Using Class, Not Race, to Produce Racial and Socioeconomic Diversity

Blogs, Letters & Testimonials

December 15, 2015

Last week, Education Reform Now wrote a blog post asking: “Is affirmative action on its last legs? Should it be?” We argued that class-based preferences cannot fully replace racial preferences in college admissions and that we need both to ensure racial and economic diversity in our nation’s colleges. Below is a response from Richard Kahlenberg from the Century Foundation.


By Richard D. Kahlenberg 

As a liberal researcher, who works at a liberal think tank, The Century Foundation, I’m often asked by my liberal friends, why are you supportive of affirmative action based on class rather than race? Why not, as Mary Nguyen Barry and my good friend Michael Dannenberg, asked in a thoughtful blog post, support affirmative action by “both” race and class?


Related: Is Affirmative Action on its Last Legs? Should It Be? 


The issue is not an easy one. Our history of slavery and segregation leaves an indelible legacy. Today, racial discrimination remains a serious problem. Because race matters, I would never advocate repealing antidiscrimination laws.   But as I explain in a new report for The Century Foundation, “Achieving Better Diversity: Reforming Affirmative Action in Higher Education,” there are four reasons for why – on the issue of preferences in higher education – I ultimately come down for replacing race with class.


Kahlenberg Achieving Better Diversity



#1: Carefully Constructed Class-Based Programs Can Produce As Much Racial and Ethnic Diversity as Racial Preference Programs

First, as an empirical matter, carefully constructed class-based programs can produce as much racial and ethnic diversity as current racial preference programs, rendering the use of race unnecessary to achieve the important goal of racial diversity. Preferences based purely on income won’t succeed, because economically disadvantaged black and Latino students, in the aggregate, face additional obstacles that disadvantaged whites don’t.   Even middle-class black families live in higher poverty neighborhoods, on average, than do poor whites. And while black families make about 60 percent of what white families make, the gap in wealth – which is handed down over generations — is much greater, with black families having about 5 percent of the wealth of white families. Using additional socioeconomic factors in college admissions like wealth and concentrated poverty alongside parental income is the fair thing to do – and it also has a very large racial dividend. A careful 2014 simulation by Anthony Carnevale, Jeff Strohl and Stephen Rose found that alternative strategies can produce as much or more racial and ethnic diversity than racial affirmative action currently does.


#2: There are Political Costs to Using Race in Admissions
Second, there are political costs to using race in admissions.  Racial preferences come with downsides, particularly to the progressive coalition.  As Georgetown law professor Sheryll Cashin notes, working class whites “are much closer in circumstances to working-class blacks and Latinos than they are to whites higher up the income scale.” For years, Cashin writes, Southern gentry sought to prevent interracial cooperation by pitting working-class blacks and whites against each other. Racial preferences are perhaps the perfect instrument to push away white-working class voters. It’s as if they were devised by a Republican. (Actually, they were, by Richard Nixon.) “What we need is a politics of fairness,” Cashin says, “one in which people of color and the white people who are open to them move past racial resentment to form an alliance of the sane.”


#3: Preferences that Add Class to Race Rarely Happens in Practice

Third, adding class to racial considerations rarely ever happens in practice. I’ve heard the argument — let’s throw class in on top of race — for decades and colleges somehow never seem to get around to the class part of the equation.  William Bowen, a strong supporter of affirmative action, says racial preferences boost black and Latino candidates’ chances of admissions by 28 percentage points, but elite colleges give no boost whatsoever for low income students.  Despite hoopla about recruiting low incomes students in recent years, the needle hasn’t budged. So how do we get colleges to pay attention to class?  Take race away.  Then colleges suddenly become very interested in class, not for its own sake, but as an indirect way to get racial diversity.  The New York Times recently constructed an index of high-performing colleges which are doing the most for low-income students. It’s very telling that 9 of 10 top public colleges in the list are in states where racial preferences have been banned.  Meanwhile, 94 percent of poor performers on the Times’ College Access Index are in states where racial preferences are available — that is, where there is no ulterior motive to use socioeconomic status.


#4: While Race Matters in American Society, Class Matters More

Fourth, while race matters in American society, class matters more. Sean Reardon, for example, finds that the black/white test score gap 50 years ago was twice as big as the gap between high and low income students, but today precisely the reverse is true: the socioeconomic gap is twice as large as the racial gap. Likewise, Anthony Carnevale and Jeff Strohl find that socioeconomic obstacles (controlling for other factors) predict an SAT score that is 399 points lower than those of economically advantaged students, while the race gap (also controlling for other factors) is just 56 points. Yet universities (in states where they are permitted to) give big preferences for race and nothing for class. Rich kids outnumber poor kids on selective campuses by 14:1. We need to take action on this issue. As a practical matter, taking race off the table seems to be the one tool that gets colleges to sit up and pay attention to our country’s enduring and growing economic divide.


Richard D. Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at The Century Foundation, is editor of The Future of Affirmative Action: New Paths to Higher Education Diversity after Fisher v. University of Texas.