The debate surrounding the Fisher v. University of Texas affirmative action case has unleashed a cacophony of voices urging colleges and universities to replace race as a factor in college admissions with class or socio-economic status (SES). Whether the "conversation has shifted" in the media or on college campuses in support of SES as a replacement for race is, frankly, irrelevant, however. The reality is that race continues to be a barrier to equal opportunity in education as well as in employment and contracting.
As Justice Blackmun wrote in the Bakke decision (1978), "In order to get beyond racism we must first take account of race. There is no other way." The merits of taking race into account in university admissions should never be determined by whether this policy is the "flavor of the month." Moreover, the palpable backlash against diversity programs does not suggest their lack of importance. If that were the case, the Supreme Court would never have handed down the Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954.
Popularity has little to do with justice and equality. The "Tyranny of the Majority" must always be viewed with caution when one considers the constitutionality or morality of a law or policy. California's Proposition 209 and Michigan's Proposal 2, both of which outlawed taking race into account in university admissions, inter alia, are the embodiment of such oppressiveness by those who, for fear of losing a presumed advantage in college admissions have severely limited the educational opportunities of an ever growing population of minorities. What the majority of voters failed to understand was that diversity programs benefit everyone . Equal opportunity is not a Zero-Sum game.
The mantra of "Class vs. Race" is merely the latest salvo against equal opportunity programs in admissions. Those with wealth and privilege have been the majority of students attending selective colleges and universities since 1636. Urging the Academy to diversify its student body by considering socio-economic status as well as race, athletic ability, musical ability, geographic diversity and host of other factors, is a laudable effort. To substitute race with class is not.
First, with the sheer number of low-income white students, the proportion of minorities in this pool will decrease. Those who champion the "class vs. race" argument understand and yet accept this outcome. Secondly to assert that "wealthy" blacks, for instance, should not receive a "preference" is to ignore the reality that there are very few so-called wealthy blacks and that given the well-documented wealth gap, the "wealth" of African Americans pales in comparison with that of their white counterparts. As important, research has shown that middle-class students of color are more likely to perform as well as their white peers than their less well-prepared counterparts.
In addition, while we assume that low SES minorities are as prepared to perform in competitive colleges as their low-SES white counterparts, the opposite is the case. As we noted in our Fisher amicus brief (American Association for Affirmative Action, http://www.affirmativeaction.org/node/30), "Research shows that whites outperform underrepresented minorities in standardized testing within income groups." Low SES plus race has a more disadvantaging effect than SES alone. Thus, abandoning race as a factor would worsen the racial divide in higher education.
Lastly, if one removes race from among the many factors used in college admissions, the chances of a white student being admitted increase by only approximately 1.6 points. (Goodwin Liu, "The Myth and Math of Affirmative Action, Washington Post, April 14, 2002 at B1.)
There is no reason why colleges and universities cannot use both race and socio-economic status in fashioning the best student body. Class as an admissions factor should not eliminate the opportunities conferred by the Fourteenth Amendment to its intended beneficiaries -- even if it is popular.