Sherrilyn Ifill on Race v. Class: The False Dichotomy

My amazing colleague, guest blogger, and now President and Director-Counsel of the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund Inc. Sherrilyn A. Ifillhas a superb Op-Ed in the New York Times about the impending decision in Fisher v. Texas:20130109-ifill-BODY-1


The decision is in. All consideration of race in college admissions is over.

No, the Supreme Court has not yet announced its decision in the landmark case of Fisher v. University of Texas; that ruling is expected any day now. But an alarming number of scholars, pundits and columnists — many of them liberal — have declared that economic class, not race, should be the appropriate focus of university affirmative-action efforts.

How can we explain this decision to throw in the towel on race-based affirmative action? Are we witnessing a surrender in advance of sure defeat? Or just an early weariness with a debate that, a decade ago, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor predicted would last another 25 years?

Perhaps it is the presence of a black president that has encouraged so many to believe that race is simply no longer a significant factor in American life. It is true that we have come a long way since the days of Jim Crow segregation. But the plain fact is that race still matters.

It matters with frightening frequency in the encounters of young black men with the police. It matters in our ability to get access to affordable housing, and in the wealth accumulated (or not) by our families. Whether the name on our résumé is Lakeisha or Leslie matters when we try to get a job interview. And it matters often, though not always, in our views about the continuing significance of race in American life.

Race isn’t the only factor that matters, of course, and universities should take seriously their obligation to educate poor students of all races. But nor should class be the only factor: after all, it was also true in the early 1960s that ignoring race and merely providing more resources to segregated schools would have benefited some poor black students — but that certainly didn’t mean that separate was equal, or that segregation was constitutional, or that pushing for desegregation was a waste of time.

What we might learn from the decades-long (and painfully incomplete) experience of desegregation is the need to deploy multiple efforts to address a chronic problem. In the context of higher education, that menu of efforts should include considering income (if not wealth), as well as an aggressive campaign to raise the quality of K-12 public education.

But that menu must also include race, for a variety of reasons. For one, in places like Texas and Alabama and Maryland, public universities train the vast majority of the state’s leaders. Greater classroom diversity helps ensure that minority and white students alike are prepared for leadership at a time of rapid demographic change.

That diversity includes class. To serve as their state’s leaders one day, students at the University of Texas and the University of Maryland will need to understand that not all blacks are poor, not all whites are rich, and not all Latino students speak Spanish.

In fact, by pushing universities to substitute class for race, we may simply reinforce stereotypes within the student body that will equate minority students with poverty, masking both the economic (and ideological) diversity within minority communities but also the challenges that confront white working-class students. At any rate, the true benefits of diversity cannot be achieved when, as the University of Texas discovered in 2003, nearly 80 percent of its classes contained only one black student, or none at all.

What about the stinging charge that race-based affirmative action benefits only middle-class and well-to-do children of professionals, because selective colleges prefer those students over the poor? This is simply untrue as a blanket statement, and it obscures a more troubling and complex reality.

Selective universities first and foremost favor students with higher S.A.T. scores and those who have graduated from academically rigorous high schools. Those students, whether white, Hispanic, black or Asian, tend to come from middle- or upper-class families, with parents who can afford tutoring and exam prep courses that are out of reach for poor students. But that is mostly a reflection of selective universities’ overreliance on standardized tests like the S.A.T. and the L.S.A.T., not an indictment of race-conscious affirmative action.

All of this is complicated and uncomfortable — which is why it’s not surprising to hear some commentators argue, in good faith, that we should abandon the consideration of race in affirmative action simply because using race is “unpopular.” But what progressive policy in pursuit of racial equity ever is?

In any case, even that argument is dubious: a recent New York Times poll showed that most Americans support affirmative action.

If there is public discomfort, it is precisely because race still does matter, because it still resonates so powerfully in American life. This is evidence that we need more contact among students of different races, not less.

If the Supreme Court reverses its 2003 decision to uphold affirmative action on campus and outlaw any consideration of race in admissions decisions, it would be radical — a tragic culmination of decades of backtracking on racial justice. But the battle for racial diversity in higher education will not end, because neither the court nor the country can simply will away the enduring importance of race in determining life chances.

