Race Vs. Class At College

David Leonhard found that elite colleges have very little economic diversity.  At elite schools, only a little over 10% of the student body comes from families below the median income.

William Bowen, …was a co-author of a study several years ago that found that elite colleges gave zero credit in the applications process to students from low-income families. All else equal, a poor student who scored, say, 650 on a standardized test had no better chance of being admitted than an affluent student who also scored 650 — despite all the obvious advantages that the affluent student had.

Currently there is race-based affirmative action to benefit disadvantaged races, but not class-based affirmative action to benefit disadvantaged economic classes.  This is likely to change soon because the Supreme Court has been moving towards eliminating race-based affirmative action as it again signaled last month in the University of Texas case.  Kevin Drum notes that class-based affirmative action will probably be the replacement and it achieves very similar goals:

 In a study of elite universities, Anthony Carnevale and Stephen Rose concluded that class-based affirmative action would probably produce student bodies that were about 10 percent black and Latino, compared to 12 percent with purely race-based affirmative action. Taking wealth into consideration might boost that a bit more, as would policies that take account of whether a student lives in concentrated poverty, a partial proxy for racial housing discrimination.

Still, there’s no question that in practice, even well-designed class-based policies would probably represent a net loss for minority representation. But it’s a fairly modest loss, and class-based policies also have some advantages.

Even without the fact that racial affirmative action will likely soon be illegal, class-based affirmative action have some important advantages.  They help poor people who are not getting much help and they deserve more help.  One of the biggest problems of racial discrimination is that it results in poverty.  The reason class-based affirmative action creates results that are so similar to race-based affirmative action is that racism creates adverse economic consequences.  But some individuals are able to transcend the difficulties of race by ‘passing as white’ or by focusing on economic niches where their particular race is not a handicap.

One of the huge problems of racism is that it is impossible to measure precisely.  Do the Obama children face more discrimination and prejudice than poor redneck whites in Appalachia?  Obama’s children may face more racism, but poor rednecks also face discrimination and prejudice, and it is impossible to really know who faces worse.  There is prejudice about class and accent and education (which is the most socially accepted prejudice in America today) and there is no reason to valorize racism over other forms of prejudice.   Obama himself said, “My daughters should probably be treated by any [college] admissions officer as folks who are pretty advantaged”.

Did Barack face less discrimination than Michelle Obama because he is male and his mother was white?  Would have have faced even less discrimination if three of his grandparents had been white and only one black?  It is impossible to know.  We cannot even concretely define race because it is an artificial construct whereas we can measure class relativley precisely.  Some people whose parents are both black insist that they are white and some people who 99% of Americans would think look white identify as black (photos here).  The main way that we measure racism in societies is by measuring its economic consequences and the economic consequences of race vary a lot across individuals depending on their circumstances. Why not just measure the economic consequences directly instead of trying to measure race?

I have lived and worked in places where I was in the minority and I have been discriminated against, but I have also had economic advantages and that greatly cushioned the microaggressions and other difficulties that I faced (including getting demoted at work explicitly because I was the wrong race). I don’t mind being called racial epithets as much if I my economic situation gives me many more choices and comforts than the name callers can afford.  Similarly, there is discrimination against Jews, but discrimination against wealthy Jews doesn’t seem to be as onerous as it is for poor minorities in the US today since wealth .  Since Jews are already about the wealthiest group in the nation, most people don’t think there is need to give them race-based affirmative action just because a lot of people are prejudiced against them.  One of the effects of race-based affirmative action is that it disproportionately benefits individuals who are already pretty well off because they are much more likely to go to college anyhow.  Nearly three-quarters of Black and Latino students at Harvard came from very wealthy families in 2018 because the real injustice at Harvard is strong affirmative action for the children of wealthy donors and affirmative action for student athletes who play expensive sports like golf, rowing, sailing, and fencing combined with race-based affirmative action.  Does it really advance social justice when Harvard admissions formula greatly prefers the Obama girls over equally talented inner-city white girls who grew up in a single-parent home on welfare?

