Race Still Matters

Why class-based affirmative action won’t heal our racial disparities.

Group of students walking together
Race-based affirmative action may stand as a necessary remedy to a particular form of inequality, at least when it comes to college admissions.

Photo by Stockbyte/Thinkstock

Late last year, in a speech on economic mobility, President Obama dismissed the idea that income inequality was an “exclusively minority concern.” “The opportunity gap,” he said, is “now as much about class as it is about race,” adding that “we have to reject a politics that suggests any effort to address it in a meaningful way somehow pits the interests of a deserving middle class against those of an undeserving poor in search of handouts.”

For many of Obama’s liberal supporters, this sounded right. Given the growing diversity of the United States, class is the most relevant concern, and we need policies that explicitly address class disadvantage.

Class is important, but it’s also not enough. As a bevy of sociologists have shown in recent years, it’s almost impossible to disentangle inequality from racism. Neighborhood conditions for black children, to use one example, are far worse than those for white ones, even after you adjust for income. Just 10 percent of black millennials have grown up in a neighborhood with poverty rates below 10 percent. The large majority of black children, regardless of income, grow up around a level of poverty unfamiliar to most whites, including those on the lowest rungs.

What’s more, few blacks grow up in families with a modest or substantial amount of wealth. According to a 2012 study from the Pew Economic Mobility Project, just 15 percent of blacks start in the top three quintiles of wealth, and just 17 percent in the top three of income. The vast majority of blacks begin their lives at the bottom of the economic ladder, and few make it any further. To ignore this racial dimension of disadvantage—and the extent to which it shapes class lines and extends across them—is to entrench it.

Unfortunately, in their arguments against race-based affirmative action, neither David Frum nor Conor Friedersdorf (both of the Atlantic) seems to countenance that fact.

In fairness, Friedersdorf spends more time on diversity and what it means for racial preferences in admissions. Affirmative action, he argues, doesn’t reflect the diversity of today’s America where some minorities—Asians in particular—are potentially disadvantaged by existing racial preferences. As he writes, “[Justice Sonia Sotomayor] just disappeared Asians from her lengthy discussion of race and minority groups.” Indeed, it’s possible that in a highly diverse and cosmopolitan America, minority-group interests will diverge, as people disagree.

Still, it’s possible that a more diverse America is also one where blacks and certain Latinos (most likely the low-income and the undocumented) continue to occupy the bottom of the racial hierarchy, segregated in poor neighborhoods with bad schools and substandard services. In which case, race-based affirmative action may stand as a necessary remedy to this particular form of inequality, at least when it comes to college admissions.

However, Friedersdorf thinks we should turn our attention to class. “Wouldn’t it be easier,” he writes, “to end legacy admissions, pressure colleges to subsidize test prep, and give all poor kids a boost when they apply to state universities?”

Frum does the same. Like his colleague, Frum cites the browning of America as one reason to re-evaluate the commitment to racial preferences. “As intermarriage between ethnic groups accelerates—one in six Americans now marries a person outside his or her own race or ethnicity—the task of adjudicating these preferences becomes ever more baroque and absurd,” he writes.

From there, however, he highlights class as the division that matters most: “A white skin may still correlate less with poverty than does a darker skin. But that skin alone long ago ceased to convey much in the way of privilege to the less affluent half of white America.” He continues, “In 21st-century America, class trumps race.”

But this is untrue. Blacks and whites (and to a lesser extent, Latinos) of similar economic status live in dramatically different environments. The persistence of residential segregation yields a world where the vast majority of blacks (including those in the middle-class) live in areas with higher crime rates, worse schools, and lower property values than their white counterparts.

As sociologist Patrick Sharkey puts it, “blacks and whites inhabit such different neighborhoods that it is not possible to compare the economic outcomes of black and white children who grow up in similarly disadvantaged neighborhoods.” The same goes for low-income Asian-Americans, who just don’t experience this level of concentrated poverty. Consider class alone, and you’ll miss this entirely. It’s why, as Nikole Hannah-Jones reported for ProPublica last year, “many scholars say race remains so powerful a factor that a class-based system would seriously reduce black and Latino representation at American colleges from their current levels.”

None of this is to say that we shouldnt have class-based affirmative action. Talented students with impoverished backgrounds deserve a leg up in the admissions lottery. But we must understand that we still live in a world of intense racial inequality, where racism blends with inequality to produce unique problems for blacks and Latinos at all income levels.

Frum writes, “If you are in a position in which affirmative action is relevant to your prospects, you have already risen above the worst that American society metes to its disadvantaged.” Maybe. A black student with two professional parents may have material resources, but she still faces racial obstacles in a way that isn’t true of any of her white peers. And odds are good that—depending on her neighborhood—she had worse schools and fewer opportunities along the way.

Racial preferences in education don’t solve the myriad problems faced by low-income blacks and other groups. But it doesn’t make sense to fault a targeted program for its narrow scope. If we want to deal with economic diversity in admissions, we should adopt class-based affirmative action. And if we want to deal with inequality writ large, well, there’s an agenda for that too.