The impulse behind racial affirmative-action programs comes from a very good place: the desire to provide extra support to Black, Hispanic, and Native American people—groups that have been oppressed throughout American history. But it appears that these programs will soon be outlawed. The U.S. Supreme Court seems poised to jettison racial preferences following oral arguments in October in cases challenging the admissions processes at Harvard and the University of North Carolina. And regardless of their legal status, these programs are unpopular. Three-quarters of Americans—including 59 percent of African Americans—oppose using race as a factor in college admissions.
The good news is that there is a politically popular and legally sound alternative that can produce high levels of racial and economic diversity: preferences based on socioeconomic disadvantage. While the U.S. Supreme Court has long been wary of government policies that treat people differently on the basis of race, the modern Court does not have this sort of hesitation about programs that treat citizens differently on the basis of economic status—from the progressive income tax to means-tested programs like food stamps.
Prominent left and liberal voices in the 1960s and ’70s, such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, advocated for this sort of approach, arguing that affirmative action based on class disadvantage could help address the legacy of slavery and segregation. Recent research finds that although preferences based on income alone are unlikely to produce sufficient racial diversity at selective colleges, the consideration of additional factors, such as family wealth and neighborhood poverty levels, can lead to high levels of both racial and economic diversity.
In the years surrounding the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which outlawed racial discrimination in education, employment, and public accommodations, civil rights leaders vigorously debated the question of how to address the terrible legacy of the nation’s mistreatment of Black people over centuries.
Some, such as James Farmer, co-founder of the Congress on Racial Equality, argued in favor of a system of racial quotas in employment. Whitney Young of the National Urban League likewise called for “a decade of discrimination” in favor of Black people. Others, including King, suggested a different path. In his 1964 book Why We Can’t Wait, King wrote that America owed its Black citizens some form of compensation for the way they’d been treated. “The ancient common law has always provided a remedy for the appropriation of the labor of one human being by another. This law should be made to apply for American Negroes,” he argued. His proposed solution, however, was a Bill of Rights for the Disadvantaged that would apply to people of all races.
King outlined three rationales for this approach. First, he argued that, because of the history of slavery and segregation, a Bill of Rights for the Disadvantaged would disproportionately benefit Black people and thereby serve as a remedy for past discrimination. Second, King recognized that disadvantaged Americans of all races faced not only discrimination but also deprivation, a condition that itself required a remedy. “It is a simple matter of justice that America, in dealing creatively with the task of raising the Negro from backwardness, should also be rescuing a large stratum of the forgotten white poor,” he wrote. Third, King knew that the issue of racial preferences would divide the coalition of civil rights groups and organized labor behind the 1963 March on Washington. As he wrote to an editor of Why We Can’t Wait: “It is my opinion that many white workers whose economic condition is not too far removed from the economic condition of his black brother, will find it difficult to accept a ‘Negro Bill of Rights,’ which seeks to give special consideration to the Negro in the context of unemployment, joblessness, etc. and does not take into sufficient account their plight.”