Education

Education Policy and the Separate Roles of Race and Social Class in Inequality

Blog Post by: , on February 13, 2013

In Monday morning’s Chronicle of Higher Education, Rick Kahlenberg makes a case for class-based affirmative action in U.S. colleges and universities.

Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at TCF, joins a number of political pundits, academics, and policymakers who see the writing on the wall: the Supreme Court’s ruling on Fisher v. University of Texas later this year is likely to dismantle race-based affirmative action in higher education. This would parallel a ruling in a 2007 case that prevents K-12 schools from reassigning students on the basis of race to achieve diversity.

Kahlenberg is a leading voice in an increasingly-common chorus arguing that social class is now a more important factor in inequality than race. Recent research in a number of areas supports this belief. In a 2011 article in the American Journal of Sociology, Sean Reardon at Stanford University and Kendra Bischoff at Cornell University found that over the past five decades residential segregation by income has sharply increased. Due to school assignment policies, this spatial arrangement potentially leads to more class similarities within schools but greater class differences between schools. Not surprisingly, Dr. Reardon has also found that while black-white test score gaps have declined and stabilized over this time period, such gaps based on social class have increased.

However, just because the United States elected its first-ever black president does not mean that racial inequality has disappeared. An unnerving number of research studies in the past few years have found strong evidence of continued racial discrimination. These experiments have found that politicians are less likely to respond to emails from black rather than white names, landlords discriminate against racial minorities in rental housing, and employers in low wage markets call back whites more often than blacks for job interviews.  

My own research shows that racial discrimination exists even for those at the pinnacle of educational success: black job applicants with a Harvard degree are much less likely to receive responses from employers than white applicants with a Harvard degree. In other research with colleague Raj Ghoshal, we find that Craigslist users looking for a roommate are much less likely to respond to emails from black users, even after controlling for social class in a number of important ways.

The evidence is clear to me. Yes, social class background is a critically important factor driving inequality today. However, race still plays an independent role in shaping the opportunities of young people.  

Nationally representative data from the past two decades show that blacks, Hispanics, and individuals from families in the bottom half of the income distribution are severely underrepresented at the most prestigious universities. Our education policies at all levels should be aimed at improving the opportunities for individuals in these groups. Affirmative action policy in higher education is a stopgap measure and one that is likely to disappear soon.

We must be prepared to address inequality earlier in the educational pipeline with aggressive education policy. However, to do so, we must first recognize that both race and social class still matter in our society. Education policy at the PreK-12 level should provide all children with great teachers, adequate funding, maintained infrastructure, and a variety of resources to inspire them to go to college. In response to possibly losing affirmative action in higher education, let's do what we should have done all along: let's repair the system from the ground up.

Tags: socioeconomic integration, race, kahlenberg, education,

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