Supporting class-based affirmative action

January 24, 2013

Ruth Marcus’s splendid Jan. 19 op-ed column, “One wise Latina,” on Sonia Sotomayor’s rise from humble origins to the Supreme Court, ended on a false note. Ms. Marcus applauded Justice Sotomayor for supporting affirmative-action programs that “create the conditions whereby students from disadvantaged backgrounds could be brought to the starting line of a race,” while chiding Justice Clarence Thomas for “resentment of the help that came his way.”

But Justice Thomas does not resent providing a leg up for what Justice Sotomayor describes as “students from disadvantaged backgrounds”; he supported the idea of class-based affirmative action in his confirmation hearings. What he objected to is outright racial preferences, which help even the most wealthy students of color and ignore low-income white and Asian students.

Justice Sotomayor’s defense of affirmative action as a program for “disadvantaged” students is compelling, especially given her life story. But it is not an accurate description of today’s affirmative-action programs at selective colleges, which overwhelmingly benefit middle and upper-class students of color.

Richard D. Kahlenberg, Washington

The writer is a senior fellow at the Century Foundation.

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