Race-based affirmative action lets us ignore economic inequality, writes Walter Benn Michaels in the New York Times Magazine. He’s an English professor at University of Illinois-Chicago, a non-elite college that serves diverse students from low- and middle-income families.
Elite universities serve the children of affluence, Michaels writes.
(At Harvard) 90 percent of the undergraduates come from families earning more than $42,000 a year (the median household income in the U.S.) — and some 77 percent come from families with incomes of more than $80,000, although only about 20 percent of American households have incomes that high. If the income distribution at Harvard were made to look like the income distribution of the United States, some 57 percent of the displaced students would be rich, and most of them would be white. It’s no wonder that many rich white kids and their parents seem to like diversity. Race-based affirmative action, from this standpoint, is a kind of collective bribe rich people pay themselves for ignoring economic inequality. The fact (and it is a fact) that it doesn’t help to be white to get into Harvard replaces the much more fundamental fact that it does help to be rich and that it’s virtually essential not to be poor.
I’d say it helps to be very well-educated, and it’s a lot easier for the children of the affluent to get the schooling they need to qualify.
In the end, we like policies like affirmative action not so much because they solve the problem of racism but because they tell us that racism is the problem we need to solve. And the reason we like the problem of racism is that solving it just requires us to give up our prejudices, whereas solving the problem of economic inequality might require something more — it might require us to give up our money.
. . . When student and faculty activists struggle for cultural diversity, they are in large part battling over what skin color the rich kids should have.
Michaels overstates the case: Plenty of affluent students can’t get into elite universities. But he’s right about the lack of economic and class diversity at highly competitive colleges. I remember a University of California study that analyzed the effect of replacing race-based preferences with preferences for students from low-income families. The conclusion was that such a change would increase the admission of Asians (mostly from poor immigrant families) and rural whites; most black and Hispanic students who qualify for UC come from middle-class families.
Via Amardeep Singh.