From The Century Foundation

By Richard Kahlenberg

Charles Murray, the author of the much-discussed book, Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960–2010, (and, years ago, the widely discredited volume, The Bell Curve) has an op-ed in today’s New York Times outlining some solutions to the growing class divide that he depicts in Coming Apart.

Among his ideas is to “replace ethnic affirmative action with socioeconomic affirmative action.” Murray writes: “This is a no-brainer. It is absurd, in 2012, to give the son of a black lawyer an advantage in college admissions but not do the same for the son of a white plumber.”

I’ve been a long time advocate of class-based affirmative action, going back to my 1996 book, The Remedy: Class, Race and Affirmative Action, so on the one hand I’m pleased by his article, but in other ways I am dismayed.

Today, educational disadvantages are much more closely tied to socioeconomic status than to race. Research from The Century Foundation published in 2010 finds that socioeconomic disadvantages predict a student SAT score that is 399 points lower than the most economically advantaged student, while African Americans are predicted to score 56 points lower than whites. In other words, an affirmative action program that is trying to identify “strivers”—students who have beaten the odds and have more potential than their raw standardized test scores suggest—would weight class disadvantage about seven times as heavily as race. Today universities do roughly the opposite, providing substantial preferences based on race, and very little weight to socioeconomic disadvantage.

This may all soon change, as the U.S. Supreme Court is slated to hear a challenge to the use of race in the case of Fisher v. Texas this fall. There is strong reason to believe the Supreme Court will severely curtail the use of race in admissions, in which case universities would likely shift to emphasizing socioeconomic status as an indirect way of producing racial diversity.

It is good that hard-core conservatives such as Charles Murray are going on record in support of socioeconomic affirmative action now, so that in event the Supreme Court curtails the use of race, they cannot then turn around and attack class-based preferences with a straight face. Still I have three concerns about Murray’s New York Times op-ed.

First, Murray’s essay pits the black lawyer’s son against the white plumber’s son. But there are lots of black and Latino plumbers’ children who would also benefit from class-based affirmative action. These students generally do not benefit from racial and ethnic preferences today, as the vast majority of minority pupils admitted to selective colleges are more advantaged students of color. Indeed, for those of us who care about racial diversity, the fact that class-based preferences will disproportionately benefit students of color is a great selling point. Century Foundation research finds that, in a post-affirmative action world, class-based preferences would boost the proportion of students who are black and Latino at the nation’s most selective 146 universities from 4 percent (if a strict admissions based on grades and test scores were used) to 10 percent. Employing factors such as family wealth could boost the racial dividend of class-based affirmative further. It may not be surprising that an author like Murray, most famous for suggesting that blacks are genetically inferior, wouldn’t care much about racial diversity, but for many progressive proponents of class-based affirmative action, this is a key attraction.

Second, after proposing class-based affirmative action, Murray oddly undercuts his own proposal, saying it—and the other ideas he proposes—“won’t really make a lot of substantive, immediate difference.” He claims, “even without socioeconomic affirmative action, a high proportion of academically gifted children from the working class already get scholarships to good schools.” This is not true. According to Anthony Carnevale and Jeff Strohl’s research for The Century Foundation, 80 percent of wealthy students scoring in the top quartile attend a four-year college, compared with 44 percent of top scorers who are low-income. At the most selective 146 colleges and universities, one is twenty-five times as likely to run into a rich kid as a poor kid. If economic affirmative action were implemented in these institutions, the proportion coming from the bottom socioeconomic half of the population would rise from 10 percent to 38 percent, and graduation rates would remain as high as they are today.

Third, in focusing on affirmative action at selective colleges, Murray misses a chance to discuss a solution to the problems outlined in Coming Apart that would involve a much larger number of students: socioeconomic integration of K–12 education. Our nation’s schools are increasingly segregated by economic status, and that segregation leads to significantly different life chances. As reported in a just-released Century Foundation volume that I edited, The Future of School Integration: Socioeconomic Diversity as an Education Reform Strategy, low-income students who have a chance to attend more affluent schools are two years ahead of low-income students stuck in high-poverty schools on the fourth grade National Assessment for Educational Progress. Carefully controlled research (using lotteries) seeking to address selection-bias finds enormous benefits to attending lower-poverty schools as compared with higher-poverty schools—even when higher-poverty schools spend more money per pupil. As the book notes, today more than 80 school districts educating almost 4 million students use socioeconomic status in student assignment policies, up from just a handful of districts a decade ago. Importantly, most of these districts use choice and incentives (such as magnet schools) rather than compulsory busing, to achieve an economically integrated environment. And because these programs employ economic status, they pose no constitutional problems associated with racial integration policies struck down by the Supreme Court in Seattle and Louisville in 2007.

Both approaches—socioeconomic affirmative action to economically integrate selective colleges, and socioeconomic integration of K–12 schooling—can help address the economic divisions that Murray identifies, and, more importantly, that President Obama has targeted as “the defining issue of our time.”