Class/income-based affirmative action has long struck me as an alternative that ought to get more attention than it does. ... Class-based program programs might, in the end, provide modestly less help for ethnic minorities than current policies — though well-designed ones might not.
This is a common centrist misconception. It is widely assumed: There must be lots of black and Hispanic kids in the 'hood with 1300 out of 1600 SAT scores who are losing out to Chad Buffington of Lake Forest's tutor-aided 1400. I mean, there just have to be, right? So, All We Have To Do is institute class-based affirmative action and then we wouldn't have to have race-based affirmative action and we would still get a whole bunch of pretty smart blacks and Hispanics, almost as many as we get now. Why didn't anybody ever think of this before? After all, class is the reason that blacks and Hispanics average lower scores, right? It couldn't be anything else, of course. Right?
But they have some advantages too. For one thing, they help poor people. That's worthwhile all by itself. (Kahlenberg quotes William Benn Michael as noting acidly that currently the debate in higher education is mostly about what color skin the rich kids will have.) Beyond that, there's another benefit: for all the good it does, there's no question that race-based affirmative action has drawbacks as well. It makes employers suspicious of minority graduates, wondering if their degrees were really fairly earned. It provokes a backlash among working class whites. And it's open to abuse on a number of fronts. Class-based programs don't solve all these problems at a stroke, but they go a long way toward addressing them.
This isn't normally a subject I write much about. I've done only modest reading about it, and my personal background — middle class white guy born and raised in Orange County — obviously doesn't give me any valuable personal insight. But the status quo has done, and continues to do, a lot of damage to all sides. It's probably a fantasy to think that there's any progress to be made in our current fever swamp atmosphere, but a conservative concession on the reality of race as a continuing problem — think racial profiling, penal system injustices, health system disparities, etc. — combined with a liberal concession on emphasizing class much more than we have in the past, would almost certainly be a step forward.
On the other hand, if you think Obama's race is complicated, try to figure out what class Obama was from when he was applying to Occidental, Columbia, and Harvard.
- Barack Obama Jr.'s mother was on welfare for awhile.
+ His mother was working on her Ph.D.
- His mother got pregnant out of wedlock at 17.
+ His mother was accepted by the University of Chicago when she was 15.
- His father abandoned him when he was 2.
- He lived in a poor Third World country in a fairly poor neighborhood.
- He came from a multiply broken family, abandoned by his father as an infant and twice by his mother, and had to live with his grandparents.
+ He lived with his grandparents on the tenth floor of highrise in a nice part of Honolulu with a fabulous view.
- He smoked a lot of dope in high school.
+ He smoked a lot of dope on the beach in Hawaii with his fellow students at the most prestigious prep school in the state.
- In college he hung out with Third Worlders.
- His maternal grandfather was a fairly unsuccessful salesman.
+ His maternal grandmother was a quite successful bank executive.
- His maternal grandfather was from a family with a shady reputation.
+ His maternal grandmother's family was quite respectable and academic-oriented. One of his great aunts became a statistics professor and great-uncle became the #2 man at the U. of Chicago library.
- His paternal grandfather had been a servant.
+ His paternal grandfather was a large landowner.
- His father was a drunk.
+ His father's Master's degree made him a legacy at Harvard.
+ His father was, when sober, an oil company executive and government official.