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Opinion: Supreme Court should keep affirmative action, but make class the determining factor

Labor unions and public education have been the great equalizers for baby boomers like me. Their decline has been key reasons for the growth of wage inequality in the United States. The other major cause of the inequality gap is the abandonment, by some, of the notion that government can play a pro-active role in improving the lives of its citizens by enforcing fair play.

Now there is a strong likelihood that affirmative action, which was born out of the notion that government had a positive role to play in addressing and overcoming historical discrimination, will be abolished by the Supreme Court in the current case Fisher vs. The University of Texas at Austin. Last October, the Court heard a case brought by Abigail Fisher, a white student, against the UTA. Fisher, who was denied admission to the school in 2008, argued that it was because of race and a violation of the Constitution’s equal protection clause. Most legal experts think that the conservative-leaning court will side with Fisher and preclude all universities and colleges from considering race as a factor in admissions.

The term was first introduced by the Kennedy administration. And in a June 4, 1965, commencement address at Howard University, President Lyndon Johnson succinctly made the case for affirmative action: “You do not take a person who, for years, has been hobbled by chains and liberate him, bring him up to the starting line of a race and then say, ‘You are free to compete with all the others,’ and still justly believe that you have been completely fair.”

According to well-known civil rights leader Julian Bond, who was just 28 at the time of the speech, affirmative action “was and still is necessary. ? [P]eople of color and women are in jobs and schools to which they didn’t have access before? .The forthcoming of affirmative action in its many forms and ways made it possible for these formally excluded groups to be included. So it’s been a great success.”

There are strong counterarguments to affirmative action. Some believe it is unfair, because it implements a quota system that is unjust and promotes reverse discrimination. Ward Connerly, an African American, the head of the American Civil Rights Institute and an outspoken opponent of affirmative action, contends that “we marginalize people when we have this system of treating them differently ?. [T]he mere fact that they are ‘a minority’ carries with it the belief that they wouldn’t be there were it not for the largess of somebody giving them an edge, giving them a benefit.”

Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, who concedes that he benefited from it, is a long-time opponent of affirmative action. He believes that it “places students in programs above their ability.” According to the recent New York Times “Does Affirmative Action Do What It Should?” this theory is known as “mismatch”: “It’s the idea that affirmative action can harm those it’s supposed to help by placing them at schools in which they fall below the median level of ability and therefore have a tough time.” According to Justice Thomas: “I watched the operation of such affirmative action policies when I was in college and I watched the destruction of many kids as a result.”

Americans are split on the issue of race-based affirmative action. I favor keeping affirmative action, but I believe that class, not race, should be the determining factor. According to Rick Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, “if you look at the most selective colleges and universities in America, you’ll find that there are 25 times as many rich kids as there are poor ones.” Kevin Carey points out in the Washington Monthly that colleges “give preference to the children of legacies, professors, celebrities, politicians, and people who write large checks to the general fund. All of these groups are also disproportionately wealthy.”

One way to at least mitigate the growing gap between rich and poor in America is to allow public institutions of higher learning to consider class in admission. David Leonhardt in the The New York Times’ “The Liberals Against Affirmative Action,” wrote, “The liberal critics of affirmative action believe that many of these approaches [relying on income or wealth and family status] would be better than the current one. Racial discrimination obviously continues to exist. But the disadvantages of class, by most measures, are larger today.”

A powerful ancillary reason for keeping affirmative action is that, from an educational perspective, colleges have compelling interests in increasing racial diversity, because students benefit from learning among people of disparate backgrounds. In this regard, I recently had the opportunity to read Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s new book “My Beloved World,” which elaborates on her growing up in a public housing project in the Bronx (the same one I lived in for a few years) and the culture shock she faced when she attended Princeton University.

Suffice it to say that her story is inspirational. I can only imagine how much her classmates at Princeton gained from her presence, which in all likelihood would not have happened if it were not for affirmative action.