Vivek Ramaswamy: Affirmative action should focus on economics, not race


This has been a bad year for conventional wisdom. Last week’s election results are no exception. Instead of greater polarization along racial lines in voting, as many expected, we saw less.

Even in defeat, President Trump received a larger share of minority votes than any Republican presidential candidate since 1960, doubling his support from African American women and making significant gains among Latino and Asian American voters. In fact, the only race-gender pair where Trump did worse than his 2016 percentage was White men.

Meanwhile, California’s voters soundly rejected race-based affirmative action at the ballot box by defeating Proposition 16, which would have repealed the state’s constitutional prohibition on racial preferences.


Backers of Prop 16 included White billionaire donors — among them Reed Hastings, Steve Ballmer, Tom Steyer and Marc Benioff — who outspent their opponents 14 to 1. In the end, Prop 16 failed by a staggering double-digit margin in a state where minorities comprise a majority of eligible voters.

More from Opinion

Commentators from both the left and the right have taken note of this electoral train wreck for identity politics. High-ranking officials in the diversity-industrial complex are straining to resolve their cognitive dissonance, resorting to criticisms of minority voters for “standing with their oppressors” or claims that Cuban Americans should no longer count as Latino.

The moment is ripe for Republicans and moderate Democrats to join forces and strike a knockout blow to the woke movement. But the best way to do that isn’t to “cancel” woke culture. Rather, we need to take its concerns seriously and provide an alternative that renders the more toxic aspects of woke activism irrelevant.

Here’s one alternative: reframe the debate about affirmative action and workforce diversity in economic rather than racial terms.

Reimagining diversity and empowerment in economic terms rather than racial terms unifies people of all races to fight economic hardship together, rather than pitting one racial group against another

This means that instead of ignoring inequality, leaders in business, academia, philanthropy and government should focus their energies on explicitly elevating candidates from economically challenged backgrounds. This approach accommodates the demand of woke activists to level the playing field by dismantling privilege — but at the same time it would advance true diversity that is more than skin deep.

Perhaps most importantly, focusing on diversity of economic circumstances avoids essentializing individuals on the basis of immutable genetic characteristics. You can discern someone’s race at first glance, but you can’t immediately discern their economic background.

Principled liberals should rightly worry about the ways in which newly popular “anti-racist” corporate programs inadvertently fuel racism.

Race-based diversity programs implicitly cause employees, patients, and students to view minority executives, doctors, and professors differently — wondering whether these leaders were advantaged in part due to their race.

A recent study found that 57% of Black executives at Fortune 500 companies reported having to work twice as hard and accomplish twice as much in order to be seen on the same level as their peers. Many attribute that to attitudes engendered by affirmative action.

In the words of one Black executive: “Once they see you as the person in charge, until you prove your worth in terms of intelligence or articulation, they assume you got the job because of your color.”

This is a profound injustice and the inevitable byproduct of a flawed system ostensibly designed to help those very leaders.

“Anti-racist” approaches can also fuel direct racism in White working-class communities that

face struggles of their own.

 According to the Public Policy Research Institute, 52% of White working-class Americans believe discrimination against Whites is as big a problem as discrimination against Blacks and other minorities. And 40% of White working-class Americans believe efforts to increase diversity almost always come at the expense of Whites.

The Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was deeply concerned about racial-preference policies.

“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,” King wrote in his 1965 book “Why We Can’t Wait.”

King added: “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 special consideration to the Negro in the context of unemployment … and does not take into sufficient account of their plight.”

Today my own community in Butler County, Ohio is predominantly White, working-class and deep in Trump country. It’s not free of racism. But the left’s implicit diminution of this community’s struggles by focusing exclusively on the concerns of “communities of color” has the effect of throwing kerosene on that racism.

By contrast, reimagining diversity and empowerment in economic terms rather than racial terms unifies people of all races to fight economic hardship together, rather than pitting one racial group against another. This approach eliminates the greatest negative externality of anti-racist activism — namely, racism itself — while at the same time helping poor White and Asian American working families achieve the American Dream.

Progressives are right to recognize that economic disparities do indeed track racial lines. The median Black household income was nearly 40% lower than median White household income in 2018.

However, there is a silver lining: by virtue of this inequality, economic affirmative action would disproportionately help Black Americans without essentializing Black Americans in the process.

Following the tragic death of George Floyd and subsequent protests in summer, many corporate executives, nonprofit leaders, and government officials bowed to woke ideology by issuing carbon copy press releases and robotically reciting identical slogans.

Yet the rejection of identity politics by minority voters at the ballot box last week provides an occasion for these leaders to rethink their approach and to redirect their diversity and inclusion efforts in a more constructive direction.

Based on my experience as a CEO, this approach works. Some employees at my company were disappointed this summer when I chose to focus on our mission of developing medicines rather than directly tackling the difficult issue of racism in the United States.

Though I disagreed about the proper role of corporations in tackling social issues, I discovered that these employees were nonetheless right to question whether our Ivy League-centric recruiting process truly embodied our corporate creed to “stay scrappy.”

I took this criticism seriously and as a result, we adopted a new program to specifically recruit graduates who grew up in households with income below the 25th percentile, and to pay those candidates’ outstanding student debt after a short tenure at our company.


Many employees rallied behind this decision. I believe it will make our company stronger and more diverse.

Some observers might argue that this action missed the mark because it was silent on race. But that’s exactly the point. Principled leaders should define what their institutions are actually about and make them stronger without resorting to racialized solutions.

This is the way to strike the final deathblow to woke culture — not with a knife, but with a kiss.


In the short run, practitioners of classical liberalism suffer from the disadvantage that they cannot adopt the heavy-handed methods of their opponents, limiting themselves to the use of reason, debate, and accommodation instead. Yet in the long run, that is also its main advantage.

By permanently reframing the debate about affirmative action and diversity in terms of economic hardship rather than race, we as a country can begin to graduate from the essentialist demands of woke culture — and move closer to addressing the deeper common challenges faced by all Americans.