I recently attended a discussion led by the Black Students Organization: “Is Class the New Race in Affirmative Action?”
The discussion addressed a question that I’ve heard in various incarnations from mid-childhood until now: Is it more important for universities to focus on economic diversity or racial and ethnic diversity in their admissions policies? Lots of people are against the idea of race-based affirmative action on principle. They believe that it gives non-white applicants an unfair advantage over white applicants who may be more qualified—basically, that affirmative action gives seats to non-white students that should be going to white students in a meritocratic college application system.
But many others hold that race-based affirmative action is the only way to “level the playing field” and make the college application process into a true meritocracy. This debate has been going on since universities developed the first affirmative action policies in the late 1960s and early 1970s following desegregation, and I am firmly in the second camp. As University President Lee Bollinger summed up in 2002:
This notion that enormous numbers of whites are being denied admission because of the preferential treatment of under-represented minorities is simply false. In fact, admissions policies such as Michigan’s–those at the center of the 2003 Supreme Court Cases in which Bollinger was named defendant–do not meaningfully affect a white student’s chances of admission. The numbers of minority applicants are extremely small compared to the numbers of white students who apply to universities across the country. It is not mathematically possible that the small numbers of minority students who apply and are admitted are displacing a significant number of white students.
In the same speech, Bollinger cited “The Shape of the River,” a book on ethnicity and college applications by the former presidents of Princeton and Harvard. Even if all selective universities implemented a race-blind admissions system, according to “Shape,” a white student’s chance of admission would increase by only 1.2 percent. White students denied from the university of their dreams can’t usually claim that affirmative action was the culprit.
So that’s why I’m in favor of race-based affirmative action—but what about social class? Columbia, like most highly selective universities, is not very economically diverse, meaning that most of us are wealthier than the average American. According to US News and World Report, we’re more economically diverse than a lot of other highly selective schools: 30 percent of Columbia undergraduates are receiving Pell Grants, compared to 12 percent at Princeton and just 7 percent at Washington University in St. Louis. But we could do much, much better.
You could even argue that race-based affirmative action should be entirely a thing of the past, that we should dole out affirmative action based entirely on a student’s financial situation. (This argument, basically, assumes that class now trumps race as a disruptive force in America, which is a related but much broader discussion.) But if income and not race has the bigger impact on an American citizen’s experience, then how do you explain incidents of overt racism toward middle-class and wealthy non-white individuals–including one black student who was arrested for buying a belt at Barney’s?
I’m black and my family is middle-class. I lived in the suburbs of Detroit–featuring the most racially segregated metro area in the country–until I was 11 years old. My most vivid childhood memories include my classmates’ comments that I “must have cheated” to be allowed to go to school with them or that my family wasn’t wanted in their neighborhoods. Class is not necessarily a racial equalizer. Non-white people from middle-class (or even wealthy) backgrounds won’t experience life as their white peers do.
But wouldn’t class-based affirmative action bring in more minority students naturally? In fact, affirmative action based entirely on parents’ income does not mean automatic racial and ethnic diversity to universities, because most U.S. citizens who live in poverty are white. Again from Bollinger’s 2002 speech: When University of California, Berkeley adopted a colorblind, socioeconomic-focused process, “African-American enrollment in the entering class fell by approximately 60 percent.”
This isn’t to say that I’m against class-based affirmative action–I’m against the idea that class is the only factor worth considering. I think we can all agree that a student’s economic background, just like race or ethnicity, shouldn’t negatively impact his or her chances of attending university. Columbia needs a system that combines racial/ethnic affirmative action with financially based affirmative action. Our school, though very racially diverse, lacks sufficient economic diversity. Yes, we need affirmative action based on a student’s financial situation as much as we need affirmative action based on a student’s racial/ethnic background, but class is not “the new race” in affirmative action.
Iman Fears is a Columbia College sophomore. Fears, Herself usually runs on alternate Tuesdays.
To respond to this column, or to submit an op-ed, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.