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Class Is Back in Session!
The Supreme Court Has Handed Democrats a Golden Opportunity
Last Thursday, the Supreme Court struck down race-conscious college admissions. The reaction in Democratic circles has been to denounce the decision in histrionic terms and circle the wagons in defense of race-based affirmative action. A representative sample:
“I fear what will happen… Will there be many lawyers who [are black] in the future? Or doctors? Or accountants?”—Catherine Christian, legal analyst, MSNBC
“We will return to elite institutions… being the space for a particular population, for predominantly white and Asian students. We will begin to see a kind of segregated higher-education landscape.”—Princeton professor Eddie Glaude Jr.
“Can’t wait until [the daughter of an Asian activist supporting the Court decision] reads that you gladly carried the water for white supremacy”— Jemele Hill, Atlantic writer, Twitter
“[I]t just makes… a Native American kid, a Black kid feel like you don’t matter…Is it leading to no women in colleges soon? Who knows?”—Whoopi Goldberg, The View
“This is a devastating blow for racial justice and equality…We condemn the Supreme Court’s decision to end these affirmative action policies and make it even more difficult for Americans to access higher education. While this decision is a setback… it is not the final word.”—Jaime Harrison, Democratic National Committee chair
But perhaps this is not a hill Democrats should choose to die on. Rather than implicitly or explicitly pledging to resist the law of the land and promote racial preferences by any means necessary, they would be far wiser to use the decision as an opportunity to rebrand the party as the party of America’s working class—the entire working class.
Start with the brutal fact that racial preferences are very, very unpopular. In a typical result, this spring’s Harvard/Stanford/University of Texas SCOTUSPoll found 69 percent of the public agreeing that private colleges and universities should not be able to use race as a factor in admissions, compared to 31 percent who thought these institutions should be able to do so. The same question about public colleges and universities elicited at 74-26 split. Pretty definitive.
In polling from Pew in 2022, just seven percent of the public thought high school grades should not be a factor in college admissions and a mere 14 percent thought standardized test scores should not be a factor. But an overwhelming 74 percent thought that race or ethnicity should not be a factor in college admissions.
This pattern applied to all nonwhite racial groups. Among blacks, 59 percent said race should not be a factor in college admissions compared to 11 percent who said high school grades should not be a factor and 21 percent who said the same about standardized tests. Hispanics (68 percent) and Asians (63 percent) were even more adamant in opposing the use of race in admissions.
Another indicator is how race-based affirmative action has fared in state referenda which is… not well. The most recent example was in the very blue state of California in 2020. Democratic leaders put an initiative on the ballot, Proposition 16, that would have repealed the state's ban on using affirmative action in school admissions and government contracting and employment decisions. The measure, endorsed by Governor Gavin Newsom, then-senator and vice presidential candidate Kamala Harris, pretty much every other Democratic official in California and a staggering array of elites from business and labor to beloved sports teams, was widely seen as allowing schools to adjust merit-based admission policies to admit more blacks and Hispanics and fewer Asian Americans in order to make black and Hispanic enrollment proportional to their share in the population. But in spite of its prominent endorsements and generous funding—supporters of the measure outspent opponents by 10:1—the measure failed by 57 to 43 percent. Across racial groups, support for Proposition 16 ran 15-25 points behind support for Biden in the 2020 election. This speaks volumes about the stunning cross-race unpopularity of racial preferences.
Why is this? It’s very simple. Most voters, especially working-class voters, think racial preferences are not fair and fairness is a fundamental part of their world outlook. They actually believe, with Martin Luther King Jr., that people should “not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” In a recent University of California Dornsife survey, this classic statement of colorblind equality was posed to respondents: “Our goal as a society should be to treat all people the same without regard to the color of their skin”. This MLK-style statement elicited sky-high (92 percent) agreement from the public, despite the assaults on this idea from Critical Race Theory (CRT) and the likes of Ibram X. Kendi and large sectors of the Democratic left. In a fascinating related finding, the researchers found that most people who claim to have heard about CRT believe CRT includes this colorblind perspective, rather than directly contradicting it. Perhaps they just can’t believe any theory that has anything to do with race would reject this fundamental principle. Guess they didn’t get the memo that it’s no longer cool to believe in this stuff.
Similarly a recent Public Agenda Hidden Common Ground survey found 91 percent agreement with the statement: “All people deserve an equal opportunity to succeed, no matter their race or ethnicity.” This is what people deeply believe in: equal opportunity. In the wake of the Supreme Court decision, Democrats can seize on this strand of the American character and trade a 2:1 or 3:1 unfavorable issue for a 9:1 favorable one. That seems like a pretty good deal.
The way to do this is clear. First, substitute class-based affirmative action for race-based affirmative action. This would boost proportionately more black and Hispanic students than white ones, thereby making up some of whatever losses in black and Hispanic representation might follow from simply eliminating race-based consideration.
But it would also boost some disadvantaged white students and that would be a good thing both substantively and politically. As President Obama memorably put it in 2008: “I think that my daughters should probably be treated by any admissions officer as folks who are pretty advantaged… I think that we should take into account [in admissions] white kids who have been disadvantaged and have grown up in poverty.” In other words, a black kid who grew up in a poor neighborhood in Baltimore and a white kid who grew up in a shattered working class neighborhood in Ohio are both more deserving of a boost than upper middle class kids of whatever race.
That makes sense and would strike most working-class voters as eminently fair. It is especially fair in light of the breathtaking lack of economic diversity at elite schools. Consider that at Harvard there are as many students from the top 1 percent of the income distribution as from the bottom 60 percent and at the University of North Carolina there are 16 times more students from the highest income quintile than from the lowest. Reflecting this pattern, the black, Latino, and Native American students at Harvard are also unrepresentative: 71 percent are from college-educated homes with above median income, a group representing perhaps a fifth of these populations. The working class is conspicuous by its absence.
That’s why it’s important to think of class-based affirmative action as not just a substitute for a race-based system that would accomplish some of the same goals. It would be a step forward in and of itself by pushing back against the incredible class bias of elite education. As David Leonhardt put it in his New York Times column:
Economic diversity matters for its own sake: The dearth of lower-income students at many elite colleges is a sign that educational opportunity has been constrained for Americans of all races. To put it another way, economic factors like household wealth are not valuable merely because they are a potential proxy for race; they are also a telling measure of disadvantage in their own right.
This approach could turn affirmative action from an issue that divides the working class into one that potentially unites it. Given how Democrats have been hemorrhaging working-class voters, this change of focus seems like a highly desirable course of action.
The second thing moving to a class focus could accomplish is encouraging Democrats to concentrate on where the overwhelming majority of kids across races get their college educations, if they do get them: unselective colleges where affirmative action isn’t even an issue. Just six percent of students attend colleges where the admit rate is under 25 percent and only another ten percent attend colleges where the admit rate is between 25 and 50 percent. The majority of black, Hispanic, and white students attend colleges where the admit rate is 75 percent or more.
As education professors Richard Arum and Mitchell L. Stevens put it:
The [Supreme Court] ruling provides America with an opportunity to redirect the conversation from a relatively small number of schools and instead direct urgently needed attention to the vast middle and lower tiers of postsecondary education. Non-selective colleges and universities can be genuine engines of economic mobility, but they do so in the face of significant headwinds.
This is how to get the working class on your side: help everyone, regardless of race, to get ahead. That’s a brand the Democratic Party should lean into, instead of a quixotic quest to preserve racial preferences that voters don’t want and that are now unlawful.