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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Towards Class-based Affirmative Action in Education

In “A New Path to Diversity” at Dissent magazine, Richard Kahlenberg proposes a novel approach to promoting diversity in education that has the potential to unify, instead of divide people:

The impulse behind racial affirmative-action programs comes from a very good place: the desire to provide extra support to Black, Hispanic, and Native American people—groups that have been oppressed throughout American history. But it appears that these programs will soon be outlawed. The U.S. Supreme Court seems poised to jettison racial preferences following oral arguments in October in cases challenging the admissions processes at Harvard and the University of North Carolina. And regardless of their legal status, these programs are unpopular. Three-quarters of Americans—including 59 percent of African Americans—oppose using race as a factor in college admissions.

The good news is that there is a politically popular and legally sound alternative that can produce high levels of racial and economic diversity: preferences based on socioeconomic disadvantage. While the U.S. Supreme Court has long been wary of government policies that treat people differently on the basis of race, the modern Court does not have this sort of hesitation about programs that treat citizens differently on the basis of economic status—from the progressive income tax to means-tested programs like food stamps.

Prominent left and liberal voices in the 1960s and ’70s, such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas, advocated for this sort of approach, arguing that affirmative action based on class disadvantage could help address the legacy of slavery and segregation. Recent researchfinds that although preferences based on income alone are unlikely to produce sufficient racial diversity at selective colleges, the consideration of additional factors, such as family wealth and neighborhood poverty levels, can lead to high levels of both racial and economic diversity.

Kahlenberg notes that “Colleges fiercely resist the class-based approach to creating racial diversity, however, because the current system of racial and legacy preferences, which mostly benefits well-off students, is cheaper than providing financial aid for low-income and working-class students.” He provides examples showing how the concept of class-based policies also promote equal opportunity.

In his conclusion, Kahlenberg writes,

Polls find that this sort of class-based affirmative action garners support from almost two-thirds of Americans. And such policies could help the left move beyond the kind of unpopular liberalism that preaches diversity while shunting class to the margins.

The irony is that a conservative Supreme Court decision could provide a boost for progressive multiracial coalition building. Right-wing divide-and-conquer efforts have historically sought to motivate white working-class people to vote their race rather than their class. Moving from race-based to class-based preferences will remind working-class people of all colors what they have in common.

The Republicans have been skillful in leveraging culture war issues to distract their supporters from getting involved in multi-racial coalitions for needed educational reforms. Making socioeconomic fairness a priority in college admissions and funding could help promote broader support for public education reforms that serve everyone – and make Democrats look good for leading the way forward.

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