Whatever the court decides, students, parents, universities and leaders will continue to fight for diversity, because they recognize, as a majority of the court did in 2003, that the very legitimacy of our democracy depends on ensuring that the doors of opportunity are open to all.

is the president and director-counsel of the N.A.A.C.P. Legal Defense and Education Fund Inc.

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15 Responses

  1. AP says:

    “In fact, by pushing universities to substitute class for race, we may simply reinforce stereotypes within the student body that will equate minority students with poverty…”

    Isn’t this true only if minorities were to overwhelmingly benefit from economic-based affirmative action? In which case, we’re not dealing with a stereotype, we’re confronted with a reality. Offensive, but a reality nonetheless.

  2. Brett Bellmore says:

    Race may still matter, but, realistically, it only matters in so far as it effects other things that matter. If it doesn’t effect them, why should we care?

    So, why not go directly to the things it’s effecting? I suppose because then Ms. Ifil would be out of a job…

  3. Ken Rhodes says:

    An unusual position for an engineer, Brett.

    The position of the Pinto gas tank only matters insofar as it effects fires and explosions. So why not go directly to the things it’s effecting. I.e., make people stop crashing into the back of Pintos, and the problem is solved. I suppose some design engineers at Ford (the ones focused on gas tank safety) would be out of a job…

  4. Brett Bellmore says:

    If racial discrimination, which we should never forget is what ‘affirmative action’ really is, were as unproblematic as the location of a fuel tank, you might have a point.

    As it is, you don’t fight fire with fire if you have plenty of water. Well, not unless maybe you’re an arsonist.

    By which I mean to say, that the core assumption behind racism is the belief that you don’t need to treat people according to their own individual merits, that it is ok to treat them as interchangeable instances of the group you’ve assigned them to. This is the sort of thinking that makes finding and lynching some random black dude seem to make sense: Because his individual guilt or innocence is irrelevant, he merits punishment simply as an instance of the ‘guilty’ group.

    But this is also the sort of thinking which lies behind affirmative action programs, as they are practiced today. Darker skin is enough to establish your victim status, regardless of whether you’re a ghetto youth orphaned as a result of a hate crime, or the son of a well off professional who happens to be black, or even a recent immigrant from the West Indies.

    While lighter skin establishes your victimizer status, even if you’re the child of victims of the Japanese Internment, or of poor Appalachian sharecroppers.

    Affirmative action is based on the idea that it’s appropriate to hand out benefits and harms, (Inseparable in a zero sum environment.) based not on individual merit, but assigned characteristics derived from pigmentation.

    Because, after all, were you basing things on ACTUAL individual life experience and merits, you wouldn’t need to know somebody’s race. Any harms or benefits that derived from that would fall out of the analysis automatically. You only need to base it on the race if you’re committed to ignoring the individual details, and following the race regardless of them.

    So, Ms. Ifil? Arsonist, not fire fighter.

  5. Shag from Brookline says:

    At some point Brett will make his Second Amendment argument against affirmative action. See Thom Hartmann’s “The Second Amendment was Ratified to Preserve Slavery” January 15, 2013, at Truthout. For Brett, those were the good old days, as race didn’t matter up to the Civil War. Brett might use his engineering skills to compare the automatic action favoring whites (particularly males) with the relatively piddling benefits of affirmative action that came about long, long after the Civil War Amendments, during which time whites (particularly males) continued just about automatically getting all the goodies. Race still matters, as was pointed out by Sen. Lindsey Graham (Cracker, SCar) during the 2012 Presidential campaign that apparently there weren’t enough angry white men, to whom race obviously mattered.

  6. Joe says:

    Race still matters and the program at issue in Texas (though you might not know much about it given the shoddy questioning by the conservatives during oral argument — something of an embarrassment in such an important case) as suggested by the OP takes this into consideration along with a bunch of other things in its admissions program. Race “directly” matters in various ways and other times it is a factor in the equation. It will continue to be somehow, especially given Kennedy in Parents Involved allows it to, but there has to be some, let us say game playing, involved here just like negative use of race continues to involve some of that.

