“New affirmative action”—could we capture race through wealth?

Richard Kahlenberg’s “New Affirmative Action” would be a simple exercise in ignoring racism if he were proposing replacing race-based affirmative action with an income-based scheme. But he seems in fact to support considering wealth as well as income—and that potentially makes things very interesting.

Richard Kahlenberg has a piece out in the Chronicle of Higher Education (with some updates here) flagging new research by Anthony Carnevale and Jeff Strohl to the effect that class counts for far more than race in explaining predicted differences in test scores. He uses these data to support replacing race-based affirmative action with a “new affirmative action” based on class.  Kahlenberg has of course taken this position on other grounds, and without the benefit of this research, since at least 1997 (actually 1996, when he preceded the book with some articles). (Moreover, his obsession with the neocon category of “strivers”—a TR tag—should leave nobody in doubt regarding his politics.)

Without ruling on the merits of Kahlenberg’s view, I would note one piece of his argument that makes it a lot more credible—and that the comments on the article, as well as Daniel Luzer’s blog post, whence the link, bury. While the research he cites supports using both race and class in college admissions, Kahlenberg (predictably) prefers to stick with class only. But by class he implies that he means not just income but wealth:

Carnevale and Strohl believe that universities should use both race and class in admissions. … At the same time, the authors acknowledge that using a more robust measure of wealth (net worth) than they had available to them might in fact eliminate the predictive value of race per se altogether.

If Kahelnberg means this, it makes a huge difference, because disparities in wealth so strongly track, it turns out, race.

A recent study by the Institute on Assets and Social Policy showed that the median white family is $95,000 wealthier than the median black family; even high-income African-Americans have a median net worth of only $30,000, excluding home equity.  (I remember seeing a similar study several years ago claiming that the story with regard to home equity was in fact pretty similar—and if so,  the actual wealth gap would be something like double the above amount.  I can’t find those statistics: consider this a bleg.)

Some of this represents economic policies since the 80s, which have benefited whites much more than African-Americans—probably because they rewarded those already wealthy, not because they formally favored whites as such.  (In particular, says the IASP study, many African-Americans have been forced by necessity to take on lots of debt.)  But the reason whites were wealthier to start with is, put bluntly, racism: slavery, Jim Crow, and the fact that in the New Deal and postwar era Affirmative Action Was White—i.e. government programs with respect to housing loans, educational benefits, agricultural supports, and pensions were extended exclusively to whites while excluding nonwhites in ways that were pretty obvious and sometimes shockingly explicit.

The problem with substituting income for class race in affirmative action has always been that, contrary to intuition, it wouldn’t result in many African-Americans’ being admitted.  Rather,  it would yield—and did yield, when UCLA Law School tried it—a class full of working- to middle-class whites, because they outnumber working-class nonwhites and because an income test misses the effects of wealth and grandparents’ (yes, grandparents’) education, on which whites do much better than nonwhites.  But if we gave a big bump to those whose families lacked wealth, that would be very different.  It would not only bring in lots of African-Americans (and recent immigrants) but would give affirmative action new supporters among poor whites who’ve achieved no part of the American Dream and quite reasonably resent talk of their privilege.

Lots of caveats apply.  I’m not sure Kahlenberg takes the part about wealth very seriously: I suspect he’d support dumping race-based affirmative action for an income-based scheme even if wealth weren’t included—and I know that many of his fans would.  Measures of wealth are much harder to apply in the admissions process, and easier to game, than measures of income.  And because admitting working-class students costs much more in financial aid and educational support than admitting middle-class African-Americans and Latinos, colleges will fight it bitterly.

Still, the affirmative action of wealth is a serious alternative to explicitly race-based schemes in a way the affirmative action of income is not.

