Why We Should Have Listened to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on Affirmative Action

July 23rd 2015

Ashley Nicole Black

It's odd that race-based affirmative action is so controversial considering that many people agree that colleges and workplaces are at their best when they are racially diverse. But many people also think that affirmative action, or purposely attempting to diversify a workplace or college by valuing diversity in the admissions process, is wrong. Which is kind of like saying, 'We like cake! We just don't like it when you get flour, and sugar, and eggs and chocolate and mix them together. But give us cake.' This is in part because, as racial tensions have raised in recent years, some people see race-based affirmative action as discrimination against white people. Interestingly, it seems as though that may have always been the case (and maybe we are just finally talking about it again).

According to the Atlantic, when affirmative action was first nationally introduced in a speech at a speech at Howard University by President Lyndon Johnson in 1965, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. actually predicted that white people could resent it. King suggested that it might be more politically prudent to make such programs class-based. After his death, race-based affirmative action took precedence over class-based. And people who didn't benefit from it were as King predicted—resentful.

In President Johnson's speech, he acknowledged that race wasn't the only reason people were discriminated against in the U.S.; people also face discrimination and have trouble succeeding because of class-status, as race and class are deeply connected in this country.

It is the "American Dream" that anyone born in America has an equal opportunity to become successful, but it is actually incredibly difficult for anyone, regardless of race, born to poor parents to escape poverty. However, Johnson also understood that the government had a particular responsibility to provide redress in the case of racial discrimination. Unlike other forms of discrimination, such as class, or gender, racial discrimination was, at least in part, the direct result of government actions. Government policies such as slavery, land theft and forced removal, and housing discrimination, among other social and political inequalities, were designed specifically to make it difficult, if not impossible, for minority groups (particularly Blacks and Native Americans) to build wealth and pass it on to their families.

Race-based affirmative action programs don't exist because racial discrimination is "more important" than class-based, they exist because racial discrimination was done on purpose and should be purposely addressed. But the fact that the programs have become unpopular has to be addressed as a political reality (even though they are arguably the right thing to do morally) because voters in many states are voting out affirmative action policies, and even economic policies that have nothing to do with race but are colloquially associated with it (see: every law passed about what welfare recipients are allowed to eat or to do for fun, ever).

In some states, class-based affirmative action is replacing race-based, and more educational institutions will probably adopt it. Class-based affirmative action can actually result in more racial diversity than race-based admissions policies, and also helps white students from low-income backgrounds who also traditionally have a difficult time with college admissions. For example, a study conducted at the University of Colorado showed that switching from a race to class-based admission policy produced a 20 percent increase in admittance of students who were "severely low socioeconomic status," a nine percent increase in students of "low socioeconomic status," and a nine percent increase of admitted underrepresented minority students. The study shows that a nuanced policy can balance the impact of socioeconomic factors, such as the fact that low-income students and students of color have often graduated from under-resourced high schools. They included what they called the "overachievement" index to benefit students who rose above challenges such as bad neighborhoods, or schools, to get good grades and test scores regardless of race.

In states where affirmative action has been banned, universities have introduced new admissions and financial aid strategies based on socioeconomic status. Texas, California and Florida adopted "percent plans” that guarantee admission to state universities for top graduates from each high school in the state, opening the door to students from low-income and under-resourced high schools. Universities also added new questions to their applications to elicit information about students’ socioeconomic backgrounds and the educational obstacles they have overcome. And schools such as the University of Arizona, the University of Nebraska and the University of Florida created new financial aid and support programs specifically for low-income and first-generation students.

These socioeconomic-based admissions and support strategies not only promoted greater economic diversity on campus but in most cases continued to deliver a racially diverse student body as well. Seven out of 10 leading public universities we examined in a 2012 Century Foundation report were able to maintain, or even increase the proportion of African-American and Latino students among their ranks, by replacing race-based preferences with strategies that target socioeconomic inequality. - New York Times

Some opponents of race-based affirmative action prefer class-based because they believe race-based programs benefit upper and middle class minority (and second generation) students to the detriment of working class (and first generation) students. If a school is attempting to fill a quota of students of a particular race, they are probably going to take the ones with the best grades, test scores, and those who are more likely to be more well-off students of color who are perceived as not needing the help. There are two things wrong with this theory: well-off students of color still experience discrimination in the classroom that needs redressing. For example, personally, I literally cannot count the number of times I was accused of cheating by a racist teacher who didn't believe Black students could test well or earn good grades, and despite coming from a middle class family, I was the first person in my immediate family, and the first woman on either side of my family to graduate college. First generation students of all races have a unique set of challenges, that colleges will need to address if they want to attract them and expand the percentage of people who attend four-year universities (and they do, the numbers are down right now). So, it doesn't mean that colleges shouldn't consider race at all, just that they probably should consider class (and neighborhood and school resource level) first, while still keeping race as a secondary part of the equation, and rewarding overcoming adversity to get the most diverse and highest achieving group of students possible, as the University of Colorado has found success doing.

Many schools (including Stanford) are now tying their new admissions policies to new financial aid policies to make it less burdensome for students to attend. Because if low-income students can't afford to go to college, what's the point of the American dream anyway?