One of my college friends got a scholarship for Native Americans even though her family was rich and nobody who knew her would have guessed that she had any Native American ancestry because only one of her grandparents (at most) had any Native American ancestry.  I never saw any sign that she had ever experienced racial discrimination and she seemed embarrassed about her race-based scholarship. I don’t see how her scholarship advanced social justice, but I can’t blame her.  If someone offered me money because of the identity of one of my ancestors, I’d probably take it too.

Kevin Drum  (op. cit.) argues that class-based affirmative action helps under-served races almost as well as race-based affirmative action in the short run and may have even greater benefits in the long run:

As Richard Kahlenberg, a tireless one-man advocate for class-based policies, points out, race-based admission policies are supported by only about a quarter of the population. Conversely, class and income-based policies are supported by upwards of two-thirds of the population. That represents a far stronger foundation for keeping diversity policies thriving over the next few decades.

And there’s more. Carnevale and Rose concluded that class-based policies produce higher graduation rates than either a pure merit-based system (test scores and high school GPAs) or a traditional affirmative action program. And eliminating race-based policies would also put an end to the suspicion that continues to dog black and Latino college graduates from employers who wonder if their degrees were really fairly earned.

One of the main advantages of race-based policies is that they help create social awareness of racism and demonstrate that it is a priority.  The ongoing problem of racism is denied by a significant segment of the US population.  But they are hard-core racism deniers most of them are probably going to just get even more resentful about race-based policies. They are much more tolerant of the kind of class-based policies that happen to achieve very similar ends.

Historically, race has always served as means of social control that works by dividing lower-class groups.  Dividing the majority of people into racial tribes makes them easier for the elites to control.  Focusing on race may serve to breed resentment and maintain class divisions which could be more counterproductive at helping minorities than helpful at this point in history.  Anti-racists should support class-based affirmative action because it might actually do more to reduce the problems of racism than race-based affirmative action because class-based programs help a super-majority unite over common concerns rather than split over divisive tribal issues.  Racism is real and a huge problem, but affirmative action that benefits relatively wealthy minorities is a recipe for breeding resentment in the majority that earns below the median. That is one reason why Martin Luther King’s 1964 book, “Why We Can’t Wait” advocated for helping the disadvantaged of all races rather than just focusing on helping African Americans.

A focus dividing privileges based on race is more likely to turn people towards zero-sum thinking where if someone else gets something I lose something.  Assigning privileges based on class is more universal because everyone has some chance of needing class-based help because of the potential for class mobility (which should be encouraged!!) whereas racial mobility is stagnant.  But economists largely agree that reducing racism and increasing the equality of opportunity is a positive sum game that increases the size of the pie and can make everyone better off.  It is easier to for most people to see how class-based policies can get us there.  Only minorities favor race-based policies and there is a lot of rivalry about how to divide the spoils between the various racial groups.  Also rich elites have self-interest in preferring race-based policies because

  • race-based polices are much less popular which makes them less likely to get enacted and if they are enacted, they are more likely to be underfunded and get repealed sooner.
  • In the off-chance that a race-based redistribution policy gets enacted, it often cheaper to just help a minority group than to help all needy Americans.  Rich people care about keeping the price tag low because they pay a lot of taxes and fees and they are the only group that sees little chance of personally benefiting from class-based programs.
  • race-based polices make the masses more politically divided which makes them easier to control.
  • race-based polices directly benefit those wealthy elites who are themselves racial minorities (as in the Harvard admissions example).

One under-reported transformation of America is that, “Hispanic high school graduates surpassed whites in the rate of college enrollment!”  If that trend continues, affirmative action for Hispanics will need to be curtailed at some point and proponents of race-based affirmative action do not have a formula for how to do that just like they have gotten into trouble by discriminating against Jews and Asians because they are already “over-represented” in college enrollment.  Switching to class-based affirmative action would be one way to make the adjustment automatic as the relative status of different races changes over time.

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Posted in Discrimination, Labor

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