Affirmative action: race v. class
July 27, 2010, 04:35 AM
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Kevin Drum responds on Mother Jones to Democratic Sen. Jim Webb`s op-ed "Diversity and the Myth of White Privilege" questioning affirmative action:
Class/income-based affirmative action has long struck me as an alternative that ought to get more attention than it does. ... Class-based program programs might, in the end, provide modestly less help for ethnic minorities than current policies — though well-designed ones might not.
This is a common centrist misconception. It is widely assumed: There must be lots of black and Hispanic kids in the `hood with 1300 out of 1600 SAT scores who are losing out to Chad Buffington of Lake Forest`s tutor-aided 1400. I mean, there just have to be, right? So, All We Have To Do is institute class-based affirmative action and then we wouldn`t have to have race-based affirmative action and we would still get a whole bunch of pretty smart blacks and Hispanics, almost as many as we get now. Why didn`t anybody ever think of this before? After all, class is the reason that blacks and Hispanics average lower scores, right? It couldn`t be anything else, of course. Right?
But they have some advantages too. For one thing, they help poor people. That`s worthwhile all by itself. (Kahlenberg quotes William Benn Michael as noting acidly that currently the debate in higher education is mostly about what color skin the rich kids will have.) Beyond that, there`s another benefit: for all the good it does, there`s no question that race-based affirmative action has drawbacks as well. It makes employers suspicious of minority graduates, wondering if their degrees were really fairly earned. It provokes a backlash among working class whites. And it`s open to abuse on a number of fronts. Class-based programs don`t solve all these problems at a stroke, but they go a long way toward addressing them. This isn`t normally a subject I write much about. I`ve done only modest reading about it, and my personal background — middle class white guy born and raised in Orange County — obviously doesn`t give me any valuable personal insight. But the status quo has done, and continues to do, a lot of damage to all sides. It`s probably a fantasy to think that there`s any progress to be made in our current fever swamp atmosphere, but a conservative concession on the reality of race as a continuing problem — think racial profiling, penal system injustices, health system disparities, etc. — combined with a liberal concession on emphasizing class much more than we have in the past, would almost certainly be a step forward.
How would living in Orange County, California on and off over the last half century not give you any valuable personal insight into this subject?

But the line I want to look into is Drum`s criticism of race-based quotas: "And it`s open to abuse on a number of fronts."

I`ve certainly pointed out abuses myself. For example, Henry Louis Gates and Lani Guinier have complained for years that an ever increasing number of black affirmative action slots at Harvard are going to people who aren`t descended from American slaves: people who have a white parent, and/or are descended from African or Caribbean elites.

Of course, Barack Obama (Harvard Law, `91) is the classic example of this. His racial identity was so ambiguous that he had to write a 150,000 autobiography talking himself into believing he was black enough to be a black politician.

You often hear: How can anybody say that race exists when all you have to do is look at Barack Obama to see that not everybody fits into a perfect little box?

On the other hand, if you think Obama`s race is complicated, try to figure out what class Obama was from when he was applying to Occidental, Columbia, and Harvard.

- Barack Obama Jr.`s mother was on welfare for awhile. + His mother was working on her Ph.D.

- His mother got pregnant out of wedlock at 17. + His mother was accepted by the University of Chicago when she was 15.

- His father abandoned him when he was 2. + His father abandoned him when he was 2 to obtain an advanced degree in economics from Harvard.

- He lived in a poor Third World country in a fairly poor neighborhood. + His Indonesian geologist stepfather was an oil company executive from a wealthy family and they quickly moved to an exclusive neighborhood in Jakarta.

- He came from a multiply broken family, abandoned by his father as an infant and twice by his mother, and had to live with his grandparents. + He lived with his grandparents on the tenth floor of highrise in a nice part of Honolulu with a fabulous view.

- He smoked a lot of dope in high school. + He smoked a lot of dope on the beach in Hawaii with his fellow students at the most prestigious prep school in the state.

- In college he hung out with Third Worlders. + They were rich Third Worlders, such as a son of a future prime minister of Pakistan.

- His maternal grandfather was a fairly unsuccessful salesman. + His maternal grandmother was a quite successful bank executive.

- His maternal grandfather was from a family with a shady reputation. + His maternal grandmother`s family was quite respectable and academic-oriented. One of his great aunts became a statistics professor and great-uncle became the #2 man at the U. of Chicago library.

- His mother had to do lowly clerical work in Indonesia. + She did it at the powerful U.S. embassy in Jakarta, where she got to know diplomats and CIA men.

- His paternal grandfather had been a servant. + His paternal grandfather was a large landowner.

- His father was a drunk. + His father`s Master`s degree made him a legacy at Harvard.

- His father got fired a lot. + His father was, when sober, an oil company executive and government official.

- His father was politically and ethnically persecuted. + His father was, when sober, the protege of the CIA`s main man to become President of Kenya, Tom Mboya.

- His father was the prime witness of his mentor`s assassination by President Kenyatta`s allies in 1969, and was hounded by the dominant Kikuyus after that. - Well, that is a bummer.

I could go on and on. I know a lot about Obama, and I have no idea how to definitively categorize him as a young man by any usual ranking of class from low to high. (I might say he came from the Vaguely Academic Class, but I just made up that term.)

So, does class not exist?