There are two key pieces of writing to look at, both by Nikole Hannah-Jones at ProPublica, as you're considering your stance on affirmative action in the context of this week's Supreme Court case brought by Abigail Fisher, the red-headed white girl who wanted to go to the University of Texas at Austin but didn't get in.
First is the piece that demonstrates how Fisher, who is arguing that she should have been let in on the basis of merit, wouldn't have gotten in even if race wasn't a factor. She actually just didn't earn it.
The other piece of writing is a bigger-picture look at why the popular idea of "economic integration"—focusing on class rather than race in higher-education admissions—does not equal the playing field because of the enduring effects of race even on students with higher-income families. Here are a couple of key segments:
Affluent African Americans and Latinos live in poorer neighborhoods on average than working-class white Americans, a Brown University analysis of 2010 U.S. Census data showed. As a result, most black children – regardless of their family's income – attend schools where two-thirds of their classmates are poor and resources and college prep courses are limited.
That poor white and Asian students are not generally consigned to deeply poor neighborhoods and their failing schools, experts say, helps explain why white and Asian students account for nearly all (84 percent) of the nation's low-income students who are considered high achievers – defined as students with an A-minus average who score in the top 10 percent on the SAT or the ACT. And under a strictly class-based system, these experts argue, these high-achieving low-income students would snap up the open spaces at top colleges.
For black and Latino students, then, a set of affirmative action programs that treat class preferentially could be disastrous. Some studies have shown that a college admissions system that favors the poor would indeed boost enrollment of working-class students – making them as much as 40 percent of the student body – but it would sink black and Latino enrollment. Representation of blacks and Latinos in college could fall from its current 16 percent into the single digits.
Both Kahlenberg, the champion of economic integration, and Carnevale and Rose, the skeptics, agree that an effective way forward would be to use both class and race in the admissions calculus.
Kahlenberg, for his part, would like to target race without being explicit about it. He is against a narrow, income-based admissions program that only looks at how much a student's parents earn in their jobs because it would be "unfair to African Americans and Latinos students who on average face substantial obstacles that whites of similar income do not face." He proposes an elaborate array of tools admissions officers could use. Universities should determine the wealth, net worth, education and occupations of a student's parents, he said, and consider as well whether applicants live in neighborhoods of concentrated poverty and come from single-parent homes.
"Under that program, you will take up lots of African Americans and Latino students," he said. "But that is different than a program that says, 'Check a racial box.'"
Rose and Carnevale say that Kahlenberg's approach might appeal to Americans ready to embrace a post-racial American ideal, but it still won't work. They spent years working as researchers at the standardized testing giant, Educational Testing Service, trying to find the "holy grail" – the class dynamics that could negate the role of race in educational opportunity. They looked at the factors Kahlenberg suggested and then some.
"We were trying to prove that you get race by getting the right socioeconomic factor," Carnevale said. "We can never do it."
Carnevale said the only way colleges can maintain black and Latino enrollment in a nation where soon half of all school children will be of color is to continue the unpopular but successful practice of explicitly taking race into account.
"We want to figure out ways to get race without using race – if it weren't so tragic it would be funny," said Carnevale. "The bottom line is race and class are not the same thing. There are a lot of ways to be unequal but race is still the worst – it is still the one you don't want to be."
So, yes: If we want colleges to become more equitable, they're going to have to start factoring class into the admissions processes. But throwing out race just makes inequity worse, by sending into overdrive the preexisting problem of structural racism (racism that's not individual and personal-bias-based but systemic in how it affects people of different races). And Abigail Fisher isn't the poster girl for meritocracy that her conservative backers have presented her to be. Remember the case of the Ballard white girl? And just look around! Seattle schools have become so equitable since she won.