Limits of Class-Based Affirmative Action

As we wait around to find out exactly how much (if any) will be left of affirmative action in college admissions after this Supreme Court term, and mull polls showing support for affirmative action generally at historic lows, a lot of progressives are arriving at a conclusion that many (notably frequent Washington Monthly contributor Richard Kahlenberg) reached earlier: it’s time to shift to a “color-blind” or “class-based” affirmative action strategy.

Every time I prepare to reach that conclusion myself, something–maybe a distinctively southern resistance to the belief that we can try to forget about race within living memory of Jim Crow–holds me back. But this argument from The Atlantic‘s Ta-Nehisi Coates has its own power:

White-supremacist policy is older than this country. It begins with the slave codes in mid-17th-century colonial Virginia. It proceeds through the the 18th century, inscribing itself into our Constitution. It moves into the 19th century with such force that slaves alone were worth more than all the productive capacity of the country put together. War was waged to assure slavery’s continuance. The war was lost. We had a chance to do the right thing. We didn’t. So white supremacist policy endured. Even American liberalism’s proudest moment — the New Deal — would be unimaginable without its aid. This era of policy did not close until the late 1960s, well within the living memory of many Americans.

In the face of this, liberals today are arguing that 300 years of immoral policy can be undone by changing the subject. If only we can fool white racists by helping black people under the guise of “class,” maybe we can get out from under this. But the math says that black people are a class unto themselves. There is no “black and white” elite, no “black and white” middle class, no colorless poor. And when you consider that white supremacy is a dominant strain in our history, how could there be?

That’s very hard to dispute.

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Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore is a political columnist for New York and managing editor at the Democratic Strategist website. He was a contributing writer at the Washington Monthly from January 2012 until November 2015, and was the principal contributor to the Political Animal blog.