02/08/2013 03:56 pm ET Updated Apr 10, 2013

Race, Money, and Inequality: Time for a New Affirmative Action

In expectation of the Supreme Court's ruling on Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin, which pits a white woman's allegation of racial discrimination against the University's Affirmative Action program, one of the most important social programs in the United States is once again under fire.

But regardless of what the court decides, it is urgent today to understand why affirmative action exists in the first place, as well as to examine ways in which the program can be modernized.

Let's start with the fact that affirmative action has been crucial for the advancement of minorities (and especially black people) in America. Even as recently as 2011, the income gap between blacks and whites was staggering -- according to the Census Bureau, the median income for blacks was $32,229 per year while the median income for whites was $55,412 per year, and the unemployment rate for black Americans (13.2 percent) is double that of whites (6.8 percent).

Affirmative action was a response to the massive inequality in upward mobility that existed during segregation and for decades beyond as minorities were unable to compete with their white counterparts in education and the job market, resulting in de facto suppression. That situation has improved over the years but still continues to be a hurdle to achieving equality amongst the races.

At the same time, the demographic mix in the United States is also altering dramatically, with minorities growing at a more rapid clip than whites (according to the Pew Center, minorities will grow from 37 percent of the population today to 53 percent in the next four decades). This trend has profound implications for the white population, especially from low and middle income households; while whites outnumbered minorities and outstripped them economically in the past, they are now living in a world where their privileged status is slowly vanishing and being replaced by the same economic reality that other races have faced for generations. In addition, the economic crisis of 2008 and the recession that followed it has put a serious dent in the economic status of all races.

What all this means is that a white person from a low- or middle-income background, especially one who is struggling to find work, may be under as much pressure today as a black person in the same situation, and if not exactly disadvantaged, at least no longer privileged to the same degree.

This new reality makes it necessary to view affirmative action through a different lens than the one used historically, which was purely that of race. The purpose of the program was to provide an opportunity for disadvantaged Americans to rise above their circumstances and realize the American dream, and if we are to honor this spirit, then affirmative action today needs to be two-pronged:

1) Based on Race, and 2) Based on Financial Need.

By helping those who are stuck on the lowest rungs of the economic ladder and unable to enjoy the rights and benefits available to others, such a program would truly improve the lot of the weakest members of our society.

To be clear, I am not advocating replacing affirmative action but expanding its scope. Race cannot be factored out of the equation since it still plays a major role in the financial reality of Americans, but an expanded affirmative action plan that helps those in economic distress regardless of race can address inequality in a broader, and equally essential, sense.

The idea of using economic hardship as a determinant for socially progressive programs is not new and was even considered by President Lyndon Johnson and Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., but has never been entertained seriously due to a lack of political will. Widening the scope of affirmative action is a political third rail for Washington. However, the economic picture for Americans has changed so dramatically -- unemployment hovers stubbornly near 8 percent, income growth for low- and middle-class workers has slowed sharply while income growth at the top has sped up, income concentration at the top is at levels not seen for eight decades, and the ratio of wealth held by the top 1 percent to that of a typical American family is at 288 times today -- that ignoring this issue is no longer a luxury that our political leaders can afford.

President Obama has done, and continues to do, much to battle inequality in our country. Taking another look at affirmative action to see how it can be broadened to encompass all those deserving of aid would be a great step forward in this direction.

SANJAY SANGHOEE has worked at leading investment banks Lazard Freres and Dresdner Kleinwort Wasserstein as well as at a multi-billion dollar hedge fund. He has an MBA from Columbia Business School and is the author of a thriller entitled "Merger" (St. Martin's Press) that Chicago Tribune called "Timely, Gripping, and Original". Please visit to sign up for updates.