Two scholars debate race- versus class-based affirmative action


Middlebury welcomed two scholars to debate whether affirmative action in higher education should be class-based or race-based on Wednesday, Nov. 20. The event, which nearly filled Dana Auditorium, was co-sponsored by the Middlebury Independent, the Alexander Hamilton Forum and the Political Science Department. The debate was moderated by Joey Lyons ’21, the founder and editor-in-chief of the Independent.

At the event, Randall Kennedy, a professor at the Harvard Law School, argued in favor of race-based affirmative action. Kennedy is the author of seven books, most notably “For Affirmative Action: Race, Affirmative Action and the Law.”

Richard Khalenberg, the director of K-12 equity and a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, spoke in favor of class-based affirmative action. Kahlenberg has written extensively on affirmative action, having authored six books, including  “The Remedy: Class, Race, Affirmative Action.”

Kennedy took the podium first at the event to deliver his stance on race-based affirmative action. 

“I champion such policies because, on balance, they are conducive to the public good,” he said.  

Kennedy said during the debate that race-based affirmative action can be used as a form of distributive justice to integrate people from marginalized communities into educational and political spaces where they have historically had little access. This helps facilitate reparative justice, a philosophy by which systems are able to right historical wrongs and benefit people who have and continue to be disadvantaged and oppressed. 

Kennedy added that race-based affirmative action also provides insurance against ongoing racial discrimination.

“We know there is an invisible wind of racism in American society,” Kennedy said. “It’s a wind but you can’t catch it through litigation. Affirmative action gives preference to those who are marching forward in the face of that stiff, racist wind.”

The most popular argument in favor of race-based affirmative action, according to Kennedy, is that it promotes diversity in higher education. By ensuring a racially heterogeneous atmosphere, college campuses create a space for good conversations across a wide range of views.

Kennedy also reflected on his experiences as a black man who frequently speaks about race-based affirmative action at public events. He said he is often asked to speak on the issue among many others who disagree with him.

“Over the years I have been to many forums that are actually very hostile to affirmative action, yet they sought me out,” he said. “I think my blackness was part of the reason they sought me out, is that if they had a debate about affirmative action and not have a black person involved at all, it would be weird, it would be viewed as illegitimate, no one would pay much attention.”

“The trend of legitimation is part of the affirmative action conversation,” he added.

Kennedy also emphasized that he is in favor of all varieties of affirmative action, ranging from race to gender to class, because the policy is one of inclusivity and mutual support.         

“Affirmative action, just like any other policy, has weaknesses and it has costs. There is no social policy that is costless,” Kennedy said. “You can have affirmative action policies that are badly designed, you can have stupid affirmative action. On balance, well designed affirmative action has served the nation well.”

Next, Kahlenberg took the podium and began by stating the similarities he shares with Kennedy — namely that they both support racial and class diversity on campus. However, he differed on the means by which to achieve equality on campuses. 

Kahlenberg made what he called a moral argument in favor of class-based affirmative action in higher education 

“Colleges have racial diversity but no income diversity,” he said. “Multiracial aristocracy is still aristocracy.”

Kahlenberg traced his argument back to Martin Luther King Jr., who himself struggled with endorsing affirmative action. In King’s book “Why We Can’t Wait,” King wrote that ending discrimination is not enough, but the nation is in need of a proactive remedy. King wanted to alleviate discrimination for disadvantaged people of all races, and said this indirect remedy would also disproportionally benefit the racially overlooked.

“Two insights here,” Kahlenberg said. “One is that a class-based affirmative action would provide an indirect remedy to past discrimination because it’s the victims [of racial discrimination] who are disproportionally poor and will disproportionately benefit. The other insight is that there are other sources of unfairness in American life; there is also deprivation.”

Legally, Kahlenberg believes class-based affirmative action is more readily accepted in the eyes of the court. Currently, institutions such as Harvard University and the University of North Carolina are engaged in court cases over affirmative action. Kahlenberg sees hope for a class-based alternative.

“Class-based affirmative action, properly structured, can provide racial diversity as well. The good news [is that] legally, the Supreme Court treats race and class differently,” Kahlenberg said. “A supreme court that is striking down the use of race that favors students of color is very unlikely to strike down a policy that gives preference to low income students.”

Politically, class-based affirmative action can also band together a larger coalition of supporters, according to Kahlenberg. 61% of people think it’s appropriate to conduct class-based affirmative action, compared to 37% of people who support the policy through race, according to a handout that Kahlenberg distributed during his talk

“Whereas race-based affirmative action divides the progressive coalition, class based affirmative action reminds the working class of different races what they have in common,” he said.  

In his rebuttal to Kahlenberg, Kennedy argued that despite affirmative action being a relatively niche political issue, the uproar it elicits demonstrates the insecurities and permanence of white privilege today. 

Kahlenberg responded by saying that the specific difficulties of achieving socio-economic diversity make class-based affirmative action the sole solution. While race is readily visible, class differences are more discreet, and institutions are more willing to disregard class because financial aid is expensive. Only when race-based affirmative action is eliminated, Kahlenberg argued, will higher education place an emphasis on socio-economic diversity.

According to Lyons, this topic is especially salient to Middlebury because he believes the college can benefit from increased racial and economic diversity. Lyons was pleased by the debate between the speakers. 

“The Middlebury community benefits when we can debate in good faith,” Lyons said. “Two people with opposing views provided convincing arguments for their positions. Every student I talked to said they learned a lot from this competition of ideas.”