The debate that won’t leave us: why affirmative action needs to be re-examined
Updated: Mar 28
Edited by Norpell Wilberforce
In recent months, affirmative action has reemerged in the center of public discourse as an organization called Students for Fair Admissions (SFFA) has brought court cases against Harvard and UNC Chapel Hill over admissions policies that it considers to be unfair. Given the Republican majority that the Supreme Court currently enjoys, many speculate that affirmative action has seen the end of the tunnel. While it has many vocal proponents, the program has gradually fallen out of favor with the general public. Most Americans can agree that their country has an egregious history with racial discrimination that still contributes to differentiated outcomes in the real world today and that societies benefits from increased diversity. However, many Americans are uncomfortable with the way that affirmative action deals with these problems, arguing that it further divides racial lines, breeds resentment and, at worst, seems blatantly unfair. The actual problem runs even deeper. Affirmative action has strayed away from its original ethos and has ended up disproportionately helping the privileged in society. In order to restore faith in a program that has so much potential to do good, I believe that affirmative action must include an uncompromising focus on class. The following essay will outline why affirmative action has gone the way it has, why class the main obstacle to upward mobility and the steps we need to take in order for affirmative action to return to its original ethos.
A Brief History of Affirmative Action
The term ‘affirmative action’ was introduced to the United States through Executive Order No. 10925 by President Kennedy in 1961 to “ensure that the applicants are employed, and that employees are treated during employment, without regard to their race, creed, color or national origin” (1). The language used here by JFK was rather neutral but marked a significant step forward from the overly discriminatory laws that used to exist in the USA. It wasn’t until President Johnson’s creation of the Office of Federal Contract Compliance (after the Civil Rights Act) that the term and idea of “representation” began to take place. But America is not the only place where such a program exists. South Africa introduced the Employment Equity Act and the Broad Based Black Economic Empowerment Act after Apartheid (2). India developed the Reservation system after her independence (3). Where injustice exists, affirmative action tends to follow. After all, its stated justification is to help compensate for past discrimination, persecution or exploitation by a ruling class. While affirmative action covers a large variety of disciplines, we are going to focus specifically on affirmative action programs in US universities.
“Two nations of black America”
The two nations of black America first aired on an episode of Frontline PBS in 1998. The argument is simple. While many black Americans have successfully moved into the middle class, an increasing amount is born into poverty, leading to class segregation and the creation of new stereotypes. Henry Louis Gates Jr was among the more fortunate individuals who moved across class and racial lines to become an immensely successful professor at Harvard. Born to a working-class family in Keyser, West Virginia, Gates’ story is emblematic of the American dream (4). Unfortunately, the exception does not prove the rule.
“Thirty years after Martin Luther King Jr’s death, how have we reached a point where we have both the largest black middle class and the largest underclass in our history?” (5)
While Gates was lucky enough to be a working-class beneficiary of affirmative action, he was certainly in the minority among his peers. At Yale, Gates was surprised at how college-ready his black peers were. “For some reason, I long assumed that most of these guys are from the ghetto” (6). In reality, many of his classmates were part of a colored elite, recruited to join the ranks of white, white-collar, professional jobs that were made available to them by recent reforms. There is no doubt that affirmative action played a crucial role in allowing these individuals to penetrate the formidable ‘Ivy Towers’. A lot of good comes from this. Most obviously, minorities can finally have access to institutions that were previously denied to them. Elite institutions such as Yale are also very efficient at reliably producing (at the very least) members of the middle class, whose socioeconomic influence is extremely important in shaping political discourse. We can clearly see this trend statistically, as the black middle class has doubled since 1970 and the black upper middle class has quadrupled (7). Together, this increases the societal position that blacks possess, and is certainly a step in the right direction. However, as with anything of great importance, the devil is in the details. As the absolute number of blacks ‘making it’ in America has increased, inequality amongst African Americans has also increased.
