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.