In the coming months, the Supreme Court will hear a case that could end race-based admissions for colleges and universities. While the larger impact is unknown — will those race boxes disappear from job applications, too? — the case could have ripple effects throughout the country. 

If affirmative action ends, we must replace it with something that should have been added a long time ago: a poor people’s box.

I’m not alone in this sort of thinking. There are Black Americans who support a class-based approach to reducing inequality, including New York Times columnist and Columbia professor John McWhorter, who recently wrote that affirmative action must end for minority students as well as wealthy white students.

Tackling class disparities, McWhorter argued, would cast a broader net that would help lift those in need, including but not exclusively minorities. “I think a mature America is now in a position to extend the moral sophistication of affirmative action to disadvantaged people of all races or ethnicities, especially since, as a whole, Black America would still benefit substantially,” he wrote.

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Similarly, Black political scientist and University of Pennsylvania professor emeritus Adolph Reed has long argued that, while race is important, income inequality is the real culprit that must be addressed. Reed claims that pointing to race as the root of all our social ills is reductionist.

Speaking to JSTOR Daily last year, Reed said, “To oversimplify it a little bit, it’s a rich peoples’ wealth gap. You can see the same stuff with even patterns of police killings. The work that race reductionism does is to skewer the actual or the more complex causes of the actual inequality.”

Reed pointed out, “Not everybody who is hurting under neoliberalism is Black, and not all Black people are hurting under neoliberalism.”

Reed has caught a lot of flak for taking a stance that his critics say isn’t strong enough on race and, in my opinion, some of that criticism is correct. Sometimes it is just race: That Black people in the U.S. face a wide array of obstacles — sometimes lethal — simply due to their skin color is undeniable. There’s the Black maternal mortality rate: Black women are more likely to die in pregnancy and childbirth than white women, regardless of their education or income. Research shows, too, that even Black boys who grow up in wealthy families are more likely to fall into poverty than white boys of the same backgrounds.

And then there’s driving while Black: data proves that Black Americans are more likely to be pulled over than white drivers. Money doesn’t protect Black people from this sort of racial profiling, nor does education.

So the system clearly needs righting. But how do we do it?

We can address racial inequality, yes. But we also need to think more broadly. There needs to be consideration of the role that class plays in stunting both individuals’ and the country’s growth.

And we need to promote greater socioeconomic diversity everywhere, from college campuses to the echelons of corporate media. Poor folks — regardless of their race or ethnicity — need a seat at the table, too.

The Rev. Dr. William Barber’s Poor People’s Campaign thinks along these lines. Sidestepping the “Is it race or class?” controversy, the Poor People’s Campaign roots itself, instead, firmly in the idea of uniting Americans from various backgrounds under the banner of fighting class inequality. 

I call for a poor people’s box as a Jewish woman who spent her early childhood in poverty in Gainesville, Florida.

All of us — Black, white, Hispanic and Asian — who lived in the poor part of town were the beneficiaries of desegregation policies that sent us to an excellent public school on the other side of town, the wealthier “white side” of our largely still segregated city. And while those school district lines had been drawn based on race, they could easily — and should be — drawn based on class.

Because my family lacked money, I had far more in common with non-white kids in my neighborhood than I did with the white children at my school. When I went to my white friends’ houses, I was always struck by how different the details of their lives looked from mine.

I was in awe of their lives and homes: of the wall-to-wall carpet, the pile of toys, their stay-at-home moms who made them snacks after school and weren’t pinched by poverty and anxious and stressed and depressed as a result. The activities, the summer camps, the traveling, the leisurely weekends not spent cleaning offices for a little extra money like my family did. The brand new clothes, not secondhand things culled from the garbage bag my janitor dad lugged home from the sorority he cleaned. And I realized, very early on, that my wealthy white classmates were reaping various advantages both tangible and intangible that I would never, ever have. 

While my family clawed its way into the middle class — my mother got an associate degree from a community college that helped her secure a white-collar job as a graphic designer — we were never in the same position as most of my white friends. There was no money for SAT classes or any of those other things that would have given me an edge when I applied for university.

Knowing that I was at a disadvantage compared to many of my classmates, and knowing that my parents wouldn’t be able to help pay for college, I didn’t bother applying to any of my dream institutions in the Northeast. My horizons were limited and my long-term prospects were, too, I figured.

Knowing I would get a full ride, tuition-wise, instate because I’d done well in high school, I played it safe and applied to two public universities. But I still had to figure out living expenses. 

At the University of Florida, while working part-time jobs and going to class, I met my first husband. His parents’ assets — a law firm, various real estate investments — made them, technically, millionaires. But because his mother was originally from Puerto Rico, my husband was able to check the “Hispanic” box on applications and benefit from schools’ interest in racial diversity; he was also able to receive an ethnicity-based merit scholarship that didn’t consider students’ economic background.

We weren’t on a level playing field — he was on another plane compared to me.

My last year of university, I ended up working full time because I needed to pay rent and bills and health insurance — my parents made a little too much for me to get a Pell Grant but not enough to keep me on their insurance — while taking a full course load.

My classes started at 8 a.m. and ended just before 3 p.m.; I would bike back to my apartment after school, jump into the beat-up, hand-me-down Volvo that my first husband’s parents had generously given me, and then drive to the hospital where I worked a 4 p.m. to 12:30 a.m. shift in the basement in the medical records department (sometimes, after the nine-to-fivers cleared out, I was put on what was called “The Death Desk” — which was as morbid as it sounds and which is a story for another time). Returning home around 1 a.m., I’d sleep less than 8 hours and then get up early to start it all again.

There were no parties, no internships, no networking — none of the things college students do to hit the ground running when they graduate.

The system struck me as wildly unfair.

Research has shown that the more time a child spends in poverty, the harder it is to escape that fate. Still, I was one of the lucky ones — that my family had scrapped its way into the lower middle class by the time I went to middle school gave me better odds than someone who spent their entire childhood poor.

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But the people who, for the most part, enjoy the best odds of staying out of poverty? The wealthy. Like my first husband.

I realize, of course, that my first husband’s situation was an outlier. But it shows that higher education’s myopic emphasis on race-based admissions is flawed and that students should be considered more holistically — with a special eye to class — regardless of how the Supreme Court rules.

Opening up a category based on class could build the powerful, bipartisan alliances we need to change this country for the better. It could cut across the divides tearing this country apart and unite poor and working class Americans around a common cause. It could lead Americans to stop thinking in binaries like Black and white, Republican and Democrat, immigrant and native, evangelical and secular. We could all unite around the cause of leveling the playing field for poor folks — whether they are the descendants of slaves or the sons of daughters of white people who saw their factory jobs disappear in recent decades or the children of immigrants.  

None of this is to deny the real challenges and discrimination that minorities face in the U.S. It’s more of a “yes, and” — we need a way to account for those challenges while also leveling the playing field for those who face obstacles due to their class background.

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