The catch with affirmative action is that it tends to require the possession of complementary resources. That’s why the children of affluent African Americans tend to be better equipped than their underprivileged counterparts to attend college (8). Of course, it can be argued that simply having an increased black presence on campus is a force for good (9). However, we must be wary not to overlook the underlying flaws behind programs like affirmative action, despite all the good it can do. To that end, we must examine the core tenets of the program as well as its effects on society, intended and unintended. Affirmative action was meant to be a temporary solution, not a permanent one. The rationale is simple: increased opportunities for African Americans now will allow for racial progress in the future. But when the underlying issues that African Americans face are not fixed, it becomes a problem in-and-of-itself, erecting new systems of privilege that leaves more and more people on the sidelines (10). The reasons behind this phenomenon are complicated and goes far beyond affirmative action itself. Rather, to truly understand why affirmative action in its current form is not enough, we must examine the surrounding socioeconomic context.
It’s the Economy, Stupid
So far, we have found that despite all the good things it has done, affirmative action is not a tide that lifts all boats. But why? Well, it’s the economy, stupid. At its heart, affirmative action is about upward mobility. When it fails to offset existing economic disadvantages, it undermines the primary rationale of this policy (11). There are three main reasons why this is the case. First, children from middle-class families tend to be better equipped in getting admitted to and navigating college than their underprivileged counterparts. Second, institutions that are supposed to equalize opportunity and allow for equal access in college education have failed to do so. Finally, if we truly do care about the welfare of minorities in America, we should examine the largest barrier to upward mobility: social class.
I will explain the reasons for the each of the factors in the following sub-sections.
Education in the United States is segregated on two levels: by race and by class. Unfortunately, the two are often intertwined. This is especially present in secondary education, where the differences between schools in rich districts and schools in poor districts are massive. Let’s start by looking at the relationship between residential segregation and funding. Houses near good school districts cost $200,000 [AW1] more on average and tends to be situated in suburban areas (12). This poses another economic barrier to living in affluent neighborhoods, as poor public transport almost necessitates the ownership of cars. Teachers also show a preference for staying in these schools, as they report many fringe benefits like safer neighborhoods, better working conditions and less emotional stress (13). These systematic incentives are extremely important in explaining why, even when schools have similar amounts of funding, qualified teachers choose to teach at suburban schools. More significantly, these schools tend to receive worse funding, less resources and have a higher turnover of teachers than their suburban counterparts (14).
Good teachers, sufficient funding and safe communities are all extremely important ingredients in the recipe for successful college admissions. Unfortunately, the conditions facing the most underprivileged members in society are such that access to these things are extremely limited, and the gap only widens at the fringes. So far, we’ve only talked about the differences between public schools. At the other end of the spectrum, private schools are even more efficient incubators of privilege. There are two main reasons why they are able to systematically send their students to elite universities. First, they possess insider information that is highly valuable. There are a set number of things that top universities look for in an applicant, and private schools know this (15). Many of their counsellors are alumni of elite institutions and, in some cases, have even worked in the admissions offices of these universities (16). Therefore, their ability to craft an ‘ideal candidate’ far exceeds that of ordinary public schools. Second, elite universities often have professional relationships with elite high schools. Much like how companies use Harvard graduates as a shorthand for ‘potentially good employee, universities use Phillips Andover graduates as a shorthand for ‘potentially successful student’ (17).
