Can focusing on class instead of race solve our country’s equity issues?
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“When we focus exclusively on race and ignore the class issues, we are missing a huge part of what makes society unfair in America today.”
Kahlenberg says class should be the driving factor in workforce development, higher education, K-12 schools to housing assistance.
Today, On Point: Richard Kahlenberg on how class bias “builds the walls we don’t see.”
Richard Kahlenberg, non-resident scholar at Georgetown University. Expert witness for the plaintiffs in affirmative action cases heard before the Supreme Court in 2016 and 2023. Author of many books, including “The Remedy: Class, Race, And Affirmative Action” and “Excluded: How Snob Zoning, Nimbyism and Class Bias Build the Walls We Don’t See.”
MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI: On April 4, 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in Memphis, Tennessee. Riots broke out in cities across the country. That night, Robert F. Kennedy spoke to a majority Black crowd in Indianapolis, Indiana. Kennedy stood on the back of a flatbed truck. He wore an overcoat that had belonged to his brother, the late President John F. Kennedy, who’d been assassinated five years earlier.
ROBERT F. KENNEDY: What we need in the United States is not division. What we need in the United States is not hatred. What we need in the United States is not violence and lawlessness, but love and wisdom and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice toward those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or whether they be Black.
CHAKRABARTI: Robert Kennedy had entered the 1968 presidential race, barely a month earlier, in March of that year. The most potent theme of his campaign gelled in Indiana. Kennedy’s vision was of a cross-race coalition based on class as much as skin color. One that could unite around what Kennedy saw as the biggest injustice of the plight of the working class and the poor in America.
KENNEDY: I’ve been to the Delta area of Mississippi, and I’ve seen young children starve, not the possibility that they’re starving, but starving, just as I’ve seen them in Asia, and I’ve seen them in Africa. I’ve seen them with the distended stomachs, and I’ve seen them covered with the sores of starvation. And I’ve had talked to doctors who have gone down there and looked at them after we had our hearings.
Who said that they are destroyed for life because they didn’t have enough to eat through their third and fourth year, that they will never be mentally well again. And here we have this great produce here. We have a gross national product of 800 billions of dollars, and we have children starving to death in the United States.
CHAKRABARTI: This is from a campaign speech Kennedy gave at Indiana University on April 24, 1968. He connects the hunger of Black children in the Mississippi Delta to the hunger endured by the children of a disabled white coal miner in Kentucky.
KENNEDY: These are not men that never worked. These are not men that just sat around, but the man was disabled from a mining accident. 20 years. He got $80 a month. He had six children. They received milk once a month for those children and for the rest of the family. They, the day that I was there, they had bread and gravy for breakfast. They’re going to have beans for lunch, and they’d have bread and gravy for supper, if they had anything at all.
CHAKRABARTI: Kennedy was also clear about the sources of that class inequality. In that same speech, given at Indiana University, Kennedy told the students that they were the beneficiaries of a system that diminished the prospects of working-class Americans.
KENNEDY: The chance of going to a college or a university is much greater if you’re affluent or if you’re wealthy in the United States. So that, to begin, I’ll give the example of my own family. The fact is that I have seven sons and the fact is that I know that I could get any one of those sons into a college someplace in the United States.
But I know also that there is a father in Mississippi. Or that there’s a father in Harlem, or there’s a father in Bedford-Stuyvesant, or there’s a father in Watts who can’t do that. And whose son can’t go on to college or can’t go on to a university. So why should my children? Or my sons be treated any differently and why should theirs be sent to fight the war in Vietnam. (CHEERS)
CHAKRABARTI: This is On Point. I’m Meghna Chakrabarti. On May 7, 1968 — RFK won the Democratic primary in Indiana. According to a Harris poll, “Kennedy’s victory went a long way toward establishing his claim as perhaps the likeliest Democrat in 1968 who can deliver both the Black and the lower-income white urban vote.”
Historians now have a more complex and nuanced view of RFK’s 1968 campaign. And the difficult truth is – we will never know if that coalition could have won Kennedy the Democratic nomination, let alone the presidency. Because Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated in California on June 6, 1968, forever freezing him in that moment of history, and in the minds of American progressives.
About 20 years later, in 1984/’85, a young Harvard undergrad named Richard Kahlenberg found inspiration in Kennedy’s run, and wrote his senior thesis on it. It was titled: “Coalition Building and Robert Kennedy’s 1968 Presidential Campaign.”
