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Class, Affirmative Action, and the Dangers of Progressive Tribalism: The case against race-based affirmative action in education

Affirmative action protest
(Image via the Boston Globe)

An increasingly concerning phenomenon is festering within progressive politics. In late May of 2020, prominent Marxist scholar Adolph Reed was shut down by members of the New York City Democratic Socialists (NYC-DSA) and associates after significant backlash over his thoughts on race and identity politics. His stance: The American left’s dependence on race politics, particularly with regard to the disproportionate economic impact of Covid-19, is a detriment to multiracial organizing and, in turn, economic justice. This cancellation of a man who has dedicated his life to fighting against racial and economic injustice by the largest leftist organization in the United States stings with irony, but it is revealing of an unfortunate truth about the American progressive movement.  

Nationalistic fervor is often regarded as going hand in hand with right-wing politics within the United States. This is a reasonable assumption, considering the rhetoric that often comes from deeply conservative and patriotic factions within the country. The consequences of these mentalities throughout US history have manifested in centuries of oppression and mistreatment of minority groups. However, nationalist tendencies and tribalist politics are not unique to the American right wing. This “progressive tribalist” phenomenon, sometimes referred to as “identity politics,” has become increasingly mainstream in left-leaning communities. Progressive political dialogue within the United States is dominated by discussions revolving around prioritizing ethnic or racial representation and the importance of one’s pride in their heritage or cultural traditions. These motives are understandable, particularly considering the aforementioned consequences of right-wing white nationalism. It sometimes seems, however, that progressives believe that the way to defeat white supremacy is by intensifying tribalist sentiments within other groups, or “fighting fire with fire,” so to speak. Although this may be done with good intentions, this stance only serves to weaken progressive movements long-term by increasing division among minority groups, support both conservative and neoliberal agendas, and detract from the relevance of class. These problems are perhaps best exemplified by the subject of race-based affirmative action in universities. This article will consider how affirmative action embodies the aforementioned progressive tribalist phenomenon, its negative attributes, and why a class-based approach to affirmative action is a necessary replacement for the current system. 

It is no secret that American politics and social discourse are rife with charged conversations involving themes of race, prejudice, and the like. After all, such conversations are necessary when confronting the many dark parts of American history. Race as a concept may be a dangerous fantasy, but it has very real material consequences. To combat these problems, many left-leaning groups and individuals have begun to place an enormous emphasis on not just addressing these ideas, but relying on them as their primary means for understanding and advocating for progress and socioeconomic change. 

In other words, the very notion of progress has become inseparable from the topic of race. Fundamentally, this is true. One cannot hope to bring about socioeconomic progress in the United States without addressing how racism has created American socioeconomic conditions and constraints. However, as these ideas continue to permeate the fabric of our society, they become increasingly twisted and troubling. Rather than dispelling race and ethnicity as unfounded constructs imposed upon individuals, thereby depriving them of their agency as justifications to sew division and xenophobia in society, they are often seen as the only lens through which all other things can be viewed. In many ways, it feels as if many believe that individuals are first and foremost defined by their race and ethnicity. This is not in the sense that there are material consequences to being a particular ethnicity, but rather that one’s identity is and should be defined by their ethnicity. Placing race and ethnicity at the forefront of one’s analysis of social progress indicates a fundamental misunderstanding of the role of class in our material reality. History is driven by the nature of the forces of production and our relation to them. Things like racism and bigotry are products of this reality, and although they may possess a life of their own, I believe they find their origins in economic conditions. As a result of this misconception, many have become more preoccupied with sticking to their group and their particular interests or with pandering to minority groups by making empty gestures that bring about little to no meaningful change. 

There are many contemporary examples that are indicative of this dilemma. Take, for instance, the recent recall of three California school district board members, partially motivated by their earlier plan to rename 44 schools, in the midst of the pandemic, due to their links to historical injustices. In particular, the district sought to rename Abraham Lincoln High School. Not only does this make no material difference to the constituents suffering from the consequences of the pandemic, but it also alienates the majority of Americans who view Lincoln positively. Alternatively, there is the subject of self-segregation on university campuses, in which students tend to voluntarily seek to isolate themselves from other students of different ethnicities. Countless universities have program housing tailored for distinct ethnic identities which further facilitate the physical separation of students across racial and ethnic lines.  

In some cases, as seen with the Harvard admissions scandal, such actions can intensify tensions between minority groups and white Americans and raise the risk of racial animus. Specifically, the nature of race-based affirmative action has seemingly created a hierarchy of oppression. Even if such a hierarchy has valid grounds, as seen with the Harvard admissions scandal, racial groups that are on average “more well off” socioeconomically feel wronged and cheated by the fact that they are now at a disadvantage relative to other racial groups in the application process. Additionally, racial groups are not monoliths. Research shows that the socio-economic status of Asian Americans is incredibly diverse. The economic disparities within the Asian American community is the greatest among all racial groups. This lumps in lower-income ethnic subgroups such as Bhutanese Americans with their higher-income counterparts, placing them at an unfair disadvantage in the application process. 

In most cases, policies like affirmative action in education, which intensify racial divisions, are taken advantage of by conservatives to construct the narrative that liberals and progressives are the “real racists” in America. In the long run, this will only serve to hinder progress, as seen with the upswing in support for populist conservatives like former President Donald Trump among minorities. 

Perhaps most importantly, a focus on race-based affirmative action leads progressives to ignore issues that they should prioritize. Left-leaning groups and progressives were once fundamentally labor-oriented, but are now willing to detract from such concepts in favor of identity politics and “progressive tribalism.” Affirmative action exemplifies this problem. Although affirmative action comes from a just cause—the rectification of historical oppression and deprivation of opportunities from minorities—it emphasizes race more than socioeconomic status. As mentioned earlier, the subjects of class and racial discrimination are intertwined, but class is a fundamental division that should have more emphasis than race or ethnicity. By placing ethnic and racial divides before socioeconomic status, affirmative action actually looks more exclusive than some might initially realize. In addition to the aforementioned disparities across Asian American subgroups, there are approximately three million white Americans that fall under the poverty line in the United States. These are real people who feel neglected and unrecognized by policies like affirmative action. And while affirmative action is certainly designed to address historical and systemic oppression of minorities, it does so fundamentally by working to eliminate the wealth and material differences among ethnic groups in the United States. Arguably, what matters more is the socioeconomic status of the individual in question. This is something that race-based affirmative action arguably does a surprisingly poor job of addressing. For instance, consider the fact that over 80 percent of Black students in highly selective colleges are middle- or upper-class. Failing to focus on class or socioeconomic status neglects a significant portion of the population that truly requires the special interests that affirmative action provides. 

Considering this, rather than relying on the race-based affirmative action in education that is overall unpopular with Americans, we should shift to a class-based approach to affirmative action. This policy would actually end up being just as, if not more, effective with regards to representation of minority students at universities. On top of this, the groups within these minority populations that need the most support would actually end up getting it.