Why Class-Based Affirmative Action Works

Jee Keat Wah, Jun 10, 2021

Affirmative action policies in the United States have long been controversial, where neither side of the debate can agree on an effectively equitable solution. Many Americans recognize the egregious history of racial discrimination in the United States that needs to be addressed, and that we all benefit when we interact with a diverse group of people. Yet, many are also uncomfortable with the idea that an applicant’s race has a huge impact on his or her chances of admission. They worry that racial preferences stigmatize beneficiaries, breed resentment, and encourage everyone—including whites—to identify primarily by race. And many other Americans, including former President Barack Obama, believe affirmative action perpetuates an unfair system when it allows a wealthy African American or Latino applicant to receive admission preferences over a low-income White or Asian student.


Fortunately, an attractive third path is available: giving a leg up to economically disadvantaged students of all races, a disproportionate share of whom are people of color. Dr Martin Luther King Jr. wrestled with the question of what steps should be taken to remedy America’s history in his 1964 book, “Why We Can’t Wait”. His elegant solution: rather than arguing for or against a Bill of Rights for African Americans, he advocated for A Bill of Rights for the Disadvantaged of all races.


This approach greatly appeals to the American public. A 2016 Gallup poll found that while 63% of Americans oppose colleges using race as a factor in admissions, 61% favour the consideration of a family’s economic circumstances. The notion that the poor of all races have a special claim is a fundamental tenet of most of the world's great religions. This is also consistent with social science research which finds that today, being economically disadvantaged in America poses seven times as large an obstacle to academic achievement as does race.


Some critics complain that King’s class-based approach to affirmative action ignores the reality that race still matters in American society. But King’s policy, which coupled strong enforcement of anti-discrimination laws with class-based affirmative action, does nothing of the sort. The Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act are focused directly on the issues of racial discrimination in education, employment and voting. And class-based affirmative action is not blind to history.


In building the case for his Bill of Rights for the Disadvantaged, King wrote: "It is obvious that if a man is entered at the starting line in a race three hundred years after another man, the first would have to perform some impossible feat in order to catch up to his fellow runner." But it is precisely because of that history, King argued, that a Bill of Rights for the Disadvantaged would disproportionately benefit those who “form the vast majority of America’s disadvantaged”. At the same time, it was appropriate for poor whites to benefit, King said, because although they do not suffer racial discrimination, they suffer deprivation. “It is a simple matter of justice that America, in dealing creatively with the task of raising the Negro from backwardness, should also be rescuing a large stratum of the forgotten White poor,” he wrote.


Growing up in Malaysia, I was able to experience first-hand the ineffectiveness of race-based affirmative action. Article 153 of Malaysia’s Constitution, inspired by the affirmative action provisions in the Indian Constitution to protect the minority underprivileged class of Harijans, provides special privileges to the country’s Bumiputra (“son of the soils,” a term Malaysia uses to describe its indigenous population, made up mostly of Malays) population in the areas of education, employment, business and housing. After the deadly racial riots between the Malays and the economically-dominant ethnic Chinese in 1969, Article 153 was further enshrined through the New Economic Plan (NEP), a policy presented as a way to redistribute wealth, in particular between the Malays and the Chinese. 


The only fundamental difference between Article 153 and that of the Indian constitution is that Malays have political control and comprise 60% of Malaysia’s population, while the minority Chinese groups comprise only about 25% of the entire population.


The NEP was only supposed to last for 20 years - but affirmative action policies for the majority have continued in various forms. Bumiputras continue to receive housing discounts, preferential jobs in civil service, and most importantly, priority admission into Malaysian public universities. Racial quotas in public universities are explicit and widely enforced - 90:10 (Bumiputra: non-Bumiputra) for pre-university studies and 55:45 for university admissions.


Today, the minority non-Bumiputras in Malaysia would almost certainly oppose Article 153. However, any calls to disbandon or repeal Article 153 would be labelled as “seditious” and as an effort to “disrupt Malaysia’s racial harmony.” A notable example would be the phrase “Malaysian Malaysia,” a phrase most commonly associated with Singapore’s Prime Minister Lee Kuan Yew in the 1960s, when Singapore was still a part of the Malaysian Federation. Lee argued against the discriminatory racial policies in place and fought for equitable policies to benefit all Malaysians, regardless of race. Yet, the ruling Malay majority viewed Lee’s actions as a threat to the special privileges of the Malays and this became one of the biggest factors to expel Singapore from the federation a few years later.


While some might argue that Malaysia’s affirmative action is not similar to the American system, given that it is more aligned to racial supremacy than uplifting racial groups - it is, in fact, very much alike. The idea of using race alone as a determinant factor for preferential treatment ignores the fact that there are members of other races that are also affected by poverty and low standards of living. In Harvard, for example, even with the current system of race-based affirmative action, minority students (not just White students) at Harvard largely hail from wealthy households. This raises the question: are wealthy students of color smarter, more capable and deserving than economically disadvantaged students of color? The singular focus on race in affirmative action disproportionately benefits the most privileged among the minority, too.


