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Issue No. 46 (July / August 2003) -- Mark Satin, Editor

Economic-class-based affirmative action:
the elites loathe it, the people want it

When the Supreme Court decided June 23 to preserve race-based affirmative action at the University of Michigan’s law and undergraduate schools (so long as applicants aren’t chosen by a rigid “point” system), the people running our elite universities and big corporations let out a huge sigh of relief.

Their biggest PR challenge -- maintaining the appearance of diversity in their ranks -- would remain relatively easy. All they’d have to do was continue paying attention to the color of our skins.

And they wouldn’t even have to reveal how they were paying attention -- that was the beauty of getting rid of the point system. So long as they came up with a passable percentage of racial minorities, the selection process could -- and you better believe it, would -- remain shrouded in secrecy.


As soon as the Supreme Court’s decision was revealed to the world, conservatives denounced it. Realists on any other subject, on affirmative action they seemed to be saying that if we all just pretended that we lived in a color-blind society, we could have one ASAP.

Liberals were overjoyed, but many of them, in their bedazzlement, seemed as irresponsible as the conservatives. Would the Court’s decision lock race consciousness, interracial jockeying, and ceremonies of racial woundedness into the American experiment for generations to come? Liberals didn’t know; liberals didn’t care. All they knew is that the Court’s decision made America seem, oh, so benevolent.

Commentators at the radical middle ended up playing a role that’s increasingly been thrust upon them. They became spokespeople for the pragmatic AND visionary American majority. They became the adults in the dialogue AND the keepers of the original rags-to-respectability affirmative action vision.

Writing in the Washington Post, Martha Montelongo noted that affirmative action used to mean assisting individuals “of meager financial means and limited opportunities by giving them a chance to move up the social and economic ladder.” Now, though, with the Court decisions, “We the People” is in danger of becoming “We the Group.”

UPI columnist John Bloom took aim at Justice O’Connor’s majority opinion. At no point, he correctly observed, does she claim that affirmative action is meant to help deserving students move up in the world! Instead it’s all about helping to promote “cross-racial understanding,” helping to break down stereotypes, etc. Nice, nice. But how did affirmative action get hijacked for those purposes?

Yeah, we’ve got plenty of minorities here now, recent University of Michigan Law School grad Concepcion Escobar told the New York Times. But “so many [of them] come from the same rich white suburbs as the white people come from.” What kind of diversity is that?

Academically, my own law school -- New York University School of Law -- is similar to Michigan’s. And it’s similar in another way Ms. Escobar would recognize. Despite its much-touted 24% minority and 47% female enrollment, I’ve never -- before or since -- spent quality time in a less economically or culturally diverse environment.

I admired many of my classmates and professors. But nearly everyone there, white or black, male or female, straight or gay, spoke and thought as if they’d been raised by Mrs. NationalPublicRadio.

In my first year of attendance, NYU Law had 50 students from Ivy League Penn (of all colors and sexual orientations) but none from Pitt and one from U. Maryland; 41 students from Yale and 35 from Harvard, but none from U.Conn. and three from U. Mass.; 32 from the University of California but none from the even larger California State University system (where my father taught and sister teaches), etc.

And hardly anybody at NYU Law even noticed, or notices, or cares, that huge swaths of the working and middle classes are missing.

This is typical: during the fight leading up to the recent Court decision, the Society of American Law Teachers -- in which NYU Law profs are prominent players -- ran an ad urging the Court to support “race-conscious affirmative action” (its phrase) in part because the principled alternative to it -- needs-based affirmative action -- might “largely benefit poor whites.” The horror, the horror! (In reality, of course, it could benefit both -- see below.)

My point? Race-conscious affirmative action is the name, economic class discrimination is the game.

And if affirmative action is going to help all of us and not just the elites, then we’re going to have to muster the confidence to defy the elites -- and tell them that affirmative action in the American context means boosting talented but financially strapped individuals NO MATTER WHICH racial group they approximate best.

We can still do this.

After all, the Court’s decision does not force universities or corporations to adopt race-based affirmative action policies. All it does is tell them they can implement such policies if they choose.

We are still free to find alternate routes to a demographically diverse society.

We are still free to make affirmative action serve the Truly Disadvantaged of every color and ethnicity.

And that’s what most of us want.

Poll after poll shows that the American people -- in its sensible AND idealistic wisdom -- want affirmative action to help people in need, not people who happen to have a certain skin tone.

In February 2003, for example, the Los Angeles Times found that Americans opposed the University of Michigan’s racial preference plan by 56% to 26% -- but supported preferences for economically disadvantaged students of all races by 59% to 31%.

A month earlier, Newsweek came up with similar results. It found that Americans opposed preferences for blacks in university admissions by 68% to 26%, but supported preferences for low-income students of all races by 65% to 28%.

We want socioeconomic affirmative action, not race-based affirmative action.

Where are the scholars, where are the politicians, who are willing to stand with us on this?

