• Opinion
  • Race

We Can Affirm That Race Matters—But Much Less Than It Used To

5 minute read

Now that the Supreme Court has decided that citizens, as well as judiciaries, have the right to decide against Affirmative Action policies — the import of the decision in favor of Proposition 2 in Michigan — we are hearing the usual cries that benighted people are rolling back good people’s quest to “take race into account.” This time, as usual, it’s Affirmative Action in college admissions that is at stake, and specifically the kind based on race and gender.

But in the grand scheme of things what we are seeing is a preservation of what Affirmative Action was originally supposed to be about — acknowledging disadvantage. In 1970, it made a certain sense to treat being black as a disadvantage in itself. But today, the proper Affirmative Action should be about socioeconomics.

Most Americans would understand this if the way we discuss Affirmative Action weren’t so coded. A leading misimpression is that college admissions policies are always a mere thumb on the scale — that among candidates with equivalent grades and test scores, race is “taken into account” only to ensure diversity. And that kind of Affirmative Action is great. I, for one, would dread teaching a class where everybody was a privileged white kid from the suburbs. Or, where everybody was anything.

But that’s not the kind of Affirmative Action decisions like Tuesday’s by the Supremes addresses. Too often, colleges have had a two-tier admissions system, in which black and brown students are, as a matter of policy, admitted with lower grades and scores than other students’ in a quest to fill a quota. This has been identified over the years at the University of California, Rutgers, the University of Michigan, and countless others.

That kind of taking race into account made perfect sense when most black people were poor and had no access to decent education. But what about now, when it is not rare to be middle class and black? We must avoid pretending that such people are mere hothouse rarities — i.e. last time I checked, it was racist to declare that being black means being poor.

So, do we “take into account” the race of the child of a lawyer and a systems analyst by exempting them from the standards we apply to white kids? Many say that the issue is simply whether race “matters” in life. But is that the smackdown point we are often told? In contesting this decision, Justice Sotomayor has it that “Race matters to a young man’s view of society when he spends his teenage years watching others tense up as he passes. Race matters to a young woman’s sense of self when she states her hometown, and then is pressed ‘No, where are you really from?’, regardless of how many generations her family has been in the country.”

Those things are real — but even black people can question whether they make it morally corrupt to expose middle class black kids to serious scholastic competition. Sure, polls often show that people of all races “approve of” Affirmative Action. But the topic is too complex for that question to have any useful meaning. It’s like asking people whether they approve of feeding children warm muffins, without considering how many, how often, and what’s in the muffins in question.

Too seldom do we hear things such as that in a book that got too little attention because it came out in the wake of 9/11, Paul Sniderman and Thomas Piazza polled 715 black people on whether they approved of policies regularly admitting black students with lower scores than other students and found that 90% disapproved. “Taking race into account”? Sure. But in which ways?

Here’s something. Despite my comfortable middle-class upbringing, race most certainly “mattered” in my life, thank you very much. A kid liked calling me “blackey” in camp. I was once denied a summer job because of my race. A couple of times I caught an expression of alarm on a shopkeeper’s face when I walked in. In schoolyard interactions with white boys, there were occasions when it was clear that I was to “know my place” on a certain unstated level. The dating age as a black kid in mostly white schools in the 70s and 80s was no picnic — most of the women around you could only see you as a brother. Your rating was gratifyingly less abysmal in all black settings, but your day-to-day existence was in a world where you were, in a sense, not considered a whole man.

Yes, race mattered. But my mother would have — well, I can’t even imagine — if I had said that those things qualified me for lower standards of evaluation in college admissions than a white kid. Race “mattered” for me to the same extent as any number of things for other kids, regarding health, family issues, appearance, disabilities, and much else.

It’s socioeconomics that create the kind of obstacles to scholastic success that truly justify altered standards. Your school is lousy. Your school doesn’t offer Advanced Placement courses. You had to help raise your siblings. Few people in your family value higher education. You barely knew anybody who went to college.

A society that insisted that people with burdens of that kind come up with grades and scores equal to those of more privileged people would be backwards and unsophisticated. Therefore, we do need Affirmative Action.

However, what needs to be affirmed in today’s America, as opposed to Lyndon Johnson’s, is disadvantage suffered by all people. This is quite different, in 2014, from the more particular fact that race matters.

Decisions like Tuesday’s are, therefore, progress. We should celebrate it.

More Must-Reads From TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com