It used to take a village to raise a kid. Now, thanks to our easy access to reliable information and multibillion-dollar market dedicated to the cause, you can buy a ‘village’. Of course, that was a vast exaggeration. But the underlying point is nonetheless clear: having money allows parents to delegate certain tasks and be more involved in their child’s development. Let’s deal with each claim individually. First, as we’ve seen previously, money allows for the delegation of tasks. This is a fairly intuitive idea. The more interesting phenomenon is the inequality in accessing these services. Richer parents not only have access to daycares, but also tend to be better supported by grandparents (18). Research shows that grandparents can play a central role in the upbringing of children as they provide reliable support to busy parents and can devote more attention to kids than alternative caretakers (19). Grandparents can often perform the same functions as parents and since they are more likely to play a more active role in well-off families, this is another area where inequalities can emerge. Second, affluent parents also tend to be more involved in the upbringing of their children. There are two main implications to this phenomenon (20). One, recent research has provided us with vast amounts of evidence of links between the environment in which children grow up and their later development. Infants have an incredible ability to pick up the environment around them and this has lasting effects. In fact, some cognitive and behavioral differences that appear in early adolescence are often already present at 18 months (21). Children benefit immensely from affection, stability in parental roles and cognitive stimulation. Unfortunately, due to a variety of reasons of which there is a wealth of evidence (22)(23), children from less affluent families do not enjoy these benefits to the same extent. Together, these lead to better neurological development in later stages of the child’s life, and differences in academic attainment later. Researchers found that those who had experienced familial instability in the four years leading up to the age of 16 were a third less likely to choose the academic route and that “it's clear from our research that family instability is likely to affect the choices children make about their education” (24). Parental involvedness clearly matters a lot in the upbringing of children. Class is a major explanatory factor in these differences. More concretely, the specific effect of this on the differences in educational attainment is that children from poorer families tend not to receive equal amounts of support from parents than their more fortunate counterparts, and this is effect not mitigated in schools. Of course, one can argue that it is not within the responsibility or the capacity of the school to offer ameliorate these circumstances. Nevertheless, we can agree that part of the explanation for gaps in educational attainment comes from familial stability, which unfortunately plagues poorer families at a much higher rate.
Money and Privilege
It’s certainly not news that money and privilege can grant you access to resources that are otherwise exclusive. The question is by how much. Certainly, in the arena of university admissions, it’s a lot. We’ve already talked about what money can buy. But there’s a deeper element beyond the immediate consequences of money. To flourish in college, not only do you have to possess the material capacities of the upper class, but you also must behave in similar ways. Sociologists call this phenomenon “Habitus”[AW2] . Habitus is the idea that a shared social space tends to produce similar experiences and sense of place for members of a certain class (25). It consists of “Hexes”[AW3] (how you hold and use your body in certain ways) as well as the more complex and abstract mental habits like schemes of perception, appreciation and appropriation of the world which we enact in our daily existence. Crucially, these habits can only be acquired from the repetitive, everyday actions we experience within our family of origin (26). Therefore, this produces an extremely durable scheme through which social inequality is reproduced, as it is heavily dependent on one’s familial context. This has serious implications in the real world. For example, the upper-class taste comprises of an aesthetic disposition that requires the upper class to admire a work of art of music for its stylistic form rather than practical function. Therein develops the ‘game of culture’, where the players of the game are severely different from each other due to their habitus. The dominant classes know the right moves and how to navigate themselves within this social field, whereas the dominated class do not. This means that the extent to which social groups can use economic capital to increase their culture is severely limited, as habitus is acquired from birth. When it comes to differences in educational attainment, this is extremely potent. This is because even when the lower classes are accepted in these institutions, they are often informally gatekept out of the decision-making establishments within elite universities. Informal networks are often crucial in professional careers, and access to them often depends on ‘fitting in’ with the ‘right’ groups of people. This shows how habitus is a predictor of success. More importantly, this is not something that is adequately addressed by our current institutions, thereby placing less affluent individuals at a disadvantage. By considering these circumstances, we can offer more programmes for the disadvantaged so that they can have more opportunities to thrive.
There are many more ways in which social class reinforces itself in society that, due to its massive scope, I unfortunately cannot list here. However, the underlying point is clear: class is one of the most important predictors of success both in college admissions and achievement in college (27). Confronted with this harsh truth, I will suggest a new way of looking at affirmative action in colleges.
What is to be done?
Let’s review the facts. Affirmative action was created with the ethos of promoting equality of opportunity for the most disadvantaged in society. While there have been many success cases, the program tends to disproportionately benefit affluent members of the black community (28). On the other hand, we’ve seen that class is an even larger predictor of success in college admissions. A well-off African American applicant has higher chances than a poor white applicant in getting into university. Therefore, I will suggest three areas that affirmative action policies need to reconsider, so that help goes where it really needs to.
