Race and Class

| Fri Jul. 23, 2010 10:31 AM PDT

Sen. Jim Webb (D–Va.) argues in the Wall Street Journal today — as he has before — that although we still owe a debt to African-Americans who have faced centuries of both private and state-sponsored discrimination, we should stop using ethnicity in general as the basis for affirmative action programs. James Joyner comments:

While I don’t disagree with the premise, I’m not sure what policy conclusion one reaches. I fully agree and have long argued that using race as the sole criterion for policy preference should end. But, surely, we don’t want to create new categories, such as “Scotch-Irish Sons of Confederate Veterans,” for special treatment. We could target based on poverty, perhaps with some sort of regional cost of living adjustments.

Class/income-based affirmative action has long struck me as an alternative that ought to get more attention than it does. Richard Kahlenberg is a fan, and here's what he wrote about it recently in the context of university admissions:

The choice isn’t between race-based affirmative action and no affirmative action. To their credit, universities in states that banned racial affirmative action have turned to economic affirmative action programs as a way to boost racial diversity indirectly.

....Critics of class-based affirmative action have long argued that programs that use economic admissions criteria do not produce as much racial diversity as programs that use race instead. Schools like U.C. Berkeley, for example, saw a decline in black and Hispanic enrollment after the ban on race-based affirmative action was put in place. But the data show that economic affirmative action can produce a positive racial dividend. According to a 2004 Century Foundation study by Anthony Carnevale and Stephen Rose, among the most selective 146 institutions in the country, using race-based affirmative action produced student bodies whose combined black and Latino representation was 12 percent. If students were admitted strictly based on grades and test scores, the combined proportion would decline to 4 percent, Carnevale and Rose found. But using economic affirmative action, defined by parents’ income, education, and occupation, and high school quality, produced a black and Latino representation of 10 percent. Research suggests using wealth (assets) as an admissions factor could boost the racial dividend further. Class-based affirmative action, in other words, does improve racial diversity, though not as much as policies that use race as a criterion.

Class-based program programs might, in the end, provide modestly less help for ethnic minorities than current policies — though well-designed ones might not. But they have some advantages too. For one thing, they help poor people. That's worthwhile all by itself. (Kahlenberg quotes William Benn Michael as noting acidly that currently the debate in higher education is mostly about what color skin the rich kids will have.) Beyond that, there's another benefit: for all the good it does, there's no question that race-based affirmative action has drawbacks as well. It makes employers suspicious of minority graduates, wondering if their degrees were really fairly earned. It provokes a backlash among working class whites. And it's open to abuse on a number of fronts. Class-based programs don't solve all these problems at a stroke, but they go a long way toward addressing them

Would it be possible for us to adopt class-based programs? One obstacle, I think, is the insistence of conservatives on refusing to even admit that racism is a problem anymore. It's become practically a truism on the right that racism is a thing of the past, nothing more than a convenient whipping boy to be exploited by race hustlers like Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton who prey on liberal guilt and federal largesse. This is just poisonous. There's no way that blacks or any other ethnic minority will ever take conservative complaints at face value if they flatly refuse to concede that there's even a problem left to be addressed.

This isn't normally a subject I write much about. I've done only modest reading about it, and my personal background — middle class white guy born and raised in Orange County — obviously doesn't give me any valuable personal insight. But the status quo has done, and continues to do, a lot of damage to all sides. It's probably a fantasy to think that there's any progress to be made in our current fever swamp atmosphere, but a conservative concession on the reality of race as a continuing problem — think racial profiling, penal system injustices, health system disparities, etc. — combined with a liberal concession on emphasizing class much more than we have in the past, would almost certainly be a step forward.

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