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Debating Preferences: Class Versus Race

Last week I had the honor of debating the NAACP's Julian Bond (with whom I bonded, so to speak, over dinner despite our differences such as those aired here) and Columbia's President Lee Bollinger (who learned that night that I happen to be teaching as an adjunct at his school).

They were a team; my teammate was NYU's sociologist Dalton Conley. The proposition at hand was whether Affirmative Action should be based on class (or wealth, as Dalton prefers) as opposed to race.

I sense a tipping point on this issue lately, possibly engendered in part by Barack Obama's rather brave statement that he would not want his daughters to be given racial preferences (rather brave because it's one thing for a wealthy, famous Presidential candidate to say that about himself and another for him to say it about, say, the children of an unknown upper middle class black physician and lawyer; I doubt if Obama would risk the latter, but we have to start somewhere).

When I started commenting about such things ten years ago, the going notion among good-thinking people was that racial preferences were about addressing poverty, the idea being that black people are, by definition, either poor or at least "struggling." But the simple fact is that most black Americans are not poor, by any metric. Too many black people are poor, proportionally, but most aren't - and the number of poor black people brought to selective campuses by Affirmative Action is minuscule.

Back in the nineties, if you brought this up, then next came the "diversity" idea - neglecting that the exact same insight was called tokenism until about 1975. Preferences make sense to me based on the cards you have been dealt. It's just that the idea, in 2009, that being black automatically means you have been dealt too bad a hand to be subject to serious competition in school admissions is obsolete, not to mention a grievous insult.

The issues here are not always easy, but thankfully the center of the discussion has moved since the old days. Some months ago I did a Talk of the Nation episode on NPR with someone minted in the nineties-style argumentational style on racial preferences. It was weird, and it was when I realized how much things have changed. I hadn't had to respond to the kinds of claims this person was making since around 2001 (i.e. that black students at Berkeley are today being told on a regular basis by white students that they don't belong on campus - come now).

Anyway, last week's debate was at the Miller Center for Public Affairs (video and transcript here), and the Jim Lehrer Newshour showed excerpts the other day, I am told.