The need

If you want to find scholars with the courage to speak out strongly for socioeconomic affirmative action -- and the sophistication to outline workable plans for it -- then you’ve got to look to the radical middle . . . and particularly to the well-regarded Century Foundation in Washington, D.C.

Century just published Anthony Carnevale’s important study “Socioeconomic Status, Race/Ethnicity, and Selective College Admissions” (2003), and has provided a home of sorts for Richard Kahlenberg, Gen-X author of The Remedy: Class, Race, and Affirmative Action (1996) and two elegant Century Foundation “idea briefs” on the subject (2000 & 2003). These documents are Ground Zero in the class-based affirmative action movement.

The problem with race-based affirmative action, as Kahlenberg sees it, is that it’s an unreliable indicator of disadvantage.

“While it is true that blacks and Latinos are disproportionately poor,” he says, “racial affirmative action . . . does little to help poor and working class students of color,” let alone poor and working class students generally.

The elite universities (and other leading institutions) haughtily deny this. In an amicus brief in the University of Michigan case, for example, Harvard and Stanford claim that the current affirmative action regime pays “significant” attention to socioeconomic status, not just race. But the Carnevale study challenges that claim -- to put it mildly.

By looking intensely at data from our top-tier colleges (namely, our 146 most selective colleges as defined by Barron’s Guide), Carnevale shows that the representation of poor, working-class, and lower-middle-class students is actually lower in them than it would be if grades and test scores were the sole basis for admissions!

In other words: today’s opaque, race-based admissions programs are making it harder -- not easier -- for poor kids to catch a break.

The statistics Carnevale comes up with are simply devastating.

He shows that at our top-tier colleges now, students from the top economic half of the U.S. take 90% of the available slots. Students from the bottom economic half take 10%.

Even more egregiously, students from the top economic quartile take 74% of the slots; students from the bottom quartile, 3%.

“Economically disadvantaged students are 25 times less likely to be found on elite college campuses as economically advantaged students,” says Kahlenberg, through gritted teeth. “And yet this phenomenon receives none of the attention, nor moral outrage, [that it should].”

If a sensibly designed class-based “affirmative outreach” program were to replace today’s race-based programs, says Carnevale, the results could be a lot more inclusive.

At the top-tier colleges, the bottom economic half of the population could move from 10% to 38% representation -- a giant step for diversity (and democracy!). Looking at SAT scores and other data, Carnevale concludes there are more than enough high-performing, low-socioeconomic-status students to fill the extra slots.

The percentage of “underrepresented” minorities (African Americans, Hispanics, Native Americans) would decline from 12% to 10% in Carnevale’s scenario. But without any kind of affirmative action, it would be 4%. And if you apply all the selection criteria Kahlenberg suggests (see below), it would hold steady at 12%.

The remedy

The very best solution to the problem of underrepresentation of poor and lower-middle-class students in our top colleges is to radically improve schooling at the K-12 level (see RAM #23).

In the interim, though, the remedy is to create an economic-class-based affirmative action regime whose results would produce more genuine diversity than today’s race-based programs . . . even as it maintains today’s rate of representation of racial minorities in our top-tier colleges and professional schools.

Some schools, under pressure from the public or the legal system, have already started on that important task.

The University of California examines academic achievement in light of such barriers as “low family income,” “first generation to attend college,” and “disadvantaged social or economic environment.”

The University of Washington looks at academic performance in the context of such factors as family income, size of family, parents’ educational level, and “high school free lunch percent.”

UCLA Law School looks at age of applicant at the time of a parent’s death (if applicable), and the number of hours worked per week during the student’s years in college.

In his book and papers, Kahlenberg outlines an admirably detailed proposal for economic affirmative action in college admissions. Ideally, he’d have admissions officers look at academic performance in the context of seven factors:

-- parental income;

-- parental occupation(s);

-- parental education;

-- family structure (e.g., single parent household?);

-- wealth or net worth (arguably more significant than income);

-- neighborhood poverty rate;

-- school concentration of poverty.

“All these factors are quantifiable,” Kahlenberg stresses, and all the pertinent information is already available to college financial aid officers -- either when students provide detailed financial data to qualify for financial aid, or, with regard to the last two factors, through published socioeconomic surveys.

These factors should not only produce the same percentage of minority students we have in our top schools now. They should also produce more meritorious student bodies in our top schools.

As Kahlenberg explains, “A 3.6 GPA and [an] SAT of 1200 surely means something more for a low-income, first-generation college applicant who attended terrible schools than for a student whose parents have graduate degrees and pay for the finest private schooling.”

On top of that, the sheer objectivity of the process -- none of the factors calls for a “subjective” judgment (let alone one requiring race discrimination or reverse discrimination) -- should diminish social resentment manyfold.

And who knows what wondrous things might happen at NYU Law School if professors had to explain themselves not only to minorities from Penn and UC-Berkeley, but to bright working-class kids from Pitt and Cal State-Fresno?


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