Friday, August 15, 2008

Race and Class in Conjunction

I wrote earlier this week about my misgivings towards the proposal to replace race-based affirmative action with its class-based kin. That post specifically tried to refute the idea that such a move would defuse White resentment over the program. I noted that historically, the motivating force behind such anger was not that it was color conscious or seemed to give Blacks an "unfair" leg up. Rather, it was the simple fact that Blacks benefited that got Whites so riled. That anger remains perfectly consistent even in totally race-neutral programs that are perceived as assisting Black folks (such as welfare).

But in the comments to the TMV version of the post, folks said that the real issue here wasn't about White resentment, but "fairness". The usual suspect -- the wealthy or middle-class Black man getting AA -- was trotted here in support. As one commenter put it:
A CLASS based affirmative action plan would help anyone who starts out unfortunately low on the totem poll, even if they happen to be white, and exclude people with more than enough means of their own, even if they happen to be black.

The underlying assumption here is that race is not an independent source of disadvantage. Blacks might face disadvantage, but that's only because they're more likely to be poor. The argument here is that a wealthy Black man is surely not "disadvantaged" compared to a poor White.

That may be true, though I think it oversimplifies things greatly. Assuming that we could create an "oppression ledger" and add up all one's privileges and disadvantages to figure out who is better off, it may well be that wealthy Blacks are in a better overall situation than poor Whites. In fact, to the extent I think the question makes sense, I'd say it's likely. But all that it shows is that wealth can mask race-based disadvantage -- it doesn't mean it's not present. And there are racial disadvantages that cannot be "bought off", such as the risk of being racially profiled (which may well go up when you transition from shopping in Wal-Mart to Saks). Or perhaps not -- maybe wealthy or better educated Blacks don't feel like the experience significant racial discrimination.* In general, I think different axes of oppression are incommensurable -- it doesn't make sense to me to try and weigh how many dollars of extra income are "worth" being dismissed as "the angry Black man" anytime you get upset about something.

But in any event, it's a flawed comparison. The question -- at least for those of us who support both race and class based affirmative action (as I do) -- is not whether rich Blacks are better off than poor Whites. You got to hold other variables constant. So the real question is, are poor Blacks equal to poor Whites? That's the proposition that advocates of class-based AA superseding its racial cousin have to demonstrate -- and it's a tough claim indeed, because most of the research does not back it up.

A solely class-based affirmative action program would presumably treat equally poor Blacks and Whites the same. But if those two groups are not the same -- if poor Blacks face additional hurdles on account of their race in addition to what they face because they're poor -- then a solely class-based system would treat them unfairly. A system which looks at oppression holistically, by contrast, can accurately measure the relatively deprivations faced by people of all blends of race, class, gender, nationality, sexual orientation, religion, and other identity axes, and would thus seem to be superior to a counterpart that focuses only on race or only on class.

* The polling data we have, however, suggests that wealthy or better educated Blacks do in fact have roughly similar opinions as to the prevelance of racial discrimination compared to their poorer or less educated peers. See Russell K. Robinson, Perceptual Segregation, 108 Colum. L. Rev. 1093, 1112-13 (2008).


Anonymous said...

It'd be funnydepressing to look and see how many times you've tried to make this point.

Keep slugging away.

Also, I kind of want to see the paper that Kim savaged. Can I?

Unknown said...

It's true welfare has gotten a lot of not-too-colorblind criticism. However, I'm guessing it would prove a lot easier passing a ballot initiative banning *all* AA than it would be banning *all* welfare (has the latter ever happened? or even been seriously attempted?).