In The Debate Between Class-Based And Race-Based Affirmative Action, A Sad Reality Is Hidden From Criticism

As the population of Texas is about 12% Black, it's hard to see the affirmative action in this picture.

As the population of Texas is about 12% Black, it’s hard to see the affirmative action in this picture. (Source: A Better Affirmative Action: State Universities that Created Alternatives to Racial Preferences by Richard Kahlenberg and Halley Potter.)

Last month there was a big story on NPR about the lack of low-income students in America’s leading universities. The story featured an interview of Harold Levy, Director of the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation. The occasion was the release of a Foundation report titled, True Merit, Ensuring Our Brightest Students Have Access to Our Best Colleges and Universities.

The NPR segment is quite good and worth a listen. Colleges overwhelmingly select students with privileged backgrounds. The facts on this are hardly worth repeating. However, affirmative action schemes based on class are typically heard elsewhere as a substitute for systems based on race, so the segment seemed suspicious for what it did not say.

A couple of days later, another interview appeared, this time on the local NPR affiliate in Houston. Harold Levy was again interviewed, but this time he was more direct about his hopes for class-based affirmative action: “Preferential college admissions for qualified, low-income students could result in as much or more racial and ethnic diversity than is being achieved now by race-conscious affirmative action.”

The idea that by simply targeting low-income students for affirmative action, levels of racial diversity will actually accelerate in our school system is so obviously suspect that it’s worth looking at. Even if it were to maintain levels of racial diversity, the idea would be a sort of logic-defying miracle; after all, a metric based on socioeconomic status would also include many Whites. Further, the interests at play here are obvious.

In the report itself, the point becomes a sort of side theme.

Recognizing the strength of high-achieving, low-income students in admissions can produce as much or more racial and ethnic diversity as current race-conscious affirmative action policies. Indeed, the majority of institutions which have created race-neutral strategies in response to bans on race-conscious affirmative action were able to replicate earlier levels of African Americans and Latino representation achieved using race as a factor in admissions. (pg. 34)

The footnotes indicate that these statements are mainly based on two publicly available studies: (1) Advancing College Access with Class-Based Affirmative Action: The Colorado Case by Matthew Gaertner (2014); and (2) A Better Affirmative Action: State Universities that Created Alternatives to Racial Preferences by Richard Kahlenberg and Halley Potter (2012).

The first of these studies analyzes a specific, proposed implementation of a class-based affirmative action policy for the University of Colorado Boulder. In November, 2008, a statewide ballot initiative–“Amendment 46″–was narrowly defeated that would have outlawed the direct use of race as a criteria in the admissions process. The study looked at the effects of a proposed class-based replacement for the current race-based affirmative action scheme used by the University of Colorado Boulder. The analysis is noteworthy for its clear description of the specific method by which affirmative action is actually applied to student admissions decisions; it’s not as simple as a quota for minority students. Herein lies the magic that allows for the logic-defying claims.

Prospective students are judged according to their placement along two indexes that take into account socioeconomic status: a relative “Overachievement Index” and a “Disadvantage Index.” Candidates are then accepted or rejected based on their score on the indexes. The study points out that, by using this new system, candidates that are favorably identified by such a system are 2.2 times more likely to be accepted than those not identified; by contrast, under the current race-based system, candidates are only 1.4 times more likely than non-underrepresented minorities to be accepted. That’s right, the two methods of affirmative action, class and race, are actually assigned different levels of importance from the very beginning! You’re simply assigned a much bigger “boost” by being poor than by being Black. It’s a sleight of hand that carries through the entire calculation.

The study goes on to show that, in 2009, 500 applicants were selected at random and the two different affirmative action proposals were applied separately. Unsurprisingly, considering the added emphasis socioeconomic status received when compared to race, there was a 56% acceptance rate for underrepresented minorities under the race-based system, and a 65% acceptance rate under the class-based system! The study makes no attempt to elaborate when it pointedly concludes that, “The [results] contradict the prevailing research on affirmative action, which suggests class-based systems will produce less diversity than the race-based policies they replace.”

Any idiot could tell you that this is simply the resort of a more forceful application of affirmative action based on socioeconomic status than that which was originally applied to race. Rather than a statement about the supposedly increased effects of class-based affirmative action, the result can just as easily be interpreted as the historical absence of any meaningful race-based affirmative action schemes. The second study, by Kahlenberg and Potter, points out that this latter interpretation is certainly the correct one.

The second study looks at 10 universities, noting that 7 have maintained racial and ethnic diversity even after race-based affirmative action schemes were either outlawed or almost outlawed in their states. The study points out that 5 states outlawed race-based affirmative action with ballot initiatives: California (1996,) Washington (1998,) Michigan (2006,) Nebraska (2008,) and Arizona (2010); in 1999, Florida did it by executive order; in 2011, race-based affirmative action was banned through legislation in New Hampshire. Other states like Georgia and Texas have struggled with the policy in the lower courts.

The study profiles each of these states in some detail. For the State of Texas, the first case study, they look at the University of Texas at Austin, the state’s flagship public university. Unfortunately, as the study shows without so much as a passing comment, historical racial trends at UT are abysmal. A quick look at the graph at the beginning of this article shows that black enrollment has never reached more than 6% in recent decades, while Blacks have consistently made up at least 12% of the state’s population. When the bar has been set so low, it’s not hard to improve.

What follows is a state-by-state confirmation of the same kind of result. The fact is, in spite of their supposed liberal mystique, our universities represent a whitening of the very society in which they’re embedded. This analysis should not be a celebration of a technocratic solution to the problem of affirmative action, but an expose into the tragedy of our failure to implement policies that create a real trajectory for racial healing in a country notorious for savage racial exploitation.

In conclusion, both applications of affirmative action are animated by a similar liberal spirit. Both understand that those of us making claims about this or that applicant being “less qualified” based on the same old, tired, biased metrics, those people are making incomplete characterizations. Metrics like standardized test scores and grade point averages have the effect of selecting a particular demographic into our institutions of higher education. Instead, affirmative action demands that education in our best schools is a human right which should be maintained for all people.

However, race-based affirmative action has an endgame: the eradication of a certain evil. Although class-based affirmative action decreases the severe weight of poverty as it bears down on the public, poverty can never be eradicated: there will still be large percentages of unemployed in America; there will still be janitors. In contrast, ending racism fundamentally changes the look of our country; targeting poverty merely rearranges who must be exploited in a fundamentally exploitative system.

If we continue to drag our feet in the pursuit of racial equality, justice delayed will continue to be justice denied. There is, however, a political point to be made. Polling mentioned in the Kahlenberg and Potter study, and the reality in several of the states mentioned, demonstrates that Americans favor a class-based system. Politically, if the public is more willing to see more severe attempts at affirmative action if it’s class-based, then the new affirmative action might very well be the best hope we have of achieving the ultimate goal of bringing an end to racism.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>