Affirmative action is a phrase that has accumulated a slew of contradictory connotations. For the vast majority of Yale students, this practice represents an engine of social change, a great equalizer and a necessary bulwark against institutional white supremacy. For the Trump administration and large portions of the American right, affirmative action is itself a discriminatory practice hiding behind the veil of social justice.
In his response to the Trump administration’s recent allegations that Yale “impose[s] undue and unlawful penalties upon racially-disfavored applicants,” Yale President Salovey pointed to the politicized nature of the DOJ’s investigation. Since its very inception, affirmative action has become a central battleground in the so-called U.S. “culture wars.”
At Yale, I have never heard a single student voice concern against affirmative action, let alone oppose the policy altogether. In fact, the utterance of a word against racially conscious admissions would instantly raise accusations of bigotry, racism, narrow-mindedness and plain ignorance. And rightly so — racial diversity is an integral part of Yale’s identity, and to undermine the University’s conception of fairness is to question the legitimacy of the institution itself.
But in addition to achieving racial diversity, Yale also needs to strive to achieve socio-economic diversity. According to the New York Times, Yale students’ median family income is $192,600, and 69 percent of Yalies come from the top 20 percent. As for the bottom 20 percent, they represent 2.1 percent of Yale’s student body.
We should find these numbers concerning, even by Ivy League standards. For reference, Harvard’s median family income is $25,000 lower than ours, and the bottom 20 percent are less represented at Yale than they are at every other Ivy League institution.
From the outside, Americans may find Yale’s dedication to diversity and fairness hard to believe. After all, a genuine commitment to social justice seems irreconcilable with the numbers above, not to mention legacy leg-ups and/or recruited athletes. As Saahil Desai aptly observed in the Atlantic, both practices are akin to affirmative action for rich white students.
Yalies may look diverse, but their parents’ bank accounts look rather similar when compared to the rest of the population. In short, Yale seems like a wonderfully diverse place so long as we forget about the fact that almost all of us went to private schools or selective public schools, that coastal cities are disproportionately represented on campus, that 70 percent of Yalies come from the top 20 percent and that most students’ political convictions range from cosmopolitan neoliberalism to neoliberal cosmopolitanism. Yale’s admission practices should place significantly more emphasis upon the question of class in addition to race.
Popular discontentment does not come out of thin air. Disenchantment often serves to expose the defects of existing systems, the problem with long-established hierarchies and the malfunctions of redistributive mechanisms. A 2019 Pew Research Center study found that 73 percent of Americans reject the use of race or ethnicity in college admissions. But when asked about affirmative action as an abstract concept, more than 60 percent of Americans express their unwavering support. Perhaps the reason why the same people think of college admissions as an exception is that the American working class does not believe that their children have access to elite schools at all.
The word “class” sounds rather antiquated. It evokes 18th-century struggles, philosophers with strokeable beards and eras long bygone. We may find it appropriate in a seminar about the Storming of the Bastille, the Paris Commune or Rosa Luxemburg’s political thought. But the centrality of class in day-to-day politics has largely vanished. Protests have replaced revolutions, and historical materialism by intersectionality. Naturally, these changes reflect modern realities: Marx and Engels talked very little about systemic racism.
But while racial justice and socioeconomic equity should go together, they often do not. In her celebrated book “Women, Race, and Class,” Angela Davis aptly lambasts bourgeois activists who only care about “diversity” when it comes to the Ivy League, Goldman Sachs, and the New York Times. I am by no means claiming that Yale and (all) its students fit this archetype. But I do share Davis’s concern that class has been methodically removed from a wide array of conversations where it belongs — among them, affirmative action.
Indeed, a race- and class-based admission system is exactly what Yale needs. Not only would it (re-)legitimize the university’s commitment to diversity broadly understood, but it would also bring a myriad of indirect benefits. In a 2019 piece in the Atlantic, Clint Smith explored the countless unwritten rules that underlie all of elite-university life — the seemingly insignificant habits, the shared political opinions and the unspoken taboos that complicate the integration of low-income students at schools such as Yale. A class-based admission system would address the root-cause of all these issues. Most importantly perhaps, it would allow the University to fulfill its primary purpose: to form principled leaders who understand that America is not a monolithic bloc, scholars who value all kinds of diversity and a future ruling class that is at least somehow connected to the people it serves.
MATHIS BITTON is a sophomore in Ezra Stiles College. His columns run on alternate weeks. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .