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In search of fairness: a better way - UCLA shows that class-based affirmative action won't lead to a 'whiteout'.

Ever since racial preferences were outlawed at public universities in California and Texas, the news on minority admissions at the elite public universities has been uniformly bleak. African-American, Latino, and Native-American admissions plunged among undergraduate institutions, and graduate schools saw even larger drops. Some conservatives have pointed out that the declines are proof of how deeply racial preferences had become embedded, but most Americans look at the declines with dismay: majorities don't like racial preferences, but they don't want all-white universities either.

Nathan Glazer, writing recently in The New Republic, argued that there is an irreconcilable conflict between principle (not judging people by skin color) and practicality (getting a racially diverse student body). In a reversal of his earlier view, Glazer now says we must resort to distasteful means in order to avoid distasteful ends (a "whiteout"). Some other conservatives fear that the dramatic decline in minority admissions will lead universities to abandon the use of standardized tests like the SAT and LSAT -- and that we should stick with racial preferences as a small accommodation to racial politics rather than jettison meritocracy altogether.

But are we really faced with such Hobson's choices? What if we devised a system of admissions that was truly just, looking at academic records in the context of obstacles that individuals had overcome? It might not be fair to give Vernon Jordan's offspring a preference because they happen to be black, but why not give a leg up to disadvantaged kids of all colors, when they have done fairly well despite numerous disadvantages? A disproportionate percentage of disadvantaged students are people of color, and surely one of the central reasons minority students as a group do worse on average academically is because they face the additional obstacles that come from economic deprivation. Alas, this won't work, Glazer says: considering merit plus obstacles doesn't yield much racial diversity, "if the studies are to be believed"

Two of the most widely discussed studies of need-based or class-based affirmative action are Harvard professor Thomas Kane's study of undergraduate admissions and University of North Carolina professor Linda Wightman's study of law school admissions. Both are pessimistic about the possibility that class-based preferences -- as defined by such factors as parental income, education, and occupation -- will yield much racial diversity. The problem, they both note, is that while blacks and Hispanics are disproportionately poor, poor and working-class blacks and Hispanics test worse on average than poor and working-class whites and Asians.

Kane and Wightman are correct on this limited point, but they fail to probe why this disparity exists. One important reason is that looking at standard indicators of socioeconomic status (SES) -- income, occupation, and education -- does not fully capture the differences, in the aggregate, between black and white economic status. Three other differences turn out to be important.

One is concentration of poverty. Sociologists know that it is a disadvantage to grow up in a poor family, but a second, independent disadvantage to grow up in neighborhoods with concentrated poverty, because such children often lack positive role models and peer influences. Because of housing discrimination, blacks are much more likely to live in concentrated poverty than whites of equal income. Indeed, one study found that in Los Angeles, affluent blacks making between $75,000 and $100,000 live in neighborhoods with higher mean poverty rates than whites with incomes in the $5,000-$10,000 range.

A second important difference between blacks and whites of the same income level has to do with differences in wealth. While median black family income is on the order of 60 percent of white income, median black net assets are 9 percent that of whites. Middle class blacks earning $45,000-$60,000 annually have a lower net worth on average than whites with incomes between $7,500 and $15,000. Family wealth affects a child's life chances in a number of ways. To take one concrete example, a study reported recently in The Wall Street Journal found that blacks are less likely to take LSAT preparation courses, which run as much as $1,000. For the average black, whose net worth is one-tenth the average white's, the cost of the LSAT course is the equivalent of $10,000 in white eyes.

A third important difference between blacks and whites of equal income levels has to do with family structure. The main reason it is a disadvantage to grow up in a single-parent family is that the family is likely to be low income. But studies find a second, independent disadvantage stems from growing up in a household with half the number of parents to nurture you. Again, this factor has a racial dimension: Among children under 18, 76 percent of whites but just 33 percent of blacks live with two parents.

What would happen if a university's class-based affirmative action program looked beyond just income to factors like concentration of poverty, wealth, and family structure? We now have some preliminary evidence from UCLA Law School, which implemented a race-blind, class-based affirmative action system last year. According to a forthcoming article by UCLA Law Professor Richard Sander in the Journal of Legal Education, the scheme looked at three family factors (an applicant's family income, mother's education, and father's education) and three neighborhood factors (proportion of single-parent households, proportion of families receiving welfare, and proportion of adults who had not graduated from high school). A seventh factor, family wealth, was originally included in the formula but was temporarily dropped in the final calculation for technical reasons. According to press reports, even this sophisticated system has been a failure. Jeffrey Rosen, writing in The New Yorker, says that UCLA's use of "seven rather Dickensian indicators of social deprivation ... failed to produce more African-American admissions."

But according to Sander's study, the press reports are simply wrong. Looking at last year's admissions, Sander told me, "Our research clearly shows that class-based affirmative action produced more than twice as many black admissions as we would have had under a system entirely driven by LSATs and grades." The effect on black enrollment was even greater. Because those African Americans who were admitted to UCLA on test scores and grades were almost certain to have been admitted to more prestigious law schools, and were likely to have turned UCLA down, Sander found that class-based affirmative action boosted black enrollment at UCLA to 13 times what it would have been under a system of test scores and grades.

Latinos fared extremely well under the class -based affirmative action regime. Almost the entire decline in Latino admissions at UCLA last year is attributable to the decline in applications -- a quirk due to the fact that racial preferences were barred in California and Texas, but nowhere else in the country. Had applications not declined, Sander found, Latino admissions would have been "virtually unchanged" under the class- rather than race-based affirmative action system.

If students had been admitted purely by test scores and grades, Sander found, UCLA's enrollment would have been 2.3 percent Latino, black, and Native-American. Under UCLA's moderately aggressive use of SES, the Latino, black, and Native-American representation was 13.1 percent.

Using racial preferences, these three groups had constituted 25.1 percent of the class. Among students who scored high enough to be considered, the class-based system disproportionately benefited people of color: 14.5 percent of whites, 25.9 percent of blacks, and 30.1 percent of Latinos in the targeted test range were admitted with an SES boost.

Meanwhile, Asian-American enrollment increased by 29 percent under the new class-based system, (from 16.7 percent of the student body to 21.5 percent) and white enrollment increased by 12 percent (from 58 percent to 65 percent of the student body). The switch from race to class preferences saw an overall decline in minority enrollment, then, but it seems odd to use the term "whiteout" to refer to a class that is -- after the end of racial preference -- 35 percent people of color.

Sander notes that UCLA was more successful than Berkeley's Boalt Hall Law School or the University of Texas Law School in maintaining some racial diversity; and he attributes the relative success to UCLA's socioeconomic program. The other law schools, he said, informally incorporated SES considerations on an individualized basis, but "they haven't articulated any sort of set of criteria that they use" or implemented preferences in a systemic way, though he notes that Boalt Hall is "actively looking at what we're doing."

Which is not to say that UCLA's own program cannot be improved in order to make it more fair, and to increase the racial dividend in the future. Last year's program did not incorporate net worth; this year's program will. Likewise, family structure has not been part of the individual family measure, though Sander says, "We're talking about including it in the future."

Finally, UCLA chose to pursue only a moderately sized SES preference, smaller than the one provided for blacks under race-based affirmative action. With an academic index of 0-1,000 points, individuals scoring 818 were automatically admitted; the most economically disadvantaged were admitted with a 625; while under the old system blacks with scores of 550 were admitted. But arguably the economic preference should be at least as large as the preference had been for blacks, since all those benefiting from an SES boost have demonstrated an ability to overcome tangible obstacles and are likely to go much farther in life than their test scores predict. As Lani Guinier notes, Harvard found in a study of three classes that its most successful graduates 30 years later were those with low SATs and blue collar backgrounds, a group which administrators characterize as "hungry." UCLA's experience last year was that the larger the SES preference, the greater the racial yield. In the 760-814 range, blacks and Latinos were admitted at twice the rate of whites; but in the 625-699 range, the multiple was eight times. According to a simulation, Sander found that using a larger socioeconomic preference -- reaching down to 575--would increase black, Hispanic, and Native-American enrollment by another 46 percent above and beyond the increased representation achieved using a moderate preference. In all, the large SES boost would produce a class with seven times as many blacks, Hispanics, and Native Americans matriculating as a system using test scores and grades alone.

If UCLA's program was somewhat successful in helping to stem the decline in racial admissions, it was fabulously successful in creating greater socioeconomic diversity. In 1991, during the heyday of racial preferences at UCLA Law, Sander did a survey which found that in the national population of individuals in their twenties, those with families whose income was in excess of $200,000 were 50 times as likely to be UCLA students as individuals whose families were in poverty. These numbers track with law schools nationally, where a 1995 survey found that 41 percent of students had fathers with graduate degrees compared with 8 percent of men aged 45-64 in the general population. While law schools almost universally claim to seek socioeconomic along with racial diversity, Linda Wightman's study found that "schools are not currently placing special consideration or weight on SES factors in the admission process" After instituting the socioeconomic preference at UCLA, Sander says, "the resulting student body, as a whole, matched the American citizenry remarkably closely."

Socioeconomic diversity should, at least as much as racial diversity, enrich the academic discourse by bringing diverse experiences into the classroom. Arguably, a poor white student from a Tennessee farm might add more to the discussion in a law school class made up largely of upper-middle-class whites than a black corporate lawyer's son from Connecticut. Yet the emphasis on socioeconomic diversity is surprisingly out of fashion, Sander finds. Outside of his colleagues at UCLA, he says, "only one out of every 20 people I've talked to in the legal academy seem to attach value to the idea of economic diversity." Says Sander: "Schools that are willing to throw themselves into the fire to preserve racial effects act like class-based affirmative action is if anything a bad thing. `Why would we want all those low-class people here?' It's very odd."

The fact that UCLA's experiment with class-based affirmative action provided substantial SES diversity and some racial diversity is a very hopeful harbinger for its use in other academic settings. For one thing, as a top 20 law school, UCLA's racial preferences had been more substantial than those employed at less selective law schools -- or at most undergraduate colleges -- so the racial dividend of SES preferences was harder to sustain than it will be elsewhere. Moreover, Sander says, racial declines in California and Texas public universities were "much worse" than they might otherwise have been because UCLA, and others were competing for minority students against universities in 48 states (as well as against private universities in California and Texas) not subject to racial bans. Predictably, academically talented people of color shied away from California and Texas public law schools -- knowing that fewer people of color were going to be admitted and not wanting to find themselves racially isolated. The number of black applications at UCLA dropped by one-third, and this drop accounts for one-third of the decline in blacks admitted, Sander says.

If the U.S. Supreme Court overturns its 1978 decision in University of California Board of Regents v. Bakke -- so that all public and private universities are barred from using race in admissions -- class-based preferences would have a dramatic effect, Sander says. "If you look at the big picture of what would happen to American legal education if you did this systemically, the racial effects would be incredible." With a racial ban, studies find that blacks are likely to shuffle down two tiers in law schools, and large numbers won't attend at all, since unlike colleges there are no non-selective law schools. Using class-based affirmative action would stem that tide, Sander says, reducing the number of blacks no longer attending law school to those who might well have failed law school or the bar anyway. "Globally, the impacts are much greater than we're talking about here [at UCLA]."

Sander's numbers suggest that even with an improved class-based affirmative action system accounting for aggregate differences between black and white poverty and giving a generous SES boost, economic status does not entirely explain the black-white test score gap and so will not result in the same level of racial diversity as the old system of racial preferences. There is no better way to ensure an entering class that is, say, 8.2 percent African American than to count race per se. If the question is framed in terms of what provides the most efficient and ironclad way of guaranteeing a given racial representation, class is an imprecise proxy for race. But the whole point of recent court decisions and the vote in California on Proposition 209 is that people no longer accept the idea that we should mandate a given racial outcome, and fairness be damned. The fairness of racial preferences turns on whether the continuing racial gap, after factoring in economic obstacles, is due to discrimination, genetics, or culture.

