Normative Narratives

The Politics of Division and Class-Based Affirmative Action

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During a March 2008 campaign speech at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia, Barack Obama said:

Most working- and middle-class white Americans don’t feel that they have been particularly privileged by their race. Their experience is the immigrant experience – as far as they’re concerned, no one’s handed them anything, they’ve built it from scratch. They’ve worked hard all their lives, many times only to see their jobs shipped overseas or their pension dumped after a lifetime of labor. They are anxious about their futures, and feel their dreams slipping away; in an era of stagnant wages and global competition, opportunity comes to be seen as a zero sum game, in which your dreams come at my expense.

Obama then noted the consequences:

When they hear that an African-American is getting an advantage in landing a good job or a spot in a good college because of an injustice that they themselves never committed…resentment builds over time.

Obama’s words ring just as true today, as highlighted by the Public Religion Research Institute’s 2015 American Values Survey. While the majority of Americans believe that historically marginalized groups face “a lot of discrimination”, there is a large portion of all Americans (25%) who believe whites face “a lot of discrimination”. Predictably, certain groups (Republican, Tea Party) hold these views even more strongly.

These perceptions fuel the “politics of division”–the “us” versus “them” mentality where “we” are hard workers who bust our butts just to make ends meet, while “they” are lazy “takers”. Of course at the macro level there are examples of “us” and “them” in every race / culture. But the diffusion of news sources and social media “echo chambers” counter this obvious truth, reinforcing the politics of division.

The politics of division always comes to the forefront during Presidential campaigns, when voters want to know what a candidate will do for “us”, and how they will punish “them”. In the current campaign season, national security and immigration concerns have made the politics of division even more acute.

These are not just philosophical considerations, the politics of division has real world implications. By turning issues that affect people of all races (globalization, stagnant wages, social immobility, etc.) into racial ones, people end up voting against their economic interests in the name of cultural / lifestyle considerations. When their economic situation consequentially continues to deteriorate, they double down on their scapegoating, moving further away from the real answers to their problems. And if those 25% of people (who believe that whites face a lot of discrimination) happen to come out and vote in droves, then something that sounds as absurd as “President Trump” could come to fruition.

So how do we counter the politics of division? While no one government program can fix race relations, one obvious program to reconsider–the one that Obama alluded to in 2008 and is before the SCOTUS todayis the current structure of affirmative action systems. I believe an economic class-based system would not only help bridge racial divides, but would also more effectively promote opportunity and social mobility.

Before you deride me for being at best misguided and at worst a racist, consider the following arguments:

Low Hanging Fruit:

A common argument against the current affirmative action model is that colleges pursue “low-hanging fruit”–minority students from good backgrounds who would have gone to college anyways. 

The number of minority students accepted through a class-based affirmative action system would be lower compared to the current model (although, due to racial inequalities in income and wealth, a class based system would still disproportionately benefit minorities). However, it is possible that a class based system could actually lead to greater total enrollment by minority groups, by targeting those who otherwise would not go to college. 

More research and testing would be needed to determine how a class-based system would impact total enrollment figures among various minority groups.

College Enrollment Rates by Race and Class:

College Enrollment Rates for Recent High School Graduates

2008 2013
All 68.6% 65.9%
High income 81.9% 78.5%
Middle income 65.2% 63.8%
Low income 55.9% 45.5%

…one possible theory offered by the analysis to explain the drop is that the perceived cost of college may be the issue at play here. “The rapid price increases in recent years, especially in the public college sector, may have led many students — particularly low-income students — to think that college is out of reach financially,” the report says.

“These data are even more worrisome with this fact in mind: while the percentage of low-income students in elementary and secondary schools is increasing, the percentage of low-income students who go on to college is falling,” the analysis says. “Said a bit differently, at the same time that low-income individuals are enrolling in college at lower rates, the majority of young adults in the precollege education pipeline are from those same low-income communities.”

While enrollment for “low income” students of all races has declined, enrollment rates for black students have been increasing:

casselman-college-race-1

Graduation rates are still much lower for black students, but affirmative action impacts enrollment, not graduation.

A college degree remains the best investment a person can make in themselves. The issue affecting social mobility is not getting minority students into college, it is getting “low income” students of all races to graduate from college.

Admittedly, affirmative action is only a small part of the solution. But due to its linkages to the politics of division, and that the current model seems to address an problem that no longer exists (low enrollment rates for minorities), affirmative action should be changed to a class-based system.

(The question of how affirmative action should be used for private sector hiring is less clear-cut. Unlike college enrollment, minorities still face many barriers to gainful employment, some of them due to racial bias, although new research suggests this bias could be waning).

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2 thoughts on “The Politics of Division and Class-Based Affirmative Action

  1. Pingback: The Politics of Division and Class-Based Affirmative Action | Normative Narratives

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