And since then, Kahlenberg has become one of the most influential champions of assistance policies based on class more than race. He’s written many books, including 1996’s “The Remedy: Class, Race, And Affirmative Action.” All the way to his latest book on class and housing called: “Excluded: How Snob Zoning, Nimbyism and Class Bias Build the Walls We Don’t See.”
And he joins us today. Richard Kahlenberg, welcome to On Point.
RICHARD KAHLENBERG: Oh. Thanks so much for having me, Meghna.
CHAKRABARTI: I understand that to this day you still have a photograph or a portrait of Robert Kennedy hanging in your office, is that right?
KAHLENBERG: I do. He’s for all the reasons you just outlined. He’s an enormous inspiration to me and many others. He really was moving our country towards a moment of unity among people who were at each other’s throats.
Working class white and Black people were having strong disagreements over a variety of issues. And yet he, he brought those folks together. And I still hold on with some hope that the right politician with the right message can bring these groups together again.
In 1985, as I mentioned, you were a Harvard undergrad and I understand that your father had also gone to Harvard. So in a sense, you were a legacy student there. Your grandfather helped pay for your Harvard tuition. So what was it, though, specifically about Kennedy that so captivated a 20- or 21-year-old Richard Kahlenberg walking the Red Bricks in Harvard Yard in Cambridge, Massachusetts?
KAHLENBERG: I had been raised as a traditional upper middle class white liberal who cared a lot about racial injustice. I continue to care a lot about racial injustice, but as I got to Harvard, I saw that that even many of the Black and Hispanic students who were there came from upper middle-class backgrounds, and the white and Asian students, for the most part, were much wealthier.
And Harvard had done a good job of bringing children of different races together, which is an important thing to do. But effectively, Harvard had excluded working class people of all races from attending.
And I thought, “Wow. Robert Kennedy was really onto something here when he said that we in essence use race as a proxy for class in America, and use it in order to avoid some of these larger issues of class inequality that are, they’re frankly, more expensive to address than racial inequality.”
In the recent litigation came out that 71% of the Black and Hispanic students at Harvard came from the richest one fifth of the Black and Hispanic populations, nationally. And the white students and the Asian students are even wealthier. And yet, when we try to create racial diversity without class diversity, we’re missing something that’s enormously important.
CHAKRABARTI: Yeah. Okay. So your argument then is that affirmative action in places like Harvard worked to make campuses more racially diverse, but they were bringing in, as you said, the highest income Black and Hispanic, white and Asian students.
KAHLENBERG: That’s right.
CHAKRABARTI: Okay. Now, the recent litigation that you mentioned is, of course, that Supreme Court case where the court recently overturned affirmative action programs at Harvard and other universities that use them.
You actually filed, I believe, expert testimony or expert briefing in that case on behalf of the students who were arguing, the students and the groups that were arguing against affirmative action. That’s actually made you somewhat of a persona non grata amongst some of your fellow progressives for having done that.
But do you stand by your position there that affirmative action was not necessarily the best way to achieve whatever goals Harvard had set out for itself?
KAHLENBERG: Absolutely. To be clear, I’m very much a strong proponent of ensuring that our colleges are racially diverse. It’s just, I’d like to see colleges have both racial and class diversity. And that’s not what the current, the existing system of race-based affirmative action was producing. In essence, racial affirmative action made institutions like Harvard and University of North Carolina feel good that they had created a fair system because there was some racial representation.
And that was used to paper over an enormously unequal system of admissions that provides massive advantages for legacy students, for the children of faculty, for those who apply early in the admissions process. The deck is stacked against working class and low-income students at these selective colleges. And affirmative action made people feel better. Because it did provide phenotypic diversity, but it didn’t get, working class Black students and Hispanic students were very rare on campus.
And I thought we could create something better if universities weren’t able to try to get racial justice on the cheap by just admitting upper middle-class students of color.
CHAKRABARTI: Yeah. You know how we’re living in an age where far right conservatives look at more centrist Republicans and call them rhinos, right?
Republican in name only. I imagine that perhaps some of your progressive colleagues looked at you and your support for ending affirmative action and may wanted to have called you a lino, a liberal in name only. Is that sort of the feedback that you got when you supported this case?
KAHLENBERG: Certainly, I have some liberal friends who strongly disagree with my position, and I understand that. I think they’re coming from a good place trying to promote racial diversity. I just, I think all the evidence suggests that places like Harvard and UNC can produce racial diversity if they use class-based affirmative action programs that, that employ the right measures of class.
CHAKRABARTI: You’re back with On Point. I’m Meghna Chakrabarti, and Richard Kahlenberg joins us today. He’s a leading liberal thinker who has been arguing for years that class is a more effective way to create policy or class-based policies in order to achieve true equality in America. More effective than race, exclusively.
