The Shift to Class-Based Affirmative Action.

Jamelle put me on to last night’s debate over affirmative action being webcast by UVA’s Miller Center for Public Affairs. The resolution put forth to the debaters was that AA should focus on class/wealth, instead of race and ethnicity.

On the pro side: everyone’s favorite relatively mainstream black conservative John McWhorter*, and NYU sociologist Dalton Conley. On the con side: everyone’s favorite relic of the civil rights industrial complex Julian Bond, and Columbia president Lee Bollinger.

First, I’ve come around to supporting class-based AA (and not the kind that means rich, dumb kids get to go to top universities), but the conspiracy theorist in me wonders if it just means black and Latino kids will get the shaft in some unforeseen way. Anyway. Part of the reason I support class-based AA is because of people like Julian Bond. His ‘argument’ in favor of race-based AA was more Ramblin’ Storytime With Uncle Julian than an actual position. It seemed like he was going through the motions, supporting a position that isn’t really defensible any longer, because that’s what he’s always done and that’s what he’ll continue to do. Bond is stuck in auto-pilot, thinking about things as they were, not as they are.

His opening statement:

Using class as a substitute for race would be the abandonment of affirmative action as it was intended. In the process, abandoning its promise of justice to once-enslaved Americans.

And then he went on to quote Ronald Reagan, explain to the crowd how bad slavery was, and call the characteristics of race “immutable.”

The thing about this that bugs me is that advantaged blacks, like Bond, like his five children, and like me, don’t really want for opportunity. As Dalton Conley said in his excellent opening statement, at a certain level of family income, black students actually graduate at higher rates than their white counterparts. Yes, racism exists, but ending racism isn’t the goal of most race-based AA supporters. The goal is to handicap the less-advantaged descendants of slavery. But advantaged kids, regardless of race, are already handicapped.

John McWhorter frustrates me in a different way. While Bond, though wrongheaded, really believes that AA is the only way to end black disadvantage, McWhorter just seems really, really dishonest. He structures his argument against points that no one is actually making (like “AA is necessary because admissions officers are racist”). He also tosses out the “poor black kids think being smart is for white people” red herring a few times. Pretty much anytime he speaks, he builds a straw man and then takes it down with vigor.

Bollinger, the named defendant in two Supreme Court cases that attempted to end race-as-a-factor in admissions, fared better than Bond in his support of AA 1.0. He supports class-based AA, but thinks that it should be an addendum, not a replacement. He did a great job of listing the many factors that go in to admission decisions, and notes that if class is the only factor, then the proportion of white students will increase. I think that’s a fair point to make, but no one is suggesting that class would be the only factor in admitting students.

Dalton Conley, who seemed to almost be on the wrong side of the discussion (when I started watching, I wasn’t sure whose team he was on) made the best argument of all. Socioeconomic factors play a huge role in the success of all Americans, no matter where they go to school. He also suggests that ‘diversity’ isn’t the main goal of AA, but rather that America tries to make social change in schools, instead of taking a more radical approach to fixing wealth disparity and housing segregation in our larger society.

The discussion, despite Bond’s multitude of non-answers and McWhorter’s shadow-boxing, covers most of the arguments on both sides. It is disappointing that, at times, both Bond and McWhorter seemed to be trading on their ‘blackness’ as the reason why we should listen to them, while Conley pointed to actual research and Bollinger used intimate knowledge of the university admission process make their arguments.

*McWhorter produces incandescent rage in me. I think he’s wild smart, but when he starts being dishonest (as he often does when talking about AA or hip-hop or ebonics) I get really, really stabby. I have to wonder if he’s just effing with us.

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6 thoughts on “The Shift to Class-Based Affirmative Action.

