Q. Affirmative action lost in Michigan this past year. How can progressives support affirmative action in a way that is likely to make it more popular and more likely to win at the polls? Do you have ideas about how it should be framed and do you also have thoughts on how the policies themselves should be changed?
A. The first thing to understand is that the conservatives and the right undertook an assault on affirmative action that has gone on since it first started in the 1960s and has never ended. Of the public relations to date, when they succeeded in characterizing affirmative action as preferential treatment for unqualified or less qualified people, they succeeded. I wouldn’t even argue that they didn’t succeed, they did! And it was easy to do because affirmative action in a zero-sum game—especially in higher education where someone else is admitted and someone else isn’t admitted. In elite institutions it’s easy for people to want the seats to argue that other people shouldn’t have them. It’s not that it was that hard to do, but they were very smart and very crafty in framing the issue as reverse discrimination—preferential treatment, something for somebody who doesn’t merit it, taking something away from other people—and they won that rhetorical battle. And since they won the rhetorical battle, they won the policy battle.
There’s nothing wrong in concept with affirmative action as the idea that you make up for discrimination that has taken place by reaching out to people. And in some cases where you have equal qualified people taking the people with less. We’re able to do it when it comes to women, inclusion of women in opportunities, and the Supreme Court has even upheld that without any difficulty. It’s on the race question that we have fallen short. I think that what we need to do is to re-label affirmative action as something else. Maybe call it banana something, orange, or something like that and then start over again with trying to explain to people what it is that we’re trying to do.
One idea is to base the whole thing on class, which I don’t have any objection to. I’ve always supported affirmative action based on class, although I don’t think we should call it affirmative action. I think we should call it banana based on class or orange based on class, whatever. Because we have an increased emphasis on higher education in all the Ivies—Penn, Harvard, all the rest—I’m trying to make sure that we have kids that are from poor families.