On Labor Day of this year, Jesse Jackson, speaking at Riverside Church in New York City, said that America is now most importantly divided by economic and educational lines rather than race.
In October, Bill Bradley noted that 36 percent of America's poor children are white, some 30 percent are black and 22 percent Latino. Accordingly, he called for "a multiracial coalition that would rekindle the same kind of purposefulness as the civil rights revolution in the 1960s."
On the other hand, Bill Gates, judging race and ethnicity instead of class to be the main fault line in the bedrock of the nation, has created a $1 billion scholarship fund for minority students to be administered over 20 years by the United Negro College Fund along with Hispanic and Native American college funds.
As Jackson, who has been to Appalachia, might tell Mr. Gates, plenty of white kids are disadvantaged by class.
Those class divisions also can be found within racial and ethnic groups. Harvard Professor Gary Orfield notes that as public schools have become more segregated again, schools that are more than 90 percent black and Hispanic are 11 times more likely to have heavy concentrations of poverty than schools that are mostly white. Significantly, Orfield adds that poverty in those schools grows worse as much of the black middle class moves to the suburbs.
Meanwhile, many students going to school in largely white working-class or poor neighborhoods in many states will face formidable obstacles when they begin the rest of their lives.
In 1974, when a federal court ordered busing to integrate Boston's public schools, black students from Roxbury were sent to working-class South Boston to the rage of many of its white residents. But little notice was paid to the fact that the previously nearly all-white South Boston High School had a very low percentage of graduates who went on to college. Their parents did not recognize that they shared a class grievance with the black parents from Roxbury.
Some of the kids at the bottom do rise, however. And in those states where race preference in college admissions has been ended -- by the courts or by ballot -- factors of class, and not only SAT scores, increasingly are being taken into account by college and university admission offices. They look for applicants who have overcome poverty or whose parents did not graduate from high school.
Lani Guinier, now a Harvard University law professor, noted in the New York Times two years ago ["The Real Bias in Higher Education," op-ed, June 24, 1997] that "within every racial and ethnic group, test scores go up with family income" and too often become the main determinant of admission.
Guinier cited a "Harvard study of graduates over three decades which found that students with low Scholastic Aptitude Test scores and blue-collar backgrounds tended to be more successful [than those with higher family income and higher scores] -- with success defined by income, community involvement and professional satisfaction.
"This suggests," said Guinier, "that a student's drive to succeed -- along with an opportunity to do so -- may be a better indicator of future success than test scores. . . . The challenge to public education institutions is to rethink how they admit everyone."
Accordingly, the goal of diversity does need rethinking. "A poor white student from a Tennessee farm" -- suggests Richard Kahlenberg of the Century Foundation -- "might add more to the discussion in a law school class made up largely of upper-middle-class whites than a black corporate lawyer's son from Connecticut."
The University of Washington Law School in Seattle prides itself on pressing for diversity and once rejected a white welfare mother whose scores were good though not outstanding. She was denied admission, said the school, because she would not contribute "significantly" to the diversity of the class -- not being "a member of a racial or ethnic group subject to discrimination."
This welfare recipient was later admitted to the Harvard University Law School, which had a more inclusive definition of diversity.
As Justice Lewis Powell said in the 1978 Bakke affirmative action case, "The guarantee of equal protection of the laws cannot mean one thing when applied to one individual and something else when applied to a person of another color."