Occupy Wall Street and Affirmative Action

The protests -- and Abigail Fisher's lawsuit -- remind us that inequality affects white people, too.

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Watch out for two common responses here. The first is the "diversity" bit. Try telling a black student to her face that she deserves admission for being diverse, and note that she won't like it. Also ask her, if she is a middle-class or affluent black person, precisely what the nature is of the "diversity" she contributes -- and then ask the committee admitting her on that basis the same question.

Ask the members of that committee to name a single university where race-based preferences were discontinued and admissions of brown students dropped to too few to constitute a community. Having a perceptible and vigorous black community on a campus -- even if not as large as it was in the '90s -- doesn't require race-based preferences.

Sure, lots of middle-class black people today are holding on to that status tenuously. But that brings us back to Occupy Wall Street, which is all about how too many people of all walks in the 99 percent are watching their life's efforts go to naught because of entrenched inadequacies of opportunity and financial skullduggery on Wall Street and beyond.

There is not a thing "conservative" about basing college-admission preference policies on class. It is a prototypically progressive position. It is supported by serious intellectuals unconnected with any right-wing ideology and sincerely concerned with racial justice. The reason thinkers such as the Century Foundation's Richard Kahlenberg and New York University sociologist Dalton Conley favor class-based preferences is that the argument makes sense.

Nor does supporting preferences based on socioeconomics signal ignorance that racism persists in America. The question is what the relationship between policy and racism must be.

The key question is not whether racism exists, then. It is the following: Though racism exists, in the America of 2011 and Occupy Wall Street, are black 99 percenters' problems more important than those of white ones?

I suspect that most people, of all colors, will say no here. And it suggests that today's admissions preference policies should give a leg up not just to brown people but to a multicolored segment of the 99 percent.

John McWhorter is a contributing editor to The Root.

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