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The Unlikely Triumph of an Affirmative Action Prophet

Richard Kahlenberg: Washington policy Quixote

Washington is full of people with impossible dreams—implacable wonks who have devoted their lives to restoring the gold standard or abolishing the electoral college—and when I first met a young think tank fellow named Richard Kahlenberg almost two decades ago, I thought he was one of them. Kahlenberg’s cause was replacing race-based affirmative action in higher education with affirmative action based on class and economics.

That was something close to heresy at the time. Groups like the NAACP Legal Defense Fund took issue with Kahlenberg’s ideas, and most liberals in Washington tuned out what he was saying. Challenging affirmative action just wasn’t done on the left—it seemed to dismiss the country’s long history of racial injustice. But Kahlenberg kept at it: a major book, a lengthy report, three edited collections of essays, and about 70 articles and op-eds, all pressing his case.

Along with many others, I badly misjudged the importance of Kahlenberg’s big idea. As eight states—beginning with California in 1996—have banned affirmative action, he has found himself in demand with liberals looking for an alternative. Seven states have adopted his class-based plan—with encouraging results. Their higher-education systems have maintained roughly the same or an even greater percentage of African American and Latino enrollment than they had before. His theories have furthered economic and racial justice.

And Kahlenberg is about to gain even greater prominence now that the Supreme Court has ruled on Fisher v. University of Texas. The justices did not overturn Sandra Day O’Connor’s 2003 opinion in Grutter v. Bollinger, which held that universities could consider race in their admissions. But they did remand the case back to the appeals court, which it tasked with finding, in the words of the majority, whether there are “workable race-neutral alternatives [that] would produce the educational benefits of diversity.” The appeals court will now determine whether a plan like Kahlenberg’s is indeed the future of affirmative action.

Kahlenberg recently turned 50 and is losing his hair (his name in German means “bald mountain”), but he retains a kind of boyish earnestness. He is agreeable without being obsequious, and he’s not afraid to trace his own obsession with class-based affirmative action to class-based “liberal guilt.” He comes from inherited wealth. His maternal grandfather was a highly successful patent lawyer who left a foundation in his name and enough money for his children and their children to live comfortably. Kahlenberg wanted to become a lawyer like his powerful grandfather but to act in the public interest. “There was no drive for profit in my blood,” he once wrote.

His first political hero was Robert Kennedy, whose photo adorns his office wall at the Century Foundation. As a Harvard undergraduate, Kahlenberg wrote his senior honors thesis on Kennedy’s attempt during his 1968 presidential campaign to create a class-based liberalism that united whites and blacks. By the time he arrived at Harvard Law School in 1986, Kahlenberg said, “my liberal political views were tempered by populism. ... I still wanted to do something about poverty and social injustice, but I also put working-class whites in the category of those who’d been dealt a raw deal.” In his third year, he wrote a paper for his professor, Alan Dershowitz, making the case for class-based affirmative action.

This rejection of race-based affirmative action followed the lessons he drew from Kennedy’s 1968 campaign. He thinks the program, which began in the late ’60s, undermined the liberal coalition. It created political circumstances that made it difficult, if not impossible, to pass reforms that benefited people of all colors and helped fuel the conservative majority of the 1980s. “Race-based affirmative action tells the most disadvantaged whites that you have very little in common with African Americans, because you have white skin privilege,” he told me. “If the goal is to unite people of all races, this policy is a disaster.”

Kahlenberg also thinks that racial affirmative action contributes to a permanent upper class, giving the children of the wealthy—whether white, black, or Latino—a significant advantage in college admissions. “The dirty little secret of higher education,” Kahlenberg has written, “is that selective universities are more interested in admitting fairly affluent students of all colors than in promoting social mobility.”

His research shows that universities will admit about the same or a higher percentage of minorities—and a whole lot more poor people—if they practice a sophisticated economic affirmative action that takes into account wealth, family, and surroundings. He cites as an example the up-and-down history of the University of Texas, the subject of Fisher. Up until 1996, Texas practiced race-based affirmative action; then a federal court of appeals struck down the program; in response, the university introduced economic affirmative action. In 2005, after O’Connor’s opinion in Grutter, it reinstituted a limited form of racial affirmative action. Kahlenberg’s findings about this program are counterintuitive: Under economic affirmative action, from 1997 to 2004, Texas actually admitted a higher percentage of blacks and Latinos than it had under its old race-based plan. It was a “workable alternative.”

Kahlenberg’s liberal critics, however, contend that it is possible to have both race- and class-based affirmative action. “It is not an either-or proposition,” says Shirley Wilcher, the director of the American Association for Affirmative Action. To which Kahlenberg responds that, if given the choice, colleges will always prefer racial affirmative action, because it doesn’t entail spending on financial aid, tutoring, and high school outreach. “As long as universities can admit upper-middle-class students of color,” he says, “that’s what they would rather do.” 

Harvard Law Professor Randall Kennedy, the author of a forthcoming defense of affirmative action, has a different gripe with Kahlenberg. He argues that, if Kahlenberg’s version of class-based affirmative action prevailed, and if it did bring in sufficient numbers of minorities, then it would become “racialized” in the public mind in the same way as welfare. “You think just putting a label on things is going to get rid of the race issue?” he scoffed. But Kennedy acknowledged that Kahlenberg’s strategy might still be a way around bans on racial affirmative action.

When I asked Kahlenberg whether he was worried about a conservative backlash against economic affirmative action, he said he had been once, but was no longer. “Our political system to its credit will not tolerate a resegregation of higher education. And I think that’s a good thing. You will have new pressure to address racial diversity indirectly by class-based affirmative action.” It’s the type of optimistic assessment I would normally distrust—but given Kahlenberg’s record of arguing against the grain, he has more than earned the benefit of the doubt.

John B. Judis is a senior editor at The New Republic.