Time for a New Strategy

In wake of Michigan vote on affirmative action, proponents of racial and economic justice in higher education need a new approach, says Richard D. Kahlenberg.


November 10, 2006

Tuesday’s election results offered much for liberals like me to celebrate, but balloting in Michigan was a reminder that proponents of racial and economic justice in higher education need a new strategy.

On election day, an anti-affirmative action initiative passed easily in Michigan, just as similar ballot initiatives prevailed in California in 1996 and the state of Washington in 1998. Taken together with Florida -- where Gov. Jeb Bush preempted a threatened ballot initiative with a 1999 executive order banning racial preferences -- the Michigan result means that four states, with nearly one quarter of the U.S. population, have now banned preferential affirmative action for minorities and women in public universities and state government. Ward Connerly, the conservative black businessman who has backed each of these efforts, is now considering taking his cause to additional states, including Colorado, Illinois, Oregon and Missouri.

Supporters of affirmative action had a lot going for them in Michigan. Virtually the entire state establishment opposed the ban on preferences, including businesses, labor unions, civil rights groups, religious organizations, the higher education community, and both Republican and Democratic gubernatorial candidates. These groups helped supporters of affirmative action outspend opponents by a three to one ratio.

But virtually unified support for affirmative action among major organized groups did not translate into popular support. The elite strategy worked well in the U.S. Supreme Court three years earlier when the University of Michigan’s defense of the constitutionality of affirmative action prevailed. Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, the swing vote in Grutter v. Bollinger, which upheld affirmative action in the university’s law school, cited amicus briefs from the military and business communities as especially persuasive. And O’Connor chose to defer to higher education in its contention that no race-neutral alternatives were sufficient to produce racial diversity. But Michigan voters were not similarly persuaded and, with Tuesday’s balloting, effectively repudiated O’Connor’s position on affirmative action at the University of Michigan.

Nor did a shift in wording of the ballot initiative help supporters of affirmative action. The initiatives in California and Washington, drawing heavily on the wording of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, banned discrimination or preferences without using the phrase "affirmative action." Some were understandably concerned that voters were confused in those earlier initiatives because they did not realize they were banning affirmative preferences on behalf of disadvantaged minority groups. But adding the phrase "affirmative action" didn’t appear to help much. On Tuesday, Michigan passed the initiative by 58 to 42 percent -- a 16 point margin that in a presidential election would be considered a landslide.

Some portion of initiative supporters may well have been voting to keep minorities "in their place." But as a whole, Michigan voters could hardly be written off as right-wing, racist and sexist yahoos. The same electorate that easily passed the ban on preferential affirmative action re-elected Gov. Jennifer Granholm and U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow, both Democrats and women, by comfortable margins. A study released in the days before the election by the conservative Center for Equal Opportunity -- finding that applicants to the University of Michigan in 2005 with an SAT score of 1240 and a GPA of 3.2 had a 10 percent chance of admissions if they were white or Asian but a 90 percent chance if they were black -- undoubtedly moved some voters.

Given the results in Michigan, it is hard to see how affirmative can prevail in future initiative battles. Despite broad, bipartisan support for affirmative action among elites, a substantial financial advantage, favorable ballot language, and a political climate congenial to Democrats, affirmative action still took a beating at the polls. Faced with these realities of public opinion, what should those concerned about racial and economic justice in higher education do?

Next Steps

To begin with, higher education must rediscover its commitment to the American Dream. The public supports higher education because it sees colleges and universities as a key to social mobility. The public wants to reward students who work hard, especially those who overcome obstacles to succeed. The language -- and practice -- of college and university admissions ignores this fundamental truth. Instead of speaking about deeply held values -- equal opportunity, the chance to improve one’s position through hard work -- the higher education establishment has rallied around a different concept: "Diversity." On Wednesday, the University of Michigan’s president, Mary Sue Coleman, began a speech to the university community saying, "Diversity matters at Michigan, today more than any day in our history." She concluded, "Let’s stand together to say: We are Michigan and we are diversity." In between, she invoked diversity 19 other times.

