Race, Class, Caste…? Rethinking Affirmative Action

Many who oppose affirmative action programs in the United States because they use “racial” categories such as black, African American, or Latino, claim that equally effective and more equitable programs can be developed using only class categories, such as “low income.” A key test case for the “race v. class” debate is admission to law schools, made urgent by recent legal prohibitions on the use of “race” in the admission procedures to state universities in California, Washington, and Texas. An empirical study by Linda Wightman, the former director of research for the Law School Admissions Council (LSAC), has shown that had a “raceblind” admissions process – based solely on undergraduate grade point average (GPA) and scores on the national Law School Admissions Test (LSAT) administered by the LSAC – been applied to the group of persons entering law school in 1991, ninety percent of those self-identified as “black” would not have been admitted to any law school in the United States. Adding a preference based on socioeconomic factors to the GPA/LSAT criteria would not have significantly increased the number of African Americans because among applicants with similar socioeconomic backgrounds, those self-identified as “white” significantly outperformed African Americans on the LSAT. One response to such evidence as presented by Wightman’s study is simply to argue for the restoration of traditional racial categories to admission criteria. Another response, though, is to seek a new category to be used to modify the GPA/LSAT criteria, a category that might correlate lower performance on standardized testing with current social structures more precisely than socioeconomic “class,” yet would be sufficiently distinguishable from the increasingly forbidden classification of “race.” Such a category should be both theoretically coherent and empirically grounded. Proposals appearing in recent legal scholarship to reinterpret the Fourteenth Amendment in terms of an “anticaste” or “anti-pariah” principle appear to be one attempt to develop such an alternative criteria: caste.