This post is in response to the following question posed by the New York Times: “The Supreme Court is expected to rule soon in a case involving the University of Texas on the use of race and ethnicity in college and university admissions nationwide. California, Florida, Michigan and Washington have already outlawed affirmative action in admissions decisions. If a conservative Supreme Court curtails the ability of universities to use race in admissions, could there still be a liberal result with greater emphasis on economic disadvantage in admissions, more financial aid for low-income students, better outreach and reduced emphasis on legacy preferences?” The full debate is available by following this link: http://www.nytimes.com/roomfordebate/2013/05/13/can-diversity-survive-without-affirmative-action
I have always believed that affirmative action jurisprudence ought to weigh economic disadvantage. That said, doing away with affirmative action for racial disparity has no necessary correlation to fixing the predations of poverty. For all the hope we seem to place in wealth as cure for racism, American law grants no right of economic equality, no right to be protected against hunger or homelessness. If only.
Nevertheless, the figuration of money walks among us like the hologram of perfect citizenship, supposedly eliminating obesity, preventing erectile dysfunction, raising I.Q. and inducing world peace. The latest attestation to its miraculously salutary power is the assertion that African-Americans who would but barricade themselves within a wall of middle-classness will be structurally exempted from racial resentments. According to this logic, when comfortably situated black people move into all-white areas, the neighbors will be delighted; property values will rise; police will not stop and frisk their children on their way to school; the neighborhood watch will not follow them about and demand to know their business.
When a middle-class black person becomes a gymnastics medalist, people won’t say it’s because of that extra African muscle she is rumored to have in her buttocks; instead she’ll be lifted up as a role model of focus, aplomb and very hard work. People will want to wear their hair like hers. If well-dressed black children go to Costa Rica for Spanish language camp, they will be cited for their ambition and cosmopolitanism, not pulled aside by immigration officials on their way back into the country on suspicion of transporting drugs or of speaking a foreign language too well to be a real American.
When a well-off black person plays the piano beautifully, his musicality will be upgraded from innate rhythmic rattling in the bones and instead be hailed as the product of years of study, profound mental acuity and mathematical precision. People will ask if he’s Chinese. And of course a rich black person who gets good grades and becomes editor of the Harvard Law Review and is elected president of the United States will be regarded as the embodied American Dream. No one will ever say that Harvard isn’t what it used to be, or that standards must have been lowered for him to rise so high. No one will accuse him of being too uppity or of having accumulated his wealth by stealing from the baptismal font of good Christian soldiers. People will embrace him, as Jewish perhaps. Or Sikh? How about Muslim?
Yes, it is true that money can mitigate some of the effects of structural bias; it is a blessing to eat, to have shelter. At the same time, it is as silly to argue that prejudice against African-Americans doesn’t exist beyond the wealth gap as it is to say that there is no glass ceiling for women, no backlash against Asians, no resentment of Jews, no harmful confusions about Islam. Our careful commitment to affirmative action — in law, in politics, in life — must be expanded not contracted. The world is too complex for our remediative aspirations to be limited by the crass metric of priced people.