In his slender new book, The Trouble With Diversity, Michaels writes, “Although no remark is more common in American public life than the observation that we don’t like to talk about race, no remark ... is more false.” He explains, “[I]n fact, we love to talk about race. And, in the university, not only do we talk about it; we write books and articles about it, we teach and take classes about it, and we arrange our admissions policies in order to take it into account.”One of the more fascinating institutional mechanisms to promote inequality is the identification of "special needs" students. It is yet another layer of classism that supersedes even the rich and poor divide separating Americans.
Subscribe Online & Save 33%We don’t use class as a proxy for race, Michaels says; we use race as a proxy for class. Indeed, we talk incessantly about race in part, he argues, to avoid talking about class.
Affirmative action in college admissions is a perfect example of what Michaels is talking about. A 2004 Century Foundation study by the researchers Anthony Carnevale and Stephen Rose found that racial affirmative action at 146 of the nation’s most selective colleges and universities ensured that three times as many African American and Latino students got in than would have based on grades and test scores alone. By contrast, while virtually every university will tell you that they also give a preference to low-income students who overcome obstacles, Carnevale and Rose found that economically disadvantaged applicants receive no boost in admissions. Former Princeton President William Bowen’s study of selective institutions came to the same conclusion. Most (though not all) of those universities that pursue class-based affirmative action do so because they are banned from using race. They are less interested in aiding poor students per se than in trying indirectly to produce racial diversity.
As a result, while selective colleges and universities have made some significant (though still insufficient) strides in diversity by race, poor kids are virtually absent on their campuses. Michaels cites Carnevale and Rose’s finding that at the institutions studied, just 3 percent of students came from the lowest socioeconomic quarter of the population, while 74 percent came from the richest quarter—a 1:25 ratio. These disparities have moved a few higher education leaders—Princeton’s Bowen, former Harvard President Lawrence Summers, and Amherst President Anthony Marx, for example—to call for socioeconomic affirmative action. The primary focus in higher education, however, remains on race.
Consider the reaction to a recent report that the University of California at Los Angeles had admitted a freshman class that was just 2 percent African American. Appropriately, the story received heavy press coverage. A commission was formed, and action plans were detailed to address the problem. For black students to be underrepresented by a factor of six (blacks constitute about 12 percent of the U.S. population) was rightly considered unacceptable. But according to Carnevale’s research, poor children are underrepresented by a factor of eight—and not just on one campus, but at selective colleges nationwide. Where is the outrage about that?
Some accept class inequality at universities as a manifestation of merit discrepancies. David Brooks claims that “the rich don’t exploit the poor, they just outcompete them.” Michaels bitingly replies: “And if outcompeting people means tying their ankles together and loading them down with extra weight while hiring yourself the most expensive coaches and the best practice facilities, [Brooks is] right.”
Consider another area of controversy—one now before the U.S. Supreme Court: the issue of school integration in elementary and secondary education. The social science research has long found that if a school wants to boost academic achievement, getting the right economic mix is vital. Racial integration boosted black test scores in places like Charlotte, North Carolina, but not in places like Boston, Massachusetts, because in Charlotte, blacks went to school with middle-class whites, and in Boston they went to school with poor and working-class whites. The research is clear: blacks don’t necessarily do better when they sit next to whites, but poor kids do better in middle-class schools, where they are surrounded by peers who have big dreams and plan to go to college, parents who monitor and volunteer at the school, and good teachers with high expectations.
Nevertheless, school integration is usually seen as an issue of race, not class, even after most districts have been released from court-ordered desegregation plans addressing the vestiges of past segregation. Hundreds of districts use race as a factor in student assignment; only about forty look at socioeconomic status. And, as with affirmative action in higher education, much of the interest in income integration in those districts is that it will produce a racial dividend in a way that the courts consider perfectly legal.
Finally, consider the Bush administration’s outrageous response to Hurricane Katrina. Most commentators emphasized the race of the New Orleans residents who were left behind. Cornel West, for example, declared, “Let’s be honest, we live in one of the bleakest moments in the history of black people in this nation.” He went on to describe conditions in the Superdome, where many of the homeless residents were temporarily housed, as “a living hell for black people.” But Michaels rejects the “George Bush doesn’t care about black people” theory, pointing out that “Nobody doubts that George Bush cares about Condoleezza Rice.” Instead the lesson is, Michaels says, that Bush doesn’t care about poor people—or at least doesn’t care about poverty. Michaels writes, “We like blaming racism, but the truth is that there weren’t too many rich black people left behind when everybody who could get out of New Orleans did so.”
The obvious retort to Michaels’s line of thinking—and to the entire race vs. class debate—is: Why not address both? Discrimination and deprivation, and prejudice and poverty, are distinct ills, and all need to be fought. Pitting race against class is a false choice, noted Alan Wolfe in Slate magazine: “Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society, the highpoint of postwar liberalism, featured both a Civil Rights Act and a War on Poverty.” On one level, Wolfe’s criticism is obviously true. There is absolutely no conflict between enforcing antidiscrimination laws and fighting poverty—they are complementary and mutually reinforcing efforts. Likewise, on the school integration issue, one can favor socioeconomic integration to raise academic achievement and also favor explicit measures for racial integration to further the role of the public schools in fostering tolerance and social cohesion.
But as Michaels points out, many of those who say we need to simultaneously address race and class never get around to the class piece of the bargain. For example, when its affirmative action program was under attack, the University of Michigan made a big point of saying that it was concerned about both racial and economic diversity. But while it kept meticulous records of racial diversity, it hasn’t even had benchmarks in place for measuring economic diversity. As Michaels notes, “[C]lass has always seemed a little like the odd man out in the race/gender/class trinity.”
Moreover, Michaels charges, many wealthy people support affirmative action by race to avoid deeper issues of class. They want to contain the debate to the question of “what color skin the rich kids should have.” At Harvard, Michaels notes, almost 90 percent of students come from the top economic half of the population, and almost three quarters from the top fifth. If Harvard were to aggressively use class-based affirmative action, more than half of the students would lose out. “It’s no wonder that rich white kids and their parents aren’t complaining about diversity,” Michaels concludes.
Similarly, Michaels argues that conservatives prefer the debate to be over race and identity—rather than class and inequality—because the policy solutions are much cheaper. Corporate America, in particular, has embraced diversity, he says, because “the obligations of diversity (being nice to each other)” are far easier to address than “the obligations of equality (giving up our money).” Even class inequality is now discussed as an issue of “classism” rather than deprivation. He explains, “Classism is what you’re a victim of not because you’re poor but because people aren’t nice to you because you’re poor.” But Michaels argues that the deeper problem is not “classism”—that poor kids are “made to feel uncomfortable on the campuses of Duke, Northwestern, and Harvard”—but that most low-income students “have never set foot on these campuses or on any other.” He writes, “So for thirty years, while the gap between rich and poor has grown larger, we’ve been urged to respect people’s identities—as if the problem of poverty would be solved if we just appreciated the poor.”
The truth of the matter is that all children in America are special and deserve their own Individualized Education Plans (IEP) but these are reserved only for a special class of student, the handicapped or disabled or popularly diseased. And for this class of student no expense is too great to somehow even the educational playing field.
Yet, severely poor children are no more responsible for their plight than the handicapped child. No special programs are showered on these children, no IEPs are developed to level the playing field. The underclass must be kept under.
More and more this underclass is creeping into the former middle-class populations. As our national and State debts rise to drown us, we may begin to recognize class distinctions much more sharply and wish we had acted to remedy the situation long before it became a crisis.
But that would require foresight and courage and that "vision thing" that remains America's most pressing national disability.