Race versus class

Richard Kahlenberg has a plan to mend, not end, affirmative action.

Not everyone at the Feb. 25 forum “Rethinking the Remedy: The Future of Affirmative Action in Higher Education and the Workplace” agreed with him that it needs mending, but his respondents and the audience of students, faculty and administrators gave him a respectful hearing.

Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, is the author of “The Remedy: Class, Race and Affirmative Action,” in which he argues that class, not race, should be the basis for preferences in college admissions, employment and contracting.

He explained why in his keynote address, which was occasionally punctuated by the thwack of baseballs against the McClelland Hall windows.

Because many people expect the Supreme Court to soon overturn the Bakke decision, which permits the use of race as a factor in admissions, he said, class-conscious affirmative action represents a way to achieve the same goal by different means.

“Class-based affirmative action,” he said, “produces more [racial] diversity than no affirmative action at all.”

Kahlenberg’s respondents felt that his proposal ignored the ways in which race still matters in American society.

Thomas Sugrue, the Bicentennial Class of 1940 Professor of History and Sociology, noted that thanks to pervasive residential segregation, the overwhelming majority of both African-American and white students arrive at college without ever having taken a class with a member of the other race. Racial diversity, he said, helps counter the idea that all members of a given race share a single cultural identity.

However, he did admit that elite colleges could also benefit from class diversity. “Most of my students do not know that the median family income in the United States is only slightly higher than Penn’s tuition and fees” for one year, he said.

Graduate School of Education doctoral student Vinay Harpalani argued that “real-world outcomes” should matter more than strict merit in determining who gets into professional school. For example, he noted that his research on doctors’ careers after medical school showed that “race is the best predictor of who will go into poor, underserved communities for the long haul.”

In responding to his friendly critics, Kahlenberg suggested that immutable characteristics such as race and gender are less defensible morally as the basis for preferences than qualities that people can change.

The forum also included panel discussions on the history and current legal status of affirmative action.


Originally published on March 23, 2000