And he takes his analysis far beyond affirmative action. And his recent, most recent book, in fact, looks at the world of housing. It’s called “Excluded: How Snob Zoning, Nimbyism and Class Bias Build the Walls We Don’t See.” And Richard, I’d love to quote a little bit from an article that you wrote in The Atlantic that sort of crystallized what’s in your book here.
And it opens with a pretty good paragraph, I have to say. You say, “Across the country, a lot of good white liberals, people who purchase copies of White Fragility and decry the U.S. Supreme Court for ending affirmative action, sleep every night in exclusive suburbs that socially engineer economic segregation by government edict.
The huge inequalities between upscale municipalities and their poorer neighbors didn’t just happen. They are in large measure the product of laws that are hard to square with the inclusive ‘In this house, we believe’ signs on lawns and in many highly educated deep blue suburbs.”
So you’re not pulling your punches there.
Give me an example of neighboring communities where you see this hypocrisy, let’s call it that.
KAHLENBERG: Yeah. In that article I talk about Scarsdale, New York, a suburb of New York City which delivered 75% of its votes to Joe Biden, and yet essentially bans any form of multifamily housing.
So the idea is, “Anyone is welcome to live in Scarsdale. It doesn’t matter your race, your background, but you have to be able to afford a single-family home.” And then they go further at times and say, “You have to be able to afford that single family home on a lot that’s no smaller than a quarter acre, half an acre.”
And so it’s building a wall to keep people of modest means out. So you can have people in nearby Port Chester, which is much poorer, who will come over to Scarsdale and mow the lawns and take care of the kids. Maybe some of them teach in the public schools, but they’re not allowed to live in the community.
They’re excluded. And people don’t want their kids attending the public schools. And I saw recently in The Atlantic, there was a defense of this type of zoning. They said it makes sense because the kids, the parents of those who are less fortunate aren’t going to pay their weight in taxes.
They’ll educate, they’ll be educated in the school, but not pay enough. Which I found really appalling. And yet it’s an acceptable form of prejudice. We would never say and shouldn’t say that we want to keep Black people out of a neighborhood.
But I’ve been astounded to see in comments to articles I’ve written, people are very perfectly fine saying that they don’t want poor and working-class people to live in their communities.
CHAKRABARTI: Oh, that’s interesting. Because I was just going to say that when I read your article and the book also, I just thought, we’re trying to avoid the pitfall of stereotyping.
But in hearing you say that the folks living in these wealthier suburbs are trying to keep people out, trying to keep lower income families and their children out of the neighborhoods. I was going to say that seems a little unfair because viewing it from another perspective.
Our folks living in these suburbs, not necessarily just trying to be exclusive of others, but trying to, instead, they see it as preserving the character, the livability of their neighborhoods in their suburbs, of the quality of the schools because of the high taxes and property values. That it’s not exclusionary rather, but instead a preservationist approach.
What do you think?
KAHLENBERG: I guess that’s one way to put it.
KAHLENBERG: And to be clear, I’m not —
CHAKRABARTI: Because otherwise you make them sound like the George Wallace’s and Bull Connors, as you say, of the 21st century.
KAHLENBERG: Yes. I want to be clear that people living in exclusive communities, I think, for the most part, are not bad people.
I think in many cases they move to an area for the good public schools, and they probably don’t give a whole lot of thought to the issue of zoning. And what the book is trying to do is make people who do have good hearts realize that to defend the existing zoning policies is to exclude, unfairly, people who want something better for their kids but can’t have it. Because the government is engineering local governments or engineering class segregation.
For the book I interviewed KiAra Cornelius, who is a mother who lives in lived in a dangerous neighborhood in Columbus, Ohio. She just wanted better schools for her kids. She had one kid, one child who was a straight A student. And yet she was not happy with the local school.
And she’s not going to bring crime or be an unpleasant neighbor. She wants to live the American dream. And by banning any form of multifamily housing, communities are frustrating that American Dream. And they’re also limiting the supply, overall supply of housing in an area, driving up costs for everyone.
So I think it’s not that the individuals in these exclusive communities are nefarious. It’s that I don’t think they fully realize the harm that these invisible walls are imposing on the rest of society.
CHAKRABARTI: You know what’s so interesting to me and disheartening, I have to say, it links back to what you said earlier, that class-based bias may be one of the few remaining forms of bias, which is perfectly acceptable to express, openly. Because you had been saying that some of the folks in these neighborhoods that you profiled were saying, if we change zoning laws and allow more affordable or multifamily housing that we would suddenly have neighbors who were louder, or littered more, made more noise, things like that.
