Richard Kahlenberg Talks Affirmative Action

By Eliza Silverman ‘14Copy Editor

On March 8, scholar and senior fellow of the Century Foundation Richard Kahlenberg presented a unique take on affirmative action as part of the Scripps Humanities Institute’s Spring lecture series “The Future of Higher Education: Gender, Geography and The Humanities.”

In his speech, Kahlenberg said that it is more constitutional to have affirmative action based on class rather than race, because race is a “suspect classification according to the supreme court” Kahlenberg said that a very valid reason would be needed to categorize based on race, and class-based categories make more sense. Kahlenberg cited income tax returns as an example of a legitimized constitutional means for “treating people differently based on income.”

Kahlenberg also referenced the re-segregation that has occurred in recent decades: the Supreme Court has allowed most districts to go back to neighborhood schools, which concentrates low-income students in one district and has detrimental effects on the quality of education standard in those districts. Low-income students comprise the majority of the demographic in low-income school districts. The non-minority students in these low-income brackets, argued Kahlenberg, should not be overlooked in affirmative action efforts. Superintendents and government officials alike should consider these non-minority students as just as underprivileged as their minority peers.

“We do not want to create low expectations for kids of low socioeconomic status, and we must consider as a nation where they will be given the best chance to succeed,” he said.

Kahlenberg did not, however, propose a complete integration of low and high socioeconomic districts. He cited Chicago as an example of the folly of combining all districts into one umbrella organization. In Chicago, 85 percent of families are living below the poverty line. If districts in Chicago were to be completely integrated, every child would go to a low income school. The ratio of low- to high-income institutions would be stark.

Kahlenberg offered a knowledgeable and progressive perspective on affirmative action, a controversial and pertinent issue in America today.

Richard Kahlenberg is a Senior Fellow at the Century Foundation and author of four books: “Tough Liberal: Albert Shanker and the Battles Over Schools;” “Unions, Race and Democracy; All Together Now: Creating Middle Class Schools through Public School Choice;” “The Remedy: Class, Race, and Affirmative Action” and “Broken Contract: A Memoir of Harvard Law School.” Kahlenberg was previously a Fellow at the Center for National Policy and a legislative assistant to Senator Charles S. Robb. He is a  graduate of Harvard College and Harvard Law School and Rotary Scholar of the University of Nairobi School of Journalism.