As a matter of justice, one could argue, blacks should receive bonus points above and beyond any socioeconomic preference because they face discrimination not faced by whites. Granted, discrimination against an applicant's parents or grandparents in employment or housing is already captured by the economic preference for low family income and living in bad neighborhoods and attending bad schools. But what about the fact that black students themselves are more likely to be harassed by the police or by security guards in the mall or that they have difficulty getting a taxi -- all because they are black? These are highly troubling forms of discrimination, and our legal system must hold discriminators accountable by, for example, punishing offending cab drivers. But it is hard to see how this form of discrimination justifies a blanket preference for all African Americans and Latinos to Berkeley.

A more direct link might be shown if it were demonstrated that racist elementary and secondary teachers have unjustified lower expectations for black kids, which unfairly reduces their academic performance. This is a serious argument, if proven, but the proper remedy is better training of teachers. The problem with providing explicit racial preferences in university admissions to offset low expectations of K-12 teachers is that the very existence of such preferences may feed low expectations in the future. There is some evidence that the cure can promote the disease: Researchers find, for example, that the "mere mention" of affirmative action during polling can increase negative white responses about blacks generally. A final explanation might be test bias: that the SAT and LSAT are culturally biased and do not demonstrate the innate ability of students. The claim is certainly true -- the tests are culture-bound -- but it is highly important that all students be able to master mainstream American culture. As Alexander Bickel wrote: "Culture in the larger sense is what universities aim to transmit and what students must work and achieve in."

In any event, the Supreme Court does not allow universities to give preferences to African Americans on the presumption of societal discrimination. In practice, remedial preferences are normally available only if an individual applicant documents specific ways in which discrimination has made her academic record unpredictive of her long-term potential. Where such showings can be made, these individualized preferences based on racial discrimination (as opposed to race) are in my view fully justified; but that is quite different from adding large bonus points based on skin color across the board.

On the other extreme, there is the genetic explanation, an ugly theory that rears its head periodically, but has been thorough discredited on each occasion. It may be that some conservatives embrace racial preference precisely because they suspect that there are deep intractable genetic differences between racial groups, and preferences are the only way to keep the peace. Nathan Glazer, for example, responded to the argument made in The Bell Curve not by disputing its accuracy but by asking, "whether the untruth is not better for American society than the truth" At bottom, those who say class-based affirmative action won't produce additional racial diversity -- no matter how fair -- are too pessimistic about the abilities of black people.

A third possibility for the continuing test gap is cultural. As proponents of diversity themselves point out, race and ethnicity are rough proxies for culture, and cultural differences can be meaningful and significant. As a group, Asian-Americans are outperforming whites academically and constitute 38.3 percent of those admitted to Berkeley under the new race-blind admissions process, even though they make up only one ninth of the California population. Obviously, the fact that whites perform more poorly than Asian-Americans cannot be pinned on discrimination, and culture plays a significant role. This cultural factor is more mutable than genetics, but less responsive to public policy than discrimination.

In the end, then, a system of admissions that looks at talent plus obstacles seems to provide the best approximation of equal opportunity. On the means side, it is likely to comport with political, legal, and moral views of fairness. People accept the notion that the poor face obstacles, and are supportive of the progressive income tax but would likely balk at a higher marginal tax rate for whites than blacks. According to a December 1997 New York Times poll, Americans reject racial preferences 52-35 percent but in the event of their demise, support preferences for the poor by 53-37 percent. On the result side, class-based affirmative action will produce more racial diversity than straight reliance on tests and grades; less racial diversity than a reliance on racial preference; and more socioeconomic diversity than either approach. Rather than covering up an unjustified reliance on test scores (that ignores background unfairness) with cosmetic racial preferences, we should harness the desire for inclusion to ensure that the entire system is more just.

The experience at UCLA shows that while there is some tension between justice and ethnic proportionality, between genuine equal opportunity and equal group results, there is not an iron-clad contradiction, as the racial pessimists have been insisting. Fairness -- genuinely and aggressively sought after -- is compatible with, indeed helps secure, important measures of racial and economic diversity.

Richard D. Kahlenberg is a fellow at the Twentieth Century Fund and author of The Remedy: Class, Race, and Affirmative Action.
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Author:Kahlenberg, Richard D.
Publication:Washington Monthly
Date:Jun 1, 1998
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