Ramey: Why class-based affirmative action is a good idea


Photo: Brian Achenbach/Iowa State Daily

Affirmative action in the United States began with an executive order signed by President John F. Kennedy which required government make sure applicants are treated equally regardless of race, creed, color or national origin.

Lucas Ramey, Columnist

Race-based affirmative action is a topic usually brought up to discuss the question of racial justice and equality. It is not a mechanism used to give minorities an advantage but to put them on an equal playing field. Used to offset the consequences of decades of racist policies and attitudes that plagued our country.

It sounds like a desirable and needed policy to help the disadvantaged. However, it does not work as intended. There are many practical issues surrounding it (there are, of course, ethical concerns, but I will not discuss them here).

This is not by any means to say diversity is not important, but that we need to promote it fairly and correctly. Class-based affirmative action does not fall victim to many of the issues race-based affirmative action does. It also promotes diversity of race along with socioeconomic diversity. 

In a response to my first article, a columnist suggested that I write about affirmative action. So, I decided to go through with it.

One huge problem affirmative action has is that it is not a durable policy. Our culture, political climate and our country’s attitude around race seem to change frequently and significantly. To achieve a fair and just affirmative action policy, it seems that we would need to account for this. 

Which groups do we give an advantage to, and how much of an advantage do we give them? And most importantly, how do we change such policy over time that adequately corrects for all racial injustice in the present time?

I have not heard satisfying and convincing answers to these questions, and this leads to a bigger problem. There is no way to know when to stop. We cannot expect two different demographic groups to be identical, and we have no way of measuring what the “correct” outcome is. 

If these questions can be answered, can we trust the people in charge to be competent in making the correct decisions? 

I feel uneasy about this for a few reasons. One of them is that public universities are funded by the federal government. Could this relationship be exploited for political purposes? 

Class-based affirmative action seems to handle these issues better. It is durable, as it’s self-evident that economically disadvantaged people will always have it a bit tougher, and it isn’t as politically charged.

There’s a huge advantage to a policy that is popular; in fact, most people support class-based affirmative action. I would prefer us to push for something that is popular among the people and less controversial.

A controversial point regarding race-based affirmative action is the mismatch effect. The argument is that due to the large racial preferences given to minorities, the beneficiaries get into higher-level colleges that do not suit them and actually hurt them by “setting them up for failure.” 

This could reinforce stereotypes and stigma as well as undermine the self-confidence of the student. Is this justice? Is this how we should be approaching racial equality?

It should be noted that this issue is far from being one-sided; there are still many experts who are skeptical of this “mismatch effect” and still believe that aggressive racial preferences are important. This is a complex topic that I cannot settle here, but you, the reader, can decide for yourself which side is more convincing.

The reason I believe in making affirmative action class-based is that, when done properly, it seems to do a good job of maintaining or even increasing racial diversity with a more socioeconomically diverse student body. In my opinion, this is just as important as racial diversity — it doesn’t seem to suffer any sort of mismatch effect.