Posted on April 5, 2023

The Liberal Maverick Fighting Race-Based Affirmative Action

Anemona Hartocollis, New York Times, March 29, 2023

For the college class he teaches on inequality, Richard D. Kahlenberg likes to ask his students about a popular yard sign.

“In This House We Believe: Black Lives Matter, Women’s Rights Are Human Rights, No Human Is Illegal, Science Is Real,” it says.

His students usually dismiss the sign as performative. But what bothers Mr. Kahlenberg is not the virtue signaling.

“It says nothing about class,” he tells them. “Nothing about labor rights. Nothing about housing. Nothing that would actually cost upper-middle-class white liberals a dime.”

Since picking up a memoir of Robert F. Kennedy at a garage sale his senior year of high school, Mr. Kahlenberg, 59, has cast himself as a liberal champion of the working class. ‌ For three decades, his work, largely at a progressive think tank, has used empirical research and historical narrative to argue that the working class has been left behind.

That same research led him to a conclusion that has proved highly unpopular within his political circle: that affirmative action is best framed not as a race issue, but as a class issue.

In books, ‌articles and academic papers, Mr. Kahlenberg has spent decades‌ ‌arguing for a different vision of diversity, one based in his 1960s idealism. He believes that had they lived, Kennedy and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. would have pursued a multiracial coalition of poor and working class people, a Poor People’s ‌Campaign that worked together toward the same goal of economic advancement in education, employment and housing. ‌ ‌

Race-conscious affirmative action, while it may be well intentioned,‌ ‌does just the opposite, he says — aligning with the interests of wealthy students‌ and creating racial ‌animosity.


His advocacy has brought him to an uncomfortable place. The Supreme Court is widely expected to strike down race-conscious affirmative action this year in cases against Harvard and the University of North Carolina. He has joined forces with the plaintiff, Students for Fair Admissions, run by a conservative activist; the group has paid him as an expert witness and relied on his research to support the idea that there is a constitutional “race-neutral alternative” to the status quo.

That alliance has cost him his position as a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, the liberal-leaning think tank where he had found a home for 24 years, according to friends and colleagues. {snip}

Critics‌ ‌dispute everything from his statistics to his rosy outlook on politics. They say that the concept of race-neutral diversity underestimates how racism is embedded in American life. They say that class‌-conscious affirmative action will bring its own set of problems as universities try to maintain high academic standards. ‌


Mr. Kahlenberg studied government and went on to Harvard Law School, where he wrote a paper about class-based affirmative action, advised by Alan Dershowitz, his professor, known for defending unpopular causes and clients.

The paper inspired him to write his influential 1996 book, “The Remedy,” which developed his theory that affirmative action had set back race relations by becoming a source of racial antagonism.

“If you want working-class white people to vote their race, there’s probably no better way to do it than to give explicitly racial preferences in deciding who gets ahead in life,” he said. “If you want working-class whites to vote their class, you would try to remind them that they have a lot in common with working-class Black and Hispanic people.”

The book caused a stir, in part because of the timing. California voters adopted a ban on affirmative action in public colleges and universities the same year. Such bans have since spread to eight other states, and California voters reaffirmed it in 2020.

Today, as in the mid-1990s, polls show that a majority of people oppose race-conscious college admissions, even as they support racial diversity. Public opinion may not always be right, Mr. Kahlenberg said, but surely it should be considered when developing public policy.


If Mr. Kahlenberg had his way, college admissions would be upended.

His basic recipe: Get rid of preferences for alumni children, as well as children of faculty, staff and big donors. Say goodbye to recruited athletes in boutique sports like fencing. Increase community college transfers. Give a break to students who have excelled in struggling schools, who have grown up in neighborhoods of concentrated poverty, in families with low income, or better yet, low net worth. Pump up financial aid. Look for applicants in towns that do not normally send students to highly selective colleges.


He said his theories are working in states with affirmative action bans, pointing to his 2012 study that found seven of 10 leading universities were able to return to previous levels of diversity through race-neutral means.

Even the University of California, Berkeley, which was having trouble achieving its pre-ban levels of diversity, has made progress, he said. In 2020, Berkeley boasted that it had admitted its most diverse class in 30 years, with offers to African American and Latino students rising to the highest numbers since at least the late-1980s, without sacrificing academic standards.

Mr. Kahlenberg’s analysis of Harvard’s outlook is also optimistic.

In a simulation of the class of 2019, he found that the share of Black students at Harvard would drop to 10 percent from 14 percent, but the share of white students would also drop, to 33 percent from percent from 40 percent, mainly because of the elimination of legacy and other preferences. The share of Hispanic students would rise to 19 percent from 14 percent and the Asian American share would rise to 31 percent from 24 percent.


Because he is focused on class-based diversity, Mr. Kahlenberg is satisfied with these results, but for many educators, the rise in low-income students does not make up for a drop in Black students.

Harvard, for instance, says it crafts every class carefully, looking for diversity of life experiences, interests and new ideas — and to cultivate potential leaders of society. Fewer Black students make that mission harder.

In the affirmative action trial, Harvard said that Mr. Kahlenberg’s model would produce too little diversity, and water down academic quality. Its actual class of 2026 is 15.2 percent African American, 12.6 percent Hispanic and 27.9 percent Asian American.

Universities should not turn to class-conscious admissions, “under the illusion that it will automatically produce high levels of racial diversity,” said Sean Reardon, an empirical sociologist at Stanford.

“It’s just sort of the math of it,” Dr. Reardon said. “Even though the poverty rates are higher among Blacks and Hispanics, there are still more poor whites in the country.”