ROCKVILLE, Md. — For the college class he teaches on inequality, Richard D. Kahlenberg likes to ask his students about a popular yard sign.
“In This House We Believe: Black Lives Matter, Women’s Rights Are Human Rights, No Human Is Illegal, Science Is Real,” it says.
His students usually dismiss the sign as performative. But what bothers Mr. Kahlenberg is not the virtue signaling.
“It says nothing about class,” he tells them. “Nothing about labor rights. Nothing about housing. Nothing that would actually cost upper-middle-class white liberals a dime.”
Since picking up a memoir of Robert F. Kennedy at a garage sale his senior year of high school, Mr. Kahlenberg, 59, has cast himself as a liberal champion of the working class. For three decades, his work, largely at a progressive think tank, has used empirical research and historical narrative to argue that the working class has been left behind.
That same research led him to a conclusion that has proved highly unpopular within his political circle: that affirmative action is best framed not as a race issue, but as a class issue.
In books, articles and academic papers, Mr. Kahlenberg has spent decades arguing for a different vision of diversity, one based in his 1960s idealism. He believes that had they lived, Kennedy and the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. would have pursued a multiracial coalition of poor and working class people, a Poor People’s Campaign that worked together toward the same goal of economic advancement in education, employment and housing.
Race-conscious affirmative action, while it may be well intentioned, does just the opposite, he says — aligning with the interests of wealthy students, and creating racial animosity.
With class-conscious affirmative action, “Will there be people in Scarsdale who are annoyed that working-class people are getting a break? Probably,” he said in an interview. “But the vast majority of Americans support the idea, and you see it across the political spectrum.”
His advocacy has brought him to an uncomfortable place. The Supreme Court is widely expected to strike down race-conscious affirmative action this year in cases against Harvard and the University of North Carolina. He has joined forces with the plaintiff, Students for Fair Admissions, run by a conservative activist; the group has paid him as an expert witness and relied on his research to support the idea that there is a constitutional “race-neutral alternative” to the status quo.
That alliance has cost him his position as a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, the liberal-leaning think tank where he had found a home for 24 years, according to friends and colleagues. (Mr. Kahlenberg said he left to pursue new opportunities and would not elaborate; the Century Foundation did not return a request for comment.)
Critics dispute everything from his statistics to his rosy outlook on politics. They say that the concept of race-neutral diversity underestimates how racism is embedded in American life. They say that class-conscious affirmative action will bring its own set of problems as universities try to maintain high academic standards.
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And they argue that his class-based solution could backfire.
“It may well be where we wake up,” said Douglas Laycock, a law professor at the University of Virginia who has been involved in litigation on the side of universities. “But if you get rid of affirmative action, then you create racial hostility in the other direction.”
Mr. Kahlenberg is unfazed.
“I think people will have to come around,” he said, “because class will be the only game in town.”
The Harvard Legacy
Mr. Kahlenberg’s own life shows the complicated calculus of college admissions.
He grew up in White Bear Lake, Minn., a suburb of St. Paul, where his father was a liberal Presbyterian minister and his mother was on the school board. His father had gone to Harvard, and when he came of age, so did Mr. Kahlenberg. His grandfather paid for his college tuition.
Decades later, he seemed a little defensive about possibly having benefited from the “tip” that Harvard gives to the children of alumni.
“This will sound incredibly insecure or something, but I was gratified that I got into Yale and Princeton, because it made me feel like, OK, it wasn’t just legacy, hopefully,” he said.
Around the time he was accepted to Harvard, he was smitten by a memoir of R.F.K. by the Village Voice journalist Jack Newfield. Mr. Kahlenberg wrote his senior thesis on Kennedy’s campaign for president. And today, a nicked and scratched poster of his idol hangs in his study at home.
At Harvard, Mr. Kahlenberg was surrounded by “immense wealth,” he recalled. “I didn’t feel like an outsider. I was second-generation Harvard, I was upper middle class and a lot of my friends went to boarding school.”
But his roommate, who came from more modest circumstances, “helped educate me on the idea that working-class white people had a raw deal in this country, too,” he said.
Mr. Kahlenberg studied government and went on to Harvard Law School, where he wrote a paper about class-based affirmative action, advised by Alan Dershowitz, his professor, known for defending unpopular causes and clients.
The paper inspired him to write his influential 1996 book, “The Remedy,” which developed his theory that affirmative action had set back race relations by becoming a source of racial antagonism.
“If you want working-class white people to vote their race, there’s probably no better way to do it than to give explicitly racial preferences in deciding who gets ahead in life,” he said. “If you want working-class whites to vote their class, you would try to remind them that they have a lot in common with working-class Black and Hispanic people.”
The book caused a stir, in part because of the timing. California voters adopted a ban on affirmative action in public colleges and universities the same year. Such bans have since spread to eight other states, and California voters reaffirmed it in 2020.
Today, as in the mid-1990s, polls show that a majority of people oppose race-conscious college admissions, even as they support racial diversity. Public opinion may not always be right, Mr. Kahlenberg said, but surely it should be considered when developing public policy.
What has changed, he said, is the political environment. Universities and politicians and activists have hardened their positions on affirmative action.
And the Supreme Court supported them, at least until now.
A Different Measure of Diversity
If Mr. Kahlenberg had his way, college admissions would be upended.
His basic recipe: Get rid of preferences for alumni children, as well as children of faculty, staff and big donors. Say goodbye to recruited athletes in boutique sports like fencing. Increase community college transfers. Give a break to students who have excelled in struggling schools, who have grown up in neighborhoods of concentrated poverty, in families with low income, or better yet, low net worth. Pump up financial aid. Look for applicants in towns that do not normally send students to highly selective colleges.