Diversity is surely an important and positive value in education and in other areas of life. But diversity is a result, which tells you nothing per se about whether the process of admissions was fair. The diversity argument for affirmative action was favored by the moderately conservative Supreme Court Justice, Lewis Powell, in the 1978 Bakke case that initially established the precedent that it was legitimate for colleges to use race as a factor in admissions. The great liberal giants on the court, like Thurgood Marshall and William Brennan, were far more concerned about racial justice. Relying on a university’s right to assemble a diverse class, rather than society’s need for justice and fairness, saps the civil rights movement of its greatest strength: its moral authority.

Restoring the central place of the American Dream offers up some new possibilities. In 2003, the Los Angeles Times and Newsweek conducted some interesting polling that found that Americans opposed racial preferences by about 2 to 1, but they supported preferences based on income by about the same margin. Even conservatives -- from George Allen to Newt Gingrich to Ward Connerly -- say they support affirmative action based on class. Progressives may well want to call their bluff. Arguing that admissions officers should provide affirmative action to low-income and working class kids of all races who work hard and do fairly well comports well with the public’s understanding of the American Dream.

Yet most American colleges and universities do not practice class-based affirmative action, their rhetoric notwithstanding. In a study published by the Century Foundation in 2004, the researchers Anthony Carnevale and Stephen Rose found that affirmative action triples the representation of black and Latino students at the nation’s most selective 146 colleges and universities, but there is essentially no boost given to low income and working class students. Princeton University’s former president, William Bowen, came to the same conclusion in his study of a smaller group of elite universities.

As a result, low-income students are effectively shut out of selective campuses. Carnevale and Rose found that at the selective 146 colleges and universities they studied, 74 percent of students come from the richest economic quartile and just 3 percent from the poorest. It’s hard to reconcile the 25:1 ratio of rich to poor as consistent with the American Dream. And economically disadvantaged students aren’t absent because they are incapable of succeeding. Carnevale and Rose found that you could boost the representation of the bottom socioeconomic half from 10 percent to 38 percent, through admissions preferences based on socioeconomic status and that these students would graduate at rates equivalent to those currently attending selective colleges.

Importantly, many of those smart, hard working kids who overcome obstacles and deserve to be admitted are students of color. Carnevale and Rose found that class-based affirmative action would boost the combined representation of black and Latino students from the 4 percent who would be admitted based strictly on grades and test scores to 10 percent. This is somewhat below the current 12 percent representation that is now achieved with race-sensitive admissions at the 146 selective colleges.

But if additional factors of economic disadvantage not considered by Carnevale and Rose were added into the admissions calculus -- such as having a small or negative net worth, or growing up in a neighborhood of concentrated poverty -- the racial dividend from socioeconomic affirmative action would be even greater. At UCLA Law School, which used a class-based affirmative action program that considered wealth among other factors, African Americans were 16 times as likely to be admitted under the socioeconomic program as through the normal race and class-blind admissions process.

Part of the resistance to class-based affirmative action is that its colorblind approach is seen as suggesting that racism is no longer a problem, a thing of the past. But in fact, class-based programs incorporate not only the legacy of past discrimination but also the reality of current day discrimination. Take the wealth measure, for example. Black median net worth is just 12 percent of white net worth, a gap far greater than the income divide between races. To some significant degree, the wealth gap reflects both the legacy of past discrimination and continuing discrimination in the housing market. Houses in African American neighborhoods appreciate slower than in white neighborhoods because of housing discrimination.

The American public is not opposed to taking affirmative steps to help students who have faced disadvantages. Efforts to promote the American Dream -- by giving a leg up to disadvantaged students of all races -- will win far broader public support than race-specific efforts that are justified on the basis of diversity per se. How many defeats like the one in Michigan are required before progressives wake up to this reality?


Richard D. Kahlenberg, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, is author of The Remedy: Class, Race, and Affirmative Action (1996) and editor of America’s Untapped Resource: Low-Income Students in Higher Education (2004).


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