  1. cindylu April 17, 2009 at 1:45 pm Reply

    I’m in California and my whole time in higher education has been in the post-209 era. Proposition 209 was passed by a majority of California voters in 1996 and thus banned the consideration of race and ethnicity in state colleges and universities. It really hit the flagship campuses of the University of California with up to 50% drops in black students and about a 30% drop in Latino students. The UC devised other proxies for race, namely income, geography, school attended and parental education. Still, the numbers of underrepresented minority students have not recovered to pre 209 days. In fact, UCLA saw it’s worst numbers in 2006 when there were less than 100 black students in the freshman class.

    I do think that socioeconomic factors should be considered just as race is considered, but there is no proxy as good as race if you want to achieve racial diversity.

    • shani-o April 17, 2009 at 2:08 pm Reply

      Cindylu, I’m from CA, and I vividly remember the 209 fight. Because of that, for years, I’ve been a proponent of race-based AA. And yes, the UC numbers have been abysmal for pretty much anyone who isn’t white or Asian.

      But the question that was raised in the debate, and insufficiently answered by Bond, is this: who does racial diversity help? What good does it do? Bollinger made a moving argument for universities being places where people from all walks of life come together and share experiences, and I can get behind that. I work for a university where racial and socioeconomic diversity in student body, faculty and staff is a huge driving force, and I don’t see anything wrong with that. It’s quite nice, actually.

      But Conley posits that racial diversity at top=tier schools is largely symbolic, and I think I might agree. For most kids, it won’t matter if they went to Davis or if they went to, say, Merced. I’m not sure that using schools as a diversity petri dish really works, if we’re not focusing on making changes outside of schools.

      Honestly, I’m torn. I think race should be a factor, but not the predominant one. If we’re giving applicants points for income, region, where they went to hs, if they’re first-gen, then I think race could be in that list as something that could potentially put a person over the top … but so could any of the other factors.

    • Aisha April 19, 2009 at 12:45 am Reply

      I was in the last class before 209 @ Berkeley. The battle took place during my Fresh year. The numbers weren’t that great to begin and they only got lower. To me it’s as much about diversity as it is about opportunity. I now I have something that people oooh and aah over. More people need the opportunity.

      I almost didn’t apply until a group of students came to my high school and made a presentation. I thought I wasn’t fit for Berkeley (basically internalized racism). I wonder how many other students don’t apply because they don’t think they would get into the UC system.

  2. Ron April 17, 2009 at 1:48 pm Reply

    I tried to give McWhorter a chance, but he’s single handedly been responsible for much of my ire of the academic right, because they’re so intellectually dishonest that it’s not even worth engaging them seriously, because they just use strawmen, anecdotes and shoddy research as excuses to prop up the arguments of whatever “think tank” is paying for their meals.

    It’s comically transparent, though he still tries to be down.

  3. Grump April 17, 2009 at 3:20 pm Reply

    We’re talking about college, though, where there is also a considerable amount of learning that takes place outside of the classrooms(Work-study, jobs, study abroad, alternative spring break, student organizations like NSBE and MeCHA). So although you may feel that it doesn’t matter where some kids go to school, it does matter what they are exposed to because that may hamper their development in changing things outside of the school. Especially once they leave.

  4. thinking of a name April 20, 2009 at 11:21 pm Reply

    This is a very timely post as I just happen to be doing some research today about academically gifted black students in preparation for what I will need to do to ensure that my children are able to compete on any academic level. I found a report ( about closing the achievement gap between whites, Asians and blacks and Latinos and one of the interesting things stated in this report was that the achievement gap persists between the groups even after adjustments are made for socioeconomic class. Meaning even blacks from upper-middle class backgrounds still lag behind their white and Asian counterparts. There were several reasons given for this such as the fact that parents of white students knew how to “work the system” and advocate for their children (demand additional tutoring, demand the child get into a more academically challenging class) while black parents were much less likely to do so. A general lack of trust of the school and the feedback from its representatives (example: racist teacher or constructive criticism) was also sited as a factor, along with several others.

    Now if I accept this information, which I do because I lived it, then I would say that if the goal of race based AA is to help close the achievement gap, then there is more work to do in this area. However, like a previous poster stated it cannot be simply about just AA, the issues that cause the achievement gap need to be addressed also.

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