Affirmative action for income inequities

September 23, 2005|By Jerome Karabel

It should be a national scandal that students from privileged families are 25 times more likely than their less-advantaged peers to attend the nation's top colleges and universities. Little noticed amid the torrent of coverage about the disaster in New Orleans has been the approach of the 40th anniversary tomorrow of a major event in the history of American race relations.

President Lyndon B. Johnson, in an act that recognized the deep racial fault lines most recently thrust to the surface by Hurricane Katrina, signed Executive Order 11246, which required federal contractors to take "affirmative action" to ensure equal opportunity. This historic measure signaled that the nation would take vigorous steps to overcome its tragic racial past.

Four decades later, affirmative action that takes race into consideration is still necessary to keep the nation from moving backward in its quest for racial equality. But America has changed dramatically in the intervening years, and new forms of affirmative action are needed to counteract threats to the American dream that President Johnson never envisioned.

While racial inequality has declined over the past 40 years - in 2003, blacks earned 74 percent of what whites earned, up from 57 percent in 1963 - class inequality has increased sharply. In 1973, the portion of the national income held by the richest 20 percent of Americans was seven times greater than that held by the poorest 20 percent; by 2003, their portion was 11 times greater. Even more drastic has been the change in the distribution of wealth: The top 1 percent holds 35 percent of the wealth in 1998, compared with 20 percent in 1976.

Americans have long tolerated relatively high levels of economic inequality, but they have also been committed to what Abraham Lincoln called "an unfettered start and a fair chance in the race of life."

Yet the widespread belief that family background matters less in the United States in terms of getting ahead than in other countries no longer seems sustainable. In a recent study of social mobility in nine countries in Europe and North America, the link between parents' and children's earnings was stronger in the United States than in seven other countries, including France, Germany and Canada. Within the United States today, the chance that a child will rise above his parents' social position is no greater than it was 35 years ago.

America's leading colleges and universities are supposed to serve as gateways to opportunity, but in recent years, they have increasingly become citadels of privilege.

In a study of the nation's 250 most selective colleges, researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles found that the proportion of students from affluent families rose significantly from 1985 to 2000. A separate analysis of the top 146 colleges showed a stunning tilt toward the privileged: 74 percent of freshmen came from families in the top socioeconomic quartile, compared with only 3 percent from the bottom quartile.

It should be a national scandal that students from privileged families are 25 times more likely than their less-advantaged peers to attend the nation's top colleges and universities. Imagine the national outcry if whites were 25 times more likely than blacks to attend our leading colleges.

To be sure, the most selective private colleges claim to favor applicants from poor and working-class backgrounds in a quest for "diversity." But the truth, as meticulously documented by Princeton's former president, William G. Bowen, is that such students "get essentially no break in the admissions process."

Of 50 of the nation's leading research universities, Princeton ranks dead last in the proportion of students eligible for Pell grants (a federal grant for students from low-income families), with Harvard and Yale not far behind. UCLA, the University of California, Berkeley and the University of California, San Diego - all of which give preference to students from economically disadvantaged backgrounds - ranked first, second and third.

In a historic speech three months before he signed Executive Order 11246, President Johnson declared, "It is not enough to open the gates of opportunity. All our citizens must have the ability to walk through those gates."

Race-based affirmative action has opened those gates for many; closing them now would be a grave error. But if we are to keep alive the dream of genuine equal opportunity, class-based affirmative action - which embodies the core American ideal that each of us, no matter how humble our origins, should have the chance to rise as far as our talents and dreams can take us - is an urgent necessity.

Jerome Karabel, a professor of sociology at the University of California, Berkeley, is the author of the forthcoming The Chosen: The Hidden History of Admission and Exclusion at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton.

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