  7. Brett Bellmore says:

    To the extent race still matters, it will show it’s effect in areas less fraught, such as economic status. To the extent it doesn’t so show, you’re stuck explaining why you’re booting the poor, but academically promising, son of Appalachian sharecroppers in order to admit the not so promising son of a couple of black yuppies. Which is the sort of thing you’re committed to doing, if you use race as a factor in addition to all the non-racial matters it might in some cases influence: Using race even though all the non-racial factors point the other way, leaving you with no actual evidence the person in question WAS disadvantaged, except for your assigning them that status based on pigmentation.

    Yes, the fact there’s a black President, as well as black dentists, lawyers, engineers, and so forth, really does matter. You can’t just assume that color correlates with disadvantage, the way you might legitimately back in 1868.

    But it will always be 1868 to the Shags of the world.

  8. Shag from Brookline says:

    Brett blinds himself to events post 1868. Brett might learn a tad of what has happened racially since then by reading Joey Fishkin’s short (8 pages) paper at Yale Online Journal for which a link is provided at Fishkin’s recent post on Shelby County at Balkinization.

    Apparently the virility of angry white men is at stake. (Consider Jeb Bush’s recent praise of the “productivity” of hispanics.) Oh, those changing demographics.

  9. Joe says:

    Race shows its effects in various ways fraught and less fraught. Admissions take various things into consideration. There is good evidence of this, though Brett can selectively cite certain things (as he has in the past) to point out that it is open to some challenge, as much as any number of other things are.

    So, what is the point here? ANY admission system is imperfect. ANY calculus is going to in some case deny some “academically promised” sharecropper type (son or daughter, of whatever race) in some specific instance, since there is any number of things that are being used to fill limited spots. Have, e.g., a 10% plan that requires 10% of all schools be admitted, you will lose out. Favor Texans, you will block out some from West VA. etc.

    Why a reference to 1868? TODAY race is still a barrier in various ways. We are not just “assuming” things here. There is actual evidence of it occurring. Also, it is a factor in the equation. Thus, there are many homosexuals in such professions too. It is quite apparent however there remains discrimination and barriers.

  10. Douglas Levene says:

    China’s method for college admissions has much to commend it. It’s a national entrance exam that is given once per year. Everyone, rich or poor (and the gap is far wider than in the US), takes the same exam on the same day. Entrance to elite colleges is determined almost solely by the student’s score on the exam – the only exceptions are preferences for local residency (and those are very controversial). There are no preferences for alumni children, for the children of powerful politicians or celebrities or rich donors, for athletes, for musicians, or for anyone else. You can’t bribe your way in. You can’t write a heart-wrenching essay about how life dealt you a bowl of pits instead of cherries. The result is that the Chinese people widely accept this system because it’s fair – everyone takes the same exam and is measured on the same scale. The daughter of the current Chinese leader is attending Harvard because she didn’t do well enough on the national entrance exam to get into Peking University. Try to imagine the offspring of any American president being turned down by any Ivy league school.

  11. prometheefeu says:

    “What about the stinging charge that race-based affirmative action benefits only middle-class and well-to-do children of professionals, because selective colleges prefer those students over the poor? This is simply untrue as a blanket statement, and it obscures a more troubling and complex reality.”

    That is also not the argument. The argument is that under plans such as the 10-percent plan in Texas, minorities burdened by economic inequality already get in because they compete with similarly situated students in their neighborhood schools. As a result, the ones most likely to benefit from such plans are the children of wealthier people who are advantaged compared to kids in poorer neighborhoods, but failed to be competitive when compared to similarly situated children.

  12. prometheefeu says:

    Douglas Levene:

    And I’m sure rich people don’t get prep classes for their kids.

  13. Joe says:

    There tends not to be but “one” argument in these debates.

  14. Douglas Levene says:

    prometheefue – I ‘m not sure if that’s a serious question. Of course, rich kids in China get special prep classes. There are private high schools, highly regarded public high schools (like Stuyvesant in NYC), and after-school prep classes. Having money for all this is a big advantage. Poor villagers sometimes pool their resources to send the occasional very bright child off to a bigger town to attend a better school so that he might have a chance to place. Remember, too, that even getting into high school in China is competitive.

    My point is that the system is widely seen as fair, notwithstanding the class differentials and the advantages that Han Chinese have over minorities (e.g., Tibetans), because everyone takes the same test on the same day and is graded on the same scale. We could learn something from that.