It’s an expensive punch list and requires more financial aid for working class and poor students, which is the main reason, he believes, that universities have not rushed to embrace it.
Meanwhile, elite colleges have become fortresses for the rich, he said. Harvard had “23 times as many rich kids as poor kids,” Mr. Kahlenberg testified in 2018 at the federal court trial in the Harvard case, referring to a 2017 paper by Raj Chetty, then a Stanford economist, and colleagues.
Mr. Kahlenberg said the civil rights movement has made strides, while overall, poor people have been left further behind. He points to studies that found that the achievement gap in standardized test scores between rich and poor children is now roughly twice the size of the gap between Black and white children, the opposite of 60 years ago.
He said his theories are working in states with affirmative action bans, pointing to his 2012 study that found seven of 10 leading universities were able to return to previous levels of diversity through race-neutral means.
Even the University of California, Berkeley, which was having trouble achieving its pre-ban levels of diversity, has made progress, he said. In 2020, Berkeley boasted that it had admitted its most diverse class in 30 years, with offers to African American and Latino students rising to the highest numbers since at least the late-1980s, without sacrificing academic standards.
Mr. Kahlenberg’s analysis of Harvard’s outlook is also optimistic.
In a simulation of the class of 2019, he found that the share of Black students at Harvard would drop to 10 percent from 14 percent, but the share of white students would also drop, to 33 percent from percent from 40 percent, mainly because of the elimination of legacy and other preferences. The share of Hispanic students would rise to 19 percent from 14 percent and the Asian American share would rise to 31 percent from 24 percent.
The share of “advantaged” students (parents with a bachelor’s degree, family income over $80,000, living in a neighborhood not burdened by concentrated poverty) would make up about half of the class, from 82 percent. SAT scores would drop to the 98th percentile from the 99th.
Because he is focused on class-based diversity, Mr. Kahlenberg is satisfied with these results, but for many educators, the rise in low-income students does not make up for a drop in Black students.
Harvard, for instance, says it crafts every class carefully, looking for diversity of life experiences, interests and new ideas — and to cultivate potential leaders of society. Fewer Black students make that mission harder.
In the affirmative action trial, Harvard said that Mr. Kahlenberg’s model would produce too little diversity, and water down academic quality. Its actual class of 2026 is 15.2 percent African American, 12.6 percent Hispanic and 27.9 percent Asian American.
Universities should not turn to class-conscious admissions, “under the illusion that it will automatically produce high levels of racial diversity,” said Sean Reardon, an empirical sociologist at Stanford.
“It’s just sort of the math of it,” Dr. Reardon said. “Even though the poverty rates are higher among Blacks and Hispanics, there are still more poor whites in the country.”
Dr. Reardon does not dispute that society should provide more educational opportunity for low-income students. But, he said, “I think in recent years, there’s been much more of a perspective that there’s structural racism in America society. The idea that race and racial differences are sort of explainable by class differences is no longer the dominant idea.”
An Uneasy Alliance
Edward Blum, the conservative activist behind the lawsuits against Harvard and U.N.C., said Mr. Kahlenberg came to his attention when “The Remedy” was published. The focus on class seemed like a powerful bridge between the left and the right, Mr. Blum said.
“If we’re going to agree on one thing,” he said, “it is that colleges and universities should consider lowering the bar a little bit for kids from disadvantaged backgrounds, who are maybe the first in their family to attend college, who come from very modest if not low-income households.”
“I don’t know who could be against that,” he said. “That’s the unifying theme that Rick Kahlenberg — he’s the godfather of it.”
Although the two men have had a long correspondence, Mr. Kahlenberg said they are more strange bedfellows than ideological soul mates, and that his views have been unfairly conflated with Mr. Blum’s.
“If the choice were race-based preferences or nothing, I would be for race-based preferences,” Mr. Kahlenberg said, his delivery more emotional than usual. “For those who think in terms of guilt by association, that point is lost.”
There are those who think that Mr. Kahlenberg is being used by Mr. Blum, who has made a specialty of challenging laws that he believes confer advantages or disadvantages by race. He orchestrated a lawsuit that led to the Supreme Court gutting a key section of the Voting Rights Act, and was responsible for litigation against the University of Texas, charging discrimination against a white applicant, which failed.
Dr. Laycock, of the University of Virginia, expects that once the Supreme Court rules, conservative groups that are now promoting race-neutral alternatives will claim they are racial proxies and turn against them. “Everybody knows that’s why it’s being used,” he said. (Mr. Blum says his group will not, though other conservative groups could do so.)
In other words, that Kennedy- and King-style multiracial coalition may not come easily.
Since leaving the Century Foundation, Mr. Kahlenberg still consults for the organization on housing. He has a few unpaid gigs at the Progressive Policy Institute and at Georgetown.
He recently moved from Bethesda, Md., to a modest house in Rockville, now strewn with baby toys from a visiting daughter and grandchild. Mr. Kahlenberg’s wife, Rebecca, works with homeless people.
There is no “We Believe” sign in the yard. But on the living room wall, a sign says, “Live simply, dream big, be grateful, give love, laugh lots.”
In that spirit, his stubborn campaign might be traced to being the son of a pastor whose family could afford to make him a Harvard graduate, twice over. “I do have some measure of class guilt,” he said. “I wish people who are far richer than I am had more class guilt.”
Kitty Bennett and Jack Begg contributed research.