Author: Andrew Sabl

I'm a political theorist and Visiting Professor (through 2017) in the Program on Ethics, Politics and Economics at Yale. My interests include the history of political thought, toleration, democratic theory, political ethics, problems of coordination and convention, the realist movement in political theory, and the thought of David Hume. My first book, Ruling Passions: Political Offices and Democratic Ethics (Princeton, 2002) covered many of these topics, with a special focus on the varieties of democratic politics and the disparate qualities of mind and character appropriate to those who practice each of them. My second book Hume's Politics: Coordination and Crisis in the History of England was published in 2012; I am currently finishing a book on toleration, with the working title The Virtues of Hypocrisy, under contract with Harvard University Press. A Los Angeles native, I got my B.A. and Ph.D. from Harvard. Before coming to Yale I taught at Vanderbilt and at UCLA, where I was an Assistant, Associate, and Full Professor; and held visiting positions at Williams, Harvard, and Princeton. I am married to Miriam Laugesen, who teaches health policy and the politics of health care at the Mailman School of public health at Columbia, and we have a twelve-year-old son.

26 thoughts on ““New affirmative action”—could we capture race through wealth?”

  1. Our school district is balanced by income- they try to equalize percentages of kids in each school qualifying for free or reduced lunch.

  2. SP – that's an interesting strategy. It's still not offering low-SES kids what they need, while introducing logistical nightmares. While there are some advantages to having the mixed demographic, as long as they don't get targeted intervention they'll simply under perform wherever you put them. The effects of social stratification on non-classroom learning are profound. What will likely happen is that they'll just require more differentiation by teachers, whose classes are now that much more stratified, or be shuttled to special ability-grouped classes.

    I'm not opposed to either race or class-based affirmative action at the K-12 level in theory. But my worry is that the reality is a band-aid over real social problems that we lack either the moral courage or philosophical competence to deal with in a serious way.

  3. Saying that wealth makes a difference is one thing. Building it into workable admissions policies is a whole other kettle of fish. Measuring family income has its challenges, but last year's tax return is an extremely good start. But how do you measure even the parents' wealth effectively, let alone the the grandparents'? How do you distinguish grandparents who will do anything financially for their grandchildren, from those who for whatever reason choose not to? In either case, how do you make them disclose their wealth comprehensively? Ask a divorce lawyer how easy it is to value a closely-held business or a defined benefit pension plan. Has anyone ever implemented a comprehensive wealth measurement into an admissions plan?

  4. One indicator considered in the UK (I think for monitoring access to higher education rather tham for admissions) was postcode. A little noisy, but easy to handle and objective; and it's sufficiently fine-grained to capture a lot of income and wealth disparities.

    UK postcades have 6 or more alphanumeric digits and basically identify streets.

  5. Ancestral education would be easier to calculate than wealth, and speaking as somebody with very little familial wealth but bunches of familial education, might be every bit as useful. Not sure how you'd prevent people from "forgetting" Grandma's MBA, but …

  6. The obvious question is, once you're handling things like poverty, why would you WANT to capture race? Does helping people of a specific race have some value aside from helping people who are poor and/or otherwise disadvantaged?

  7. Brett: in the UK the answer is clearly "no". Immigrants face widespread but dilute prejudice regardless of origin or skin colour. (In the last general election, there was a report of Asian-Brits in Luton fulminating against the latest immigrant wave of Poles and other Eastern Europeans.) Against this fairly standard gradient of disadvantage, some groups do well: Sikhs, Gujaratis, East African Asians. Others less well: Afro-Caribbeans, Bangladeshis. Plus you have the great historic bias within white Britain based on class. So it makes sense for affirmative action to be based staightforwardly on class, proxied by income, wealth, and education. The possible exception is media jobs that amplify perceptions. The result here is sometimes odd: British TV soaps worthily but counterfactually have lots of Afro-Caribbean doctors and lawyers, and few Asians. I think this reflects the salience of the groups in the acting profession rather than law and medicine.

    In the USA, you still have a lot of prejudice that is quite specifically based on "race", ie African slave ancestry; and I suppose a fair amount of internalised self-doubt within the targeted community. So affirmative action based on this would be reasonable until Afro-Americans are no worse treated on average than any other hyphenation.

