Richard D. Kahlenberg

The single most important thing Democrats could do to grab the attention of working-class whites would be to shift their support for racial preferences in college admissions and employment to preferences for economically disadvantaged people of all races.

At first blush, this may seem an odd priority. Affirmative action is barely discussed in policy circles, even by Republicans, who worry that mentioning the issue will boost turnout of minority voters. Racial preferences rarely if ever surface in discussions of top issues for voters.

But it is hard to think of another issue that more directly connects white working- class voters to the Republican Party and alienates them from Democrats.

When white-working class voters are encouraged to think of themselves in racial terms, they are more likely to vote Republican; when they are reminded of their class position, they may be more likely to vote for Democrats. Racial preferences define inequality purely in terms of race, telling white working-class voters, who hardly consider themselves privileged in American society, that even the wealthiest people of color are more deserving of special consideration.

While affirmative action seems like a minor issue, it appears to have a very real affect on white working-class attitudes. A 2012 poll of working-class whites by the Public Religion Research Institute uncovered a fascinating finding: 60% of working-class whites (compared with 39% of college educated white) believed discrimination against whites has become as big a problem as discrimination against blacks and other minorities. In a society where African Americans continue to suffer racial discrimination in housing, employment, even catching a taxicab, the only plausible reading of these results is that working-class whites equate affirmative action in education and employment with discrimination against them.

Democrats have largely defanged two potent racially-charged issues from the 1980s – moving to the center on crime and on welfare. But Democrats never recalibrated their position on racial preferences, and the polling data seem to suggest that white working class voters are highly cognizant of such policies.

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. understood this well. He recognized the need to take affirmative steps to address our history of discrimination, and wrote in his book, Why We Can’t Wait, “for it is obvious that if a man is entered at the starting line in a race three hundred years after another man, the first would have to perform some impossible feat in order to catch up to his fellow runner.” Yet King endorsed not for a Bill of Rights for Blacks, but a Bill of Rights for the Disadvantaged of all races. “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.”

In a letter to his freelance editor for the book, King explained the politics of including working-class whites. “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 (that of the white worker).”

At a time when disadvantage is increasingly a matter of economics rather than race, what moral and political sense does it make for Democrats to continue to cling to a policy of class-blind racial preferences?

Richard D. Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, is author of
The Remedy: Class, Race, and Affirmative Action.