First, affirmative action needs to consider class. While many critics of affirmative action argue that race needs to be taken out of the equation, I disagree with this claim. Along with class, race is another important indicator of success in college admissions. Instead of taking race out of the equation, we should focus specifically on helping underprivileged minorities in the admissions process. Race and class are also inextricably linked, so a focus on class is a focus on race. This not only is the logical conclusion from the analysis above but is also better suited for the ethos of affirmative action in the first place.
Second, legacy admissions need to be abolished. Being a legacy student increases one’s chances of admittance at Harvard by 40% compared to a 9% boost for being a low-income student, and there is no good reason for why this should be the case (29). Legacy students are also disproportionately white and wealthy. Instead, places reserved for privileged whites should be made available for the underprivileged who are academically competent.
Finally, I will offer a model of what class-based affirmative action should look like. It is not the place of this paper to go into detail on the structural reforms in the American education system. However, this paper does argue that, given the evidence presented, affirmative action needs to have a greater focus on class. Richard Khalenberg, a scholar who has written extensively on affirmative action, found that by removing privileges given to wealthy white students and replacing racial preferences with a boost for socioeconomically disadvantaged students in a simulation, the share of minority students increased from 28% to 30% and, more impressively, the share of first-generation college students increased from 7% to 25% (30). More tellingly, public opinion has also shifted against affirmative action. A recent PEW poll showed that 7% of the population believes that race and ethnicity should be a major factor in admissions, 19% a minor factor and 74% believe it should not be considered (31). More interestingly, these statistics mirror public opinion on “whether a relative attended the college” (legacy admissions), with the results being 5%, 20% and 75% respectively. From these trends, we can see that a) there is a growing disaffection towards affirmative action and b) class-based solutions have the potential to be effective. The main reason why class-based affirmative action is seen as a more attractive option is because it doesn’t carry the political baggage. A 2016 Gallup poll shows that 61% of respondents agree that a family’s economic circumstances should be considered as a factor in college admissions, indicating the viability of a class-based affirmative action (32).
Practically, it can be implemented in three main ways. First, there needs to be more transparency in the releasing of relevant data so longitudinal studies can be conducted. While Khalenberg’s study was revealing, he was denied access to the wealth data of applicants, which would have increased the scope and effectiveness of his research. Even given the limitations, Khalenberg’s study revealed that Harvard’s own analysis found its preferences towards African-American students are about twice as large as their preferences towards students whose family income was lower than $60, 000 a year – something that might explain why 71% of the black and Latino students at Harvard come from wealthy backgrounds (33). Sowell (2004) has also argued that what matters more is not mere enrollment at these campuses, but black graduation rates (34). This statistic is an extremely important predictor of future success and must be considered if we want to examine the effects of such programs. If students are mismatched, they are more likely to experience academic hardships and drop out, therefore undermining the purpose of affirmative action in the first place. Unfortunately, data about black graduation rates after affirmative action and future employment is limited (35). More data and studies on the long-term implications of affirmative action and the long-term effects of universities who have banned affirmative action needs to be conducted so we can cross-examine the results and arrive at a more appropriate, empirically satisfactory conclusion to guide policy. Second, a class-based affirmative action must allow individuals to fully explain their extenuating circumstances, so schools can have a holistic understanding of applicants. We have already seen this in university applications during COVID-19, where many colleges allowed applicants to detail the different ways in which the pandemic has affected them. I argue that class and adverse familial circumstances has a more pertinent and long-term effect on an applicant’s chances at higher education, and that these circumstances must be made known to universities as a way to equalize opportunity gaps. Moreover, things like COVID-19 tend to disproportionately affect the poor anyway, so allowing for the expression of extenuating circumstances is extremely important in painting a full picture. Finally, universities should create a new metric by which an applicant’s economic circumstances are given more weight in admissions decisions. Of course, the extent to which economic circumstances should be weighted depends on the outcome of the studies I suggested earlier. Relying on relevant data, admissions teams can construct accurate indicators to best help those in need. While this may sound somewhat abstract without the accompanying quantitative analysis, the core message is that colleges should consider class in its admissions decisions, for which there is already indication of positive results.
