The False Choice between Race and Class and Other Affirmative Action Myths

81 Pages Posted: 30 Aug 2015 Last revised: 26 Apr 2016

See all articles by Lisa R. Pruitt

Lisa R. Pruitt

University of California, Davis - School of Law

Date Written: August 28, 2015


This article refutes the widely held assumption that affirmative action is appropriate either to support only racial and ethnic minorities or to support only low-income students, but that it cannot or should not support both. Pruitt argues that we need not make such a choice and that we should aspire to socioeconomically diversify higher education institutions — including the most elite sector — with low-income students of all colors. Pruitt thus disputes the framing of Richard Kahlenberg and Richard Sander who have long argued that we should seek socioeconomic diversity in lieu of racial/ethnic diversity, a stance that has needlessly pitted underrepresented minorities against whites of low socioeconomic status (SES), thus fueling the race-vs.-class debate in the prestigious admissions context. The article also takes on other common myths about affirmative action, including the notion that low-income whites add no value because they are essentially redundant of the upper-income whites who are abundant in elite higher education, and the proposition that such educational opportunity is strictly aimed at racial integration of the middle classes, leaving no place or need for the poor and socioeconomically disadvantaged. This article analyzes socioeconomic disadvantage as diversity from three vantage points: case law, rhetoric, and the practice of elite higher education admissions. The high-water mark for socioeconomic disadvantage as an aspect of “diversity” in case law came in Bakke v. University of California (1978). Justice Powell’s opinion in that case famously held that racial and ethnic disadvantage could be considered in the holistic review of applicants. Virtually unnoticed and uncommented upon by judges and scholars since Bakke, however, is the fact that Powell also listed socioeconomic disadvantage as an aspect of diversity, treating it as on par with racial and ethnic disadvantage in that holistic review. The U.S. Supreme Court and other federal courts since Bakke have largely ignored that stance, implicitly or explicitly re-defining diversity strictly in relation to underrepresented racial and ethnic groups. Meanwhile, the plaintiffs in affirmative action cases like Grutter, Gratz, Hopwood and Fisher are often popularly perceived as socioeconomically disadvantaged whites who pitted the interests of that group against racial and ethnic minorities. In fact, neither Alan Bakke nor any of the plaintiffs in more recent affirmative action cases self-identified as socioeconomically disadvantaged. Indeed, Abigail Fisher in particular admits that she is relatively socioeconomically advantaged.

In the other two contexts — diversity rhetoric and diversity “in action,” as reflected in who gets admitted to prestigious higher education institutions — Pruitt documents a widespread erasure or denial of class, of poor and working-class whites in particular. For better or worse, diversity has become a buzzword for a key value and aspiration of the academy, but diversity generally is not defined to include socioeconomic diversity except to the extent that underrepresented minorities happen also to be socioeconomically disadvantaged.

In this first of a series of articles that explicitly takes up the white working class and poor whites as critical race projects, Pruitt begins to theorize why low-SES whites are so little valued in the elite college admissions race. In addition to the race-vs.-class framing that has distracted us from the possibility — indeed, the imperative — of supporting both groups of underrepresented students, Pruitt concludes that stereotypes of low-SES whites as conservative and racist are also powerful deterrents to their inclusion in the prestigious higher education sector. Long-standing elite disdain for poor and working-class whites, as well as distance from and ignorance of their milieu, further skews how institutions of higher education assess disadvantaged white strivers.

In this age of escalating wealth and income inequality, we need socioeconomic diversity in higher education — including in the most elite sectors — more than ever before. Yet evidence shows that wealthier but less able students often get the coveted spots in that prestigious and narrowing pipeline to our nation’s leadership, a phenomenon with significant implications for our nation’s democratic ideals and economic flourishing. The current system effectively silences many perspectives and undermines our egalitarian principles, short-circuiting the prospects of strivers by failing to get them into elite higher education or to support adequately the few there. That failure also has economic implications for our nation, as we fail to optimize development of our raw human capital.

While Pruitt acknowledges the shortcomings of the diversity analysis in the higher education context, she ultimately calls for a return to Justice Powell’s position in Bakke, which endorsed a broader conception of diversity, specifically including low-income students. The practical reality is that race-based affirmative action does not enjoy broad popular support and is widely believed to be doomed given the current composition of the U.S. Supreme Court. But a broader definition of diversity — an explicit valuing of low-income students in rhetoric and in practice — could be the political quid pro quo that helps save affirmative action for racial and ethnic minorities.

Keywords: socioeconomics, socioeconomic status, low-SES, class, race, affirmative action, higher education, inequality, income inequality, wealth inequality, working class, poverty, discrimination, critical race theory, whiteness studies, whites, Bakke, Fisher

Suggested Citation

Pruitt, Lisa R., The False Choice between Race and Class and Other Affirmative Action Myths (August 28, 2015). Buffalo Law Review, Vol. 63, 981 (2015), UC Davis Legal Studies Research Paper No. 449, Available at SSRN:

Lisa R. Pruitt (Contact Author)

University of California, Davis - School of Law ( email )

Martin Luther King, Jr. Hall
Davis, CA CA 95616-5201
United States

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