Opponents and supporters of affirmative action all carry a picture in their heads of how things should work. In this picture, everyone in the world is lined up, from No. 1 to No. 7 billion, in order of their qualifications for a job, admission to a university or whatever. The job goes to the first person in line who wants it. Opponents of affirmative action say it's unfair to let anyone jump ahead because of his or her race. Supporters say, Unfair? Are you kidding? Affirmative action just gives people the same places in line they would have had if there had been equal opportunity.
This picture is wrong in many ways. What makes someone good in a job depends on a variety of factors that are hard to define or measure. They can't be used to line people up on the basis of a variable called "qualifications." Furthermore, race, or at least a diversity of racial backgrounds, often is a qualification. Finally, the benefits of affirmative action sometimes go to people who have already had equal opportunity and more.
Because racial affirmative action is such a raw sore on our body politic, some advocate a modification: affirmative action by social class. If you were raised barefoot and poor, you move up the line, past children of the rich and the upper middle class, no matter what your race or theirs. The idea is tempting. It would take race out of the picture. It would eliminate the galling (though still rare) sight of blacks from privileged backgrounds marching into Princeton past the crumpled bodies of working-class whites with higher sat scores. And it would be truer to the principle of equal opportunity. It would be fairer. Barack Obama has half endorsed the idea, saying his own privileged daughters don't deserve the benefits of affirmative action. John McCain's views have been too contradictory to know for certain, but he also could be interpreted as being favorably inclined to something like this.
It's a terrible idea. It would do nothing about the principal complaint people have about affirmative action: that it violates the principle of merit. People with better qualifications would still lose jobs and university slots to people with worse qualifications, and their resentment probably wouldn't be mollified by the fact that the beneficiaries of this policy might be white. Moreover, it would put America in the business of labeling people and rewarding them according to a criterion--social class--which would be a nightmare possibly even worse than race.
Although most African Americans are actually of mixed blood, defining who is black for purposes of affirmative action has not been very difficult. (Grotesque sometimes, but not difficult.) Defining concepts like "working class" or "rural poor" and then assigning individuals to their appropriate class would be far more challenging. And deciding exactly what degree of reverse discrimination each allegedly deprived social class is entitled to would be even worse. Today's affirmative-action battles, and the deep resentments they stir up (reasonably or otherwise), are nothing compared with the blood in the streets and the bitterness in the hearts of Americans denied a promotion after some tribunal ruled that they were upper middle class when the guy next door (who has a pool in his backyard, for crying out loud) got a precious "lower middle" classification and a handsome raise to go with it.
We don't have to imagine what it could be like. We have the example of China, which during Mao Zedong's time invented exquisite class distinctions and used them to distribute privileges. Children of former landlords were tarred and denied advancement in the new society. How would you like to be officially stamped as a "rotten element"? Obviously, official social-class discrimination is unlikely to reach such extremes in American society. But it would bring out some of our less attractive characteristics, such as reverse snobbery, competitive umbrage and an overfondness for litigation as a way of slicing the pie.
It's fine to give an edge to people who have overcome remarkable challenges to get where they are. That is a genuine qualification, not just a gift certificate you get because of your race or social class. But we should not import into America a social problem--class distinctions--that we don't currently have much of. Affirmative action was never intended to be a general remedy for accidents of birth and the randomness of fate. It was specifically aimed at America's great problem of race. If we decide we're past that--which we shouldn't, because we aren't--it would be better to donate the whole contraption to the Smithsonian and move on than to try to refurbish it for some imagined postracial era.