  8. "Does helping people of a specific race have some value aside from helping people who are poor and/or otherwise disadvantaged?"

    Since studies have already demonstrated that, controlling for all other factors, one is more likely to get called for a job interview if the name on the resume is John, Stephen or Michael, rather than Lashawn, Malik or Muhammed, the answer to this question is left as an exercise for the reader.

  9. I'm not understanding you. A study shows that minority identified-names face discrimination, you devalue the extent to which the discrimination is race-based, and then apparently express your own sympathy with those who would discriminate by confessing to feel irritation yourself. If your attempt was sarcasm, I apologize – that's a rhetoric device that doesn't translate well over the 'tubes.

  10. Some so-called minority identified-names are just plain annoying and irritating. Often polysyllabic, made up names no one quite knows how to pronounce. All those La* names come to mind. And then there's those hippy names people like Frank Zappa kids got stucked with.

    So, you have two resumes that are more-or-less equal. One has "Sue" on it. The other one has "Laquisha" or "Moonbeam" on it. Which you gonna pick?

    Careful what you name your kids – Minority Rules

  11. I'm not irritated by either Malik or Mohammed. What I'm trying to point out is that some of these studies may be flawed in that they are measuring people's discrimination against names, not who they perceive to be behind the names. People are predisposed to pick some names over others. The familiar over the unfamiliar.

  12. @Yomtov: "TR" = Teddy Roosevelt, by far the favorite president of the neoconservative movement. He coined of the term "striver" to describe the (only) kind of person one should admire.

    @CharlesWT: I would submit that the fact that most people *in a position to hire other people* find names favored by whites "familiar" and those favored by African-Americans—or non-European immigrants—"unfamiliar" itself reflects a little something about the races' relative wealth and power. It also reflects the lack of color- and ethnicity-blindness in our social interactions. If not for that, everybody would find all names equally familiar. My whole point in the post is that the effects of race can be indirect and can reflect something other than simple bigotry.

  13. I suspect the name stigma is diminishing. "Barack" seems to test well. Ahem.

    If the point is to help people in need, the problem with racial standards is they leave out the white folks who have no wealth. There are, after all, twice as many whites as blacks or Hispanics in poverty. Why miss anyone?

  14. Moreover, his obsession with the neocon category of “strivers”—a TR tag—should leave nobody in doubt regarding his politics.

    What? I remember reading Kahlenberg's law school memoir, and his description of the amorality of big corporate law firm practice, along with a strong advocacy of left-wing public interest law.

    He's no neocon, believe me.

  15. Dilian Esper:

    Well, if Kahlenberg started Left and ended neocon, he wouldn't be the first to start as a dissenting liberal or social democrat–dissenting only with respect to racial issues–and end up further right than that—a matter of starting to adopt the positions of those whose company you start to be considered polite in. (I actually think this is a reason why the Left should be more tolerant with respect to creative dissent on certain issues, to avoid pushing the dissenters to the other side.)

    But the point is fair enough. TR's own position of course culminated in the view that strivers couldn't get their fair reward unless the economy was reformed fairly radically, which is why he ended up as the Progressive Party's candidate. The neocons stick with the early TR, conservative and imperialist, but that doesn't mean everyone who alludes to his work has to. That said, "striver" has become a code word–believe me; it's absolutely ubiquitous in neocon social policy discussions–that is perhaps best avoided if one wants to avoid certain implications.

  16. Andrew:

    Thanks for the response. As far as I know (and I admit that I only come across his work occasionally these days) Kahlenberg started left and stayed left, but fairly early on came to the conclusion that affirmative action would work better if it was class-based rather than race-based. I don't remember reading anything by Kahlenberg that made me conclude he was a neocon, either in the domestic policy (Pat Moynihan) or foreign policy (Richard Perle) sense.

    He might be using a neocon term because he doesn't know any better, but as far as I know, he's still pretty much a social democrat and his support of class-based affirmative action comes straight out of that model.

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