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Scholars Debate the Efficacy of Race Versus Class-based Affirmative Action in College Admissions

Substituting class for race-conscious affirmative action may be more politically palatable, but it does little to improve racial diversity on college campuses, said affirmative action proponents at a debate Thursday evening.

“Substituting class for race may make some more comfortable with affirmative action, but it makes poor policy,” said NAACP chairman Julian Bond, during a debate between four activists and scholars on whether class-based affirmative action should replace race-conscious admissions.

The debate came as race-based opportunity policies have been impeded by statewide referendums. Last November, Nebraska became the latest state, behind California, Michigan and Washington, to ban affirmative action. In a sign of where diversity policies are headed, the Supreme Court two years ago ruled that public school administrators should use socioeconomic status, not race, to integrate segregated public schools.

Arguing in favor of class-based preferences in college admissions at a debate held at the Library of Congress, Dr. John McWhorter rejected policies that lower standards for Black and Hispanic students in an effort to increase diversity.

“If you set the bar low, that is the kind of performance you will get. [Moreover] there is no evidence that the presence of Black and Latino students significantly improves education,” said McWhorter, senior fellow for the Manhattan Institute.

There is also the argument that the beneficiaries of race-based affirmative action policies are middle- to upper-class Black and Hispanic students, not necessarily those from underprivileged backgrounds.

Class-based policies, proponents say, may generate more public support since lower-and middle-class White are often the casualties in race-based affirmative action.

Still Bond, a civil rights icon, insists that using class as a substitution for race would be an abandonment of affirmative as it was intended.

“Affirmative action resulted from an American consensus,” Bond said, as “a remedy for past racial injustices. Changes in our society, not least in the election of our first African-American president, do not signal a change in our racial temperature so significant that race-conscious affirmative action can now be discarded.”

Adding to Bond’s argument, Lee Bollinger, president of Columbia University and a prominent advocate of affirmative action said succinctly, “You will not get racial diversity if you just rely on class and wealth. This has been studied by many. If you use only income, you will only increase the proportion of White students and decrease the proportion of African-American and Latino students.”

Bollinger, who played a leading role in two Supreme Court cases — Grutter v Bollinger and Gratz v Bollinger — that clarified the importance of diversity as a compelling justification for affirmative action in higher education, said many of the students who come to “our great university come from all-White or all-Black high schools. The first time they encounter a diverse environment is when they become freshmen at our universities. It is important for our students to be around others who are different from them.”

Partnering with McWhorter to argue against race-based affirmative action policies, Dr. Dalton Conley, chair of the sociology department at the New York University, said wealth-based affirmative action would increase the amount of diversity on college campus and eliminate the stigma of lower standards for minority students.

“There are significant racial gaps in education,” said Dalton, “but those disparities are dwarfed by the wealth gap. One statistic that [captures] the legacy of racial inequality in this country [is] net worth. The typical White family enjoys a net worth that is 10 times that of the median non-White family.”

Conley added, “The evidence shows that a class-based policy can work. Take California where Proposition 209 banned race-based admissions. The class-based policy has generally increased racial and ethnic diversity while being color-blind.”

Supporters of class-based policies argue that integrating poor children of all races has not led to improved academic achievement, but integrating poor children with more affluent communities has yielded results.

“It is interesting that President Bollinger mentioned that class-based programs based on income don’t reproduce the same level of racial and ethnic diversity,” said Conley, “[but] with wealth, given how unequally distributed it is by race, you get your case and eat it too.”

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