I co-wrote a review of Richard Kehlenberg's bio of Albert Shanker - Tough Liberal - I never consider liberals as being left.
The Liberal Maverick Fighting Race-Based Affirmative Action
For decades, Richard Kahlenberg has pushed for a class-conscious approach to college admissions. He may finally get his wish, but it comes at a personal cost.
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 and the Century Foundation said he left to pursue new opportunities and would not elaborate.)
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.
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.”