain. For example, when its affirmative action program was under attack, the University of Michigan made a big point of saying that it was concerned about both racial and economic diversity. But while it kept meticulous records of racial diversity, it hasnt even had benchmarks in place for measuring economic diversity. As Michaels notes, [C]lass has always seemed a little like the odd man out in the race/gender/class trinity.
Moreover, Michaels charges, many wealthy people support affirmative action by race to avoid deeper issues of class. They want to contain the debate to the question of what color skin the rich kids should have. At Harvard, Michaels notes, almost 90 percent of students come from the top economic half of the population, and almost three quarters from the top fifth. If Harvard were to aggressively use class-based affirmative action, more than half of the students would lose out. Its no wonder that rich white kids and their parents arent complaining about diversity, Michaels concludes.
Similarly, Michaels argues that conservatives prefer the debate to be over race and identityrather than class and inequalitybecause the policy solutions are much cheaper. Corporate America, in particular, has embraced diversity, he says, because the obligations of diversity (being nice to each other) are far easier to address than the obligations of equality (giving up our money). Even class inequality is now discussed as an issue of classism rather than deprivation. He explains, Classism is what youre a victim of not because youre poor but because people arent nice to you because youre poor. But Michaels argues that the deeper problem is not classismthat poor kids are made to feel uncomfortable on the campuses of Duke, Northwestern, and Harvardbut that most low-income students have never set foot on these campuses or on any other. He writes, So for thirty years, while the gap between rich and poor has grown larger, weve been urged to respect peoples identitiesas if the problem of poverty would be solved if we just appreciated the poor.
And when one moves from the principle of nondiscrimination to the realm of affirmative action preferences, the problem with doing both race and class is that its often politically unsustainable. In the 2006 election, as Democrats were celebrating across the country, an antiaffirmative action initiative passed easily in Michigan, just as similar ballot initiatives prevailed in California in 1996 and Washington State in 1998. Taken together with Florida, where Governor Jeb Bush preempted a threatened ballot initiative with an executive order banning racial preferences, the Michigan result means that four states, containing nearly one quarter of the U.S. population, have now banned preferential affirmative action in public universities and state government.
This is problematic not only because affirmative action by race is deeply unpopular, but because the identification of Democrats with race-specific policies has torn at the Democratic coalition for years. The problem with racial identity politics is that it encourages a form of white identity politics. Nothing pleases the right wing more than having the white working classAmericas premier swing voteidentify with its race rather than its class in the voting booth.
Michaels makes a robust case for resurrecting the importance of class, but unfortunately falls into the trap of implying that discrimination by race and gender are no longer serious problems. He never comes out and says this directly, but he comes very close. At one point, for example, he writes, Why, in a world where most of us are not racist (where, on the humanities faculties at our universities, we might more plausibly say not that racism is rare but that it is extinct), do we take so much pleasure
in reading attacks on racism? To say that racism is extinct in any occupational field is just absurd. Likewise, there is Michaelss unreasonable attack on a victim of gender discrimination at the investment firm Morgan Stanley. Michaels makes much of her $1 million salary, but although that may make her an unsympathetic recipient of preferences, it should not deny her the right to equal treatment.
In these instances, by pushing his case too far, Michaels unwittingly undercuts his argument for taking class seriously. Part of the resistance to policies like class-based affirmative action is that its color-blind approach is seen as suggesting that racism is no longer a problem, a thing of the past. But in fact, class-based programs incorporate not only the legacy of past discrimination but also the reality of current-day discrimination. We know, for example, that black median net worth is just 12 percent of white net worth, a gap far greater than the income divide between races. To some significant degree, the wealth gap reflects both the legacy of slavery and segregation and ongoing discrimination in the housing market. Houses in African American neighborhoods appreciate slower than houses in white neighborhoods because of racial bias in housing choices. A college admissions policy which counts lack of wealthor living in a community with concentrated povertyas an obstacle powerfully incorporates the reality of discrimination.
Emphasizing class in America is always an uphill battle. There are many pressures to shift the focus to raceboth from civil rights organizations, whose primary concern is race, and from conservatives who have an unseemly fascination with pathologies in minority communities. In the academy, there are black professors, Latino professors, female professors, and gay professors, but there are no low-income professors. Walter Benn Michaels provides an important corrective. American society may sometimes run away from race, but far more often, we run away from class.