Law

Time for affirmative action to be based on income, not race

Lloyd Green

End race-based college admissions and legacy preferences now. Instead, give a leg up to students aiming to climb life’s ladder. Race and ethnicity should not be treated as proxies for disadvantage. The scions of Scarsdale and Lake Forest, and kids named Obama, Trump and Kushner should not be given an unfair boost in the marathon of life.

Race-based affirmative action is patently unfair. For example, Harvard effectively mandates that Asian-Americans score 140 points higher than white students, 270 points more than Latino students, and 450 points greater than African-American students before they can earn an acceptance letter. This gap has even earned the moniker of the “Asian tax.”

As for targeting the economically disadvantaged, the record of race-conscious affirmative action is underwhelming. According to David Leonhardt of The New York Times, “low-income students, controlling for race, receive either no preference or a modest one, depending on which study you believe.” In other words, affirmative action is now another upper-middle class benefit, albeit one reserved for non-Asian minorities.

By the same measure, colleges need to get past giving mommy’s and daddy’s little preciouses a leg up in the admissions game simply because they are winners in the conception lottery. Fact, legacies are between two and three times more likely to be accepted into Harvard, Yale and Princeton than the great unwashed. Indeed, for all the talk of inequality killing the American Dream, it almost laughable watching the “meritocratic” elite defend social calcification and stratification in the name of the greater good.

Make no mistake, a color-blind society has broad appeal, and crosses political lines. The bottom line is that fairness can play well with Americans.

Fortunately, the Justice Department may be able to lay down a marker here. Last Wednesday, DOJ announced that it would review allegations of reverse discrimination in college admissions. As a practical matter, the government could even seek to intervene in a 2014 federal lawsuit challenging Harvard’s admissions process, which action remains pending.

To be sure, there is ample precedent for the federal government intervening in admissions cases. In 2003, the Bush administration squared off before the Supreme Court in a challenge to the University of Michigan’s affirmative action programs.  In the end, the Court struck down Michigan Law School’s program, but upheld the undergraduate school’s admissions process. Later, the Obama administration sided successfully with the University of Texas in facing down a lawsuit opposing preferences at the University of Texas.

Is there a political upside to the government opposing race and parentage as bases for admissions, but for also supporting class-focused admissions?  Yes, it is right where the American public stands.

In 1996, California’s voters simultaneously voted to re-elect President Bill Clinton, and to outlaw race as a university admissions criteria. A decade later, in the aftermath of the Supreme Court’s ruling, Michigan’s voters outlawed race in admissions by a 3-2 margin, and then went on to twice vote for Barack Obama.

Exit polls from the 2006 vote on the Michigan Civil Rights Initiative showed that nearly every demographic group backed the measure by large margins. White voters, independents, non-church-goers, evangelicals, college graduates, and high school drop-outs all whole-heartedly supported the MCRI. Overall, five of the six states that conducted referendums on racial preferences banned race in admissions.

Make no mistake, a color-blind society has broad appeal, and crosses political lines. A 2016 Gallup Poll tells a similar story: 63 percent said that race should have no place in picking students, and a majority disapproved of bestowing little Sarah and Johnny a leg up because their parents were alums. At the same time, the public approved of showing preference to low-income students by more than a 20-point spread, and also endorsed giving added consideration to students whose parents had not attended college. The bottom line is that fairness can play well with Americans.

The most recent Republican presidential candidates have not been eager to tangle with the issue. Given an opportunity to reevaluate its candidate’s support for race-based affirmative action during the Midwest primaries, Romney’s campaign demurred.

As for Candidate Trump, he delayed in calling for the removal of the Confederate Flag from the South Carolina state grounds, but also punted when it came to seeking the end of racial preferences. Asked by Fox News’ Chris Wallace about where he stood on the issue, Trump replied: “I’m fine with it … But it’s coming to a time when maybe we don’t need it.  That would be a wonderful thing.  I don’t think we need it so much anymore.”

So here we are. Affirmative action is with us again as a political issue. Perhaps, we can reach a policy that reflects the national consensus, one that rewards drive and ability more than birth. Class-conscious college admissions, why not?

Lloyd Green was staff secretary to the George H.W. Bush campaign’s Middle East Policy Group in 1988 and served in the Department of Justice between 1990 and 1992.