Affirmative Action Should Now Be Based On Income, Not Race

It’s time for a new system of preferences for college admissions. After decades of supporting modest race-based affirmative action policies, I know when it’s time to throw in the towel.

The U.S. Supreme Court, now rigidly conservative, is reviewing a case that will allow it to toss out admissions policies that take account of race or ethnicity, even if it’s one among several other factors. And John Roberts’ court will probably take that opportunity, offered up by a lawsuit a white applicant filed against the University of Texas when she was denied admission.

Still, that’s no reason for supporters of diversity to give up on an admissions process that’s more than a rubber stamp for the most privileged. Highly selective colleges — that top tier of educational institutions that accept only a small percentage of applicants — should start offering preferences to promising students from poor and working-class backgrounds, let’s say family incomes under $50,000 a year.

If they did that, those institutions would still draw some racial diversity (though perhaps not as much), while also helping to close the large and growing chasm between the haves and have-nots. Let’s see if we can start to create a more diverse leadership cohort for American industry, politics and letters by focusing on the real divide in education: class.

Drawing from lower-earning households would have the advantage of ending the bitter debates over race-based affirmative action. It would be much harder to construct a rationale against giving preferences to good students who didn’t grow up attending fancy private schools and going to SAT study sessions.

I thought that racial preferences might have a few more years before they were tossed aside. It’s only been nine years since Grutter v. Bollinger, when the Supreme Court ruled that colleges and universities could give race a small role in their admissions processes.

Writing for the 5-4 majority in 2003, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor included an expiration date. “We expect that 25 years from now, the use of racial preferences will no longer be necessary to further the interest approved today,” she said. That would have given colleges until 2028 to use race as one factor among many others, such as artistic talent or leadership skills, to increase the diversity of their classes.

But the last decade brought surprises. We elected a black president much sooner than I thought we would, proving that the nation has come a long way toward overcoming its racist past. President Obama’s presence in the White House has made the old arguments about racial inequality more difficult to sustain.

Let’s face it: It’s silly to suggest that Obama’s daughters, who attend Washington’s exclusive Sidwell Friends, have endured a racially inferior educational system — or racism of any sort — that should earn them a preference in college admissions. Obama himself has conceded as much. It is similarly difficult to make that argument for my 14-year-old niece, who attends a top-notch private school in Houston.

None of that means that the legacy of racism has evaporated, or that hundreds of thousands of black and brown students are not still struggling to overcome educational deficits that they inherited. Since educational attainment and family incomes are inextricably linked, it’s no great surprise that black and brown students don’t do as well on standardized tests as white students do. (The gap has narrowed over the last two or three decades, but it has not closed.) And even a cursory look at the history of this country provides a reminder about the racism that tamped down black earning power.

An income-based affirmative action would reach some of those black and brown students, but it would also reach a large number of whites. That means that, proportionately, fewer students of color would benefit. But an educational system that increasingly rewards the children of the affluent ought to be forced to set aside a few seats — and scholarships — for those whose parents drive school buses instead of Mercedes-Benzes.

Meanwhile, the vast majority of ambitious students who don’t get into an exclusive college will still get into a college. And that’s what the country needs more of, anyway — college graduates, even from schools like my not-so-exclusive alma mater.

(Cynthia Tucker, winner of the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a visiting professor at the University of Georgia. She can be reached at


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