AFIRMATIVE ACTION is but the most dramatic example of a larger trend in which American policy makers, particularly progressives, have redefined inequality with a racial lens. Ever since the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert Francis Kennedy, the emphasis these men put on class over race has been largely absent from our political discourse. In this chapter, we look at how and why the thread was lost--and why a shift back to class-based affirmative action could be the beginning of a larger effort to pick up the lost thread. This broader move to shift the focus from race to class is imperative if we wish to foster social cohesion, reunite political coalitions for progressive change, and get at the root problems of inequality, which go beyond race to the bedrock issue of class.
In the 1930s and 1940s progressives romanticized the working class, largely to the exclusion of women and racial minorities.1 But by the late 1960s (and through the present day) the left's important (and long overdue) focus on race and gender had swung so far that class was all but eclipsed. Today when Andrew Hacker entitles a book "Two Nations," he is referring to a racial divide as opposed to the class divisions invoked by Benjamin Disraeli's original use of that phrase.2 The 1968 Kerner Commission's "two societies, one black, one white," have replaced Michael Harrington's two Americas, one affluent, the other impoverished. Indeed, Hacker's title was criticized not for failing to consider class but for failing to be racially conscious enough--