Saturday, May 24, 2008

THE CASE FOR CLASS BASED AFFIRMATIVE ACTION

RICHARD KAHLENBERG, GUARDIAN, UK Republicans, who watched Barack Obama's numbers plummet over the inflammatory sermons of Rev Jeremiah Wright, are surely on the lookout for something similar. As Obama turns to November's presidential campaign, a racially-charged sleeper issue - not much discussed yet - has the danger of becoming the next Rev Wright.

The issue is affirmative action, America's system of certain preferences in employment and college admissions for people of color and women, which dates back to 1965. While its salience is dwarfed in public opinion polls by larger questions like Iraq and the economy, racial preferences have potent symbolic value and present a potential minefield for America's first black presidential nominee. . .

Fortunately, Obama has hinted that he may be ready to make a shift on the policy - which is the right thing to do on the merits and on the politics. He has traditionally been a strong supporter of affirmative action, campaigning against a ban on racial preferences in Michigan in 2006. But more recently, he has suggested that he may be willing to embrace preferences for low-income Americans of all races instead. How he handles this question could have enormous implications for his candidacy. . .

Twice during the primary campaign, Obama has been asked by George Stephanopoulos, who handled a review of affirmative action policies for President Clinton, whether or not he believed his own fairly privileged daughters deserve affirmative action preferences in college. Both times he answered no.

Saying the opposite - "Yes, my daughters have it worse than poor white kids in Appalachia" - would have been politically disastrous. Obama then went further to say that low income and working class people of all colors deserve special consideration. This policy happens to garner strong public support: the same respondents who oppose racial preferences by two-to-one support income-based preferences by the same ratio. . .

Providing a leg up to low-income students would represent an enormous change. In a recent study, Bowen found that within a given standardized test range, being an under-represented minority increases the chance of admissions by 28 percentage points but being poor makes no difference one way or the other. . .

When Bill Clinton suggested a similar shift from race to class-based affirmative action in 1995, civil rights and women's groups erupted and Clinton quickly shelved the idea. . .

A 2004 Century Foundation study, conducted by Anthony Carnevale and Stephen Rose, found that providing preferences based on parental income, education and occupation, and the socioeconomic status of the high school attended, would boost black and Latino admissions from 4% (under an admissions system of grades and test scores) to 10% at the nation's most selective colleges and universities, slightly below the current 12% representation under a system of racial affirmative action.

Using additional factors not included in the Century Foundation study, however, would produce an even bigger racial dividend. Because of slavery, segregation and housing discrimination, the black-white gap in accumulated wealth is much larger than black-white income gap. Black net worth is about 10% of white net worth, while black income is about 60% of white income. Using net worth in a class-based affirmative action program is both the right thing to do (coming from a family having little or negative worth is an obstacle to doing well academically) and also boosts racial diversity substantially. Employing other factors, like growing up in an area with concentrated poverty (which blacks are much more likely to do than whites of the same income) would also boost the racial dividend of economic affirmative action. . .

Just to be sure, however, Obama could call for a transition period from race-based to class-based affirmative action, during which time minority representation would be held harmless. And he could require conservatives to give a guarantee of support for more federal college aid before any switch occurs.

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