The programs that are currently available to the working class face severe problems in funding and implementation. Structural incentives, we have seen, are also working against the interests of the working classes. Although a class-focused affirmative action may help address these issues, it is only a temporary solution to a much larger problem. Unfortunately, the scope of the paper cannot address the debate in its entirety. At a fundamental level, more help needs to go where it is most needed. The three main areas that we addressed in the third section offer a glimpse of what the problem entails. Structural reforms are needed to address these, and class must be considered a priority if we actually care about upward mobility.
Footnotes  The reservation system was to While the Reservation system did exist in parts of India before independence, it was not formally implemented in the government until 1950. That said, the Reservation system (which effectively works as a quota system), is the oldest form of affirmative action in the world.  His father worked in a paper mill and his mother cleaned houses to support their family  I need to make this perfectly clear before bringing in other thinkers into the discussion: while Gates believes there are problems with affirmative action, he does not stand against the idea all together. This essay draws upon a wide variety of thinkers with an equally large variety of opinions, but as the writer, I want to make sure that each of their positions are not misrepresented.  OK a bit of a stylistic exaggeration (thanks Bill) but economics is certainly a major reason why affirmative action disproportionately benefits affluent minorities.  This is an important, but often overlooked factor in why teachers often prefer to work in affluent school districts. In many inner city schools, there is often an element of physical danger involved, as an ever-present minority of students will have gang affiliations. These schools also have drug-related problems, with higher rates of juvenile delinquency than their suburban counterparts. Dealing with these problems is often outside the expected job description of (especially young) high school teachers, hence the appeal of safer, more affluent schools.  Public schools in the USA are equivalent to the British “state schools”  A great practical example of this happening is in the enormous amounts of funding that private schools grant to extracurricular activities. This not only increases the status of the school itself but is often a key requirement (on top of academic success) for entry into elite universities in the United States.  Some examples of parental care that grandparents also perform that lead to success in children include reading to kids before going to bed, instilling a good work ethic, teaching of values etc.  One example (of many) is in the home situation that many of these children face. Along with living in dangerous neighborhoods, many children come from single-parent families, which makes it much harder for them to engage in the aforementioned activities that are more readily available for middle class families.  For example, many students from less affluent backgrounds may feel pressure not to join college fraternities or sororities, which is often composed of rich white kids. It is expensive to maintain the lifestyle of a frat member, which often involves socially coopted heavy drinking, substance abuse and partying. There is also a mismatch in habitus. This is extremely important because these organizations often provide necessary networks that can be useful in securing jobs or internships, leading to materialized differences down the line.  An example would be to have more investment from universities in career services, so that formal networks begin to replace informal ones. This is because a way class is reproduced is the policy of internal referrals by firms. While on the surface it seems to encourage networking, in reality it often comes down to kinship ties, placing less affluent families at a stark disadvantage. Offering more platforms for job opportunities is a way to equalize this opportunity.  Research has shown that the usual justification given to the admittance of legacy students (that they bring in more donations) is not empirically proven  The study was conducted in Harvard that used data of actual Harvard applicants  The question that was asked was “here are some factors colleges and universities may consider when making decisions about student admissions. Do you think each of the following should be a major factor, a minor factor, or not a factor in college admissions?”
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(28) Sowell, T. (2004) Affirmative Action around the World: an empirical study. Yale University Press.
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(31) Gomez, Vianny. As courts weigh affirmative action, grades and test scores seen as top factors in college admissions. https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2022/04/26/u-s-public-continues-to-view-grades-test-scores-as-top-factors-in-college-admissions/. April 26, 2022
(32) Kahlenberg, Richard D. “Class-Based Affirmative Action.” California Law Review, vol. 84, no. 4, 1996, pp. 1037–99. JSTOR, https://doi.org/10.2307/3480988. Accessed 13 Feb. 2023.
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(34) Sowell, T. (2004) Affirmative Action around the World: an empirical study. Yale University Press.