A better solution - as preached by King - is to implement a class-based affirmative action system that takes into account an individual’s socioeconomic condition. Since race-based affirmative action aims to assist the most economically disadvantaged racial groups, it would only be more equitable if the system works to aid  the entire economically disadvantaged population, regardless of race. In fact, most minority racial groups would already benefit from this, since almost 21.2% of African Americans and 17.2% of Hispanics in the country live in poverty. This policy would also benefit members of other racial groups that experience poverty and economic hardship. Essentially, a class-based affirmative action policy is capable of improving both racial diversity and economic disparity in the United States without utilizing the racial lens.


A research study by Harvard in 2016 tried to test the effectiveness of class-based affirmative action through a simulation that used the data of actual Harvard applicants. Firstly, it deactivated a series of preferences that Harvard currently allows such as legacy admission, which benefits Whites the most. According to Harvard’s own analysis, legacy admission increases one’s chances of admission by almost 40 percentage points.


In addition to eliminating those preferences, the simulation replaced racial preferences with a boost for socioeconomically disadvantaged students of all races. These socioeconomic preferences proved to be roughly half as impactful as the preferences Harvard provides to recruited athletes. Under this simulation, the share of underrepresented minority students increased from 28% to 30%. The proportion of first generation college students increased from 7% to 25%. The academic caliber of the class was still top-tier, consisting of students with excellent high school GPAs and averaging at the 98th percentile in SAT scores.


These results were particularly remarkable because researchers did not have access to the wealth data of applicants, which could have further increased the admission rates of African American and Latino students.


However, in practice, universities have long relied on race and given less consideration to economic factors. Harvard’s own analysis found that its preferences for African American students, for example, are about twice as large as their preferences for students from families making less than $60,000 a year. Unsurprisingly, at Harvard, 71% of the African American and Latino students come from wealthy backgrounds.


Moreover, the notion that race should be considered in perpetuity—even when socioeconomic preferences can produce racial diversity—ignores the fact that using race to decide who gets ahead has downsides.


King recognized the costs to using racial preferences—particularly for the progressive coalition. King knew that wealthy White interests had long used race to divide working-class Whites and Blacks from joining forces. He did not want to further that goal by embracing racial preferences. King wrote to an editor of “Why We Can’t Wait”: “It is my opinion that many white workers whose economic condition is not too far removed from the economic condition of his black brother, will find it difficult to accept a ‘Negro Bill of Rights,’ which seeks to give special consideration to the Negro in the context of unemployment, joblessness, etc and does not take into sufficient account their plight [that of the white worker].”


In a 1987 address at Harvard University’s chapel commemorating King’s life, King’s close advisor Bayard Rustin emphasized the division caused by racial preferences. “Any preferential approach postulated along racial, ethnic, religious, or sexual lines will only disrupt a multicultural society and lead to a backlash,” he declared.


Universities have taken a very different path from the one King and Rustin advocated for, which demagogues on the right have brilliantly exploited. Racial preference programmes surely help explain why 60% of White working-class Americans believe that discrimination against whites has become as big a problem as discrimination against African Americans.


More than 50 years ago, King was right to suggest an inclusive path for the country that brought working-class people of all races together. Class-based affirmative action works. I’ve lived in a country where race-based affirmative action has not only failed to achieve its intended goals, but also further divided its people. America is now fighting another bid to achieve racial justice within its borders, and the implementation of class-based affirmative action would help to close not just the interracial inequality gap, but the inequality gap pervading the entirety of America.


[1] https://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=88478467
[2] https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2016/07/08/poll-finds-public-opposition-considering-race-and-ethnicity-college-admissions
[3] “Why We Can’t Wait”
[4] https://www.dosm.gov.my/v1/index.php?r=column/cthemeByCat&cat=155&bul_id=OVByWjg5YkQ3MWFZRTN5bDJiaEVhZz09&menu_id=L0pheU43NWJwRWVSZklWdzQ4TlhUUT09
[5] https://www.channelnewsasia.com/news/commentary/racial-quota-pre-university-malaysia-education-matriculation-11670012
[6] https://www.nas.gov.sg/archivesonline/data/pdfdoc/lky19650606.pdf
[7] https://www.thecrimson.com/article/2020/12/4/yeasmin-class-based-affirmative-action/
[8] https://www.jstor.org/stable/10.7758/9781610448543
[9] https://books.google.com/books?id=VmmrBgAAQBAJ&pg=PT209&lpg=PT209&dq=&redir_esc=y#v=onepage&q&f=false
[10] http://archive.pov.org/archive/brotheroutsider/mlk_holiday/