And I thought, “Huh.” That reminded me of one of Harvard University’s responses in the in the affirmative action case where Harvard said if we looked at more class-based means of admissions, A) it might not achieve the diversity they wanted, but B) I think they also said that it would reduce the academic quality of the students coming in.
So is it, do you think that’s Harvard’s version of being overt about its class bias? Just like you were talking about the neighbors in these wealthier suburban neighborhoods?
KAHLENBERG: I do. The common theme is exclusion of working-class people. And in the litigation the expert report that I worked on with a colleague from Duke University found that Harvard could substantially expand its socioeconomic diversity. Allow a lot more working-class students in. And the mean SAT score would go from the 99th percentile to the 98th. And when you think about the fact that there’s an average SAT score at the 98th percentile, even though you have a whole lot more students who’ve overcome odds, they haven’t had everything given to them, the way many of the current Harvard students have.
It, to my mind, that’s a more impressive group of students. So it’s a myth to say that there aren’t enough low income and working-class students out there who can do well at selective colleges. And the common theme is that one can look down upon those who have been less fortunate and get away with it in American society.
The comments that I wrote, some pieces for the New York Times and the comment sections were astounding people engaging in the worst kinds of stereotypes about working-class people coming into their neighborhoods. If you reformed the zoning laws, I had one guy who said, “You don’t understand the dogs of poor people bark louder.”
It was just astonishing to me the way people would assume that those who’ve faced extra odds are somehow beneath them.
CHAKRABARTI: Wow. Tell me more then about the differences between Scarsdale and Port Chester in Westchester County in New York. Because I want to get a more granular understanding of how you see zoning and purposeful exclusion working here.
For example, I think you had said earlier that Scarsdale’s median household income was more than a quarter million dollars, and that was three times that of Port Chester. What were some of the other differences in the communities, specifically regarding the homes people live in and the kind of zoning laws that they had to encounter, that they would encounter in each of those communities?
KAHLENBERG: Yeah. In Scarsdale, you have, in essence, a ban on multi-family housing. And as a result, the prices of the homes exceed a million dollars. And in Port Chester they allow all sorts of different types of housing. It’s healthy to have people of different backgrounds and different forms of housing. And yet because there’s such exclusion, and in places like Scarsdale and other exclusive communities in Westchester County, in New York, you end up seeing a real reduction in the opportunities of students in Port Chester. So the level of academic achievement is much lower, in part because the students are poor and therefore face more obstacles in life.
They’re less likely to have nutrition, health care, and that shows up on test scores. But the other piece which Scarsdale could do something about, is that there are concentrations of low-income students in places like Port Chester. There is research to suggest that low-income students, if given the right environment, can do phenomenal things.
And there was one housing intervention, for example, in Montgomery County, Maryland, right outside of Washington, D.C., where low-income housing was built in modest numbers in wealthy communities. And a researcher, Heather Schwartz at the Rand Corporation, studied how those students did over time.
And they closed the math gap by half with the wealthier students, the reading gap by one third. And there was no harm done to the middle class and the upper middle-class students. So there are just real costs that are born by people when we build these exclusionary walls.
CHAKRABARTI: Richard, you also point out just to underscore the differences that come with, let’s call it economic segregation, which then also, there’s a strong overlap with race, but with these lower income communities, you said that in Port Chester, there was, between Port Chester and Scarsdale.
So, Scarsdale being the higher income community, there was a 55%-point gap in achievement or performance at grade level in both English and math. So students in Scarsdale were 55% points ahead in terms of how many of their students were achieving at grade level.
So a huge difference. But one thing that we often hear is we don’t necessarily have to build more middle- or low-income housing in the wealthier communities. Instead, what we ought to do at the state level is increase funding for schools in those lower income communities. Because in fact, lots of people say this, not just residents in rich communities, teachers’ unions in various states, et cetera.
Because then with that increased funding, the money wouldn’t be so much of a difference. We could raise achievement in lower income schools. Why isn’t that an adequate solution?
KAHLENBERG: Let me say a couple things. One is, I support. The idea of spending more money in higher poverty schools, because I think it can make some difference.
But going back to that Montgomery County study, Montgomery County does that, they spend $2,000 extra per pupil in the higher poverty schools. And even though they were spending less in the upper middle-class schools, the low-income students did far better with integrated schools than they did with the compensatory spending approach.
Essentially that’s what 95% of education reform is about. It’s, “Let’s try to make separate but equal work as best we can.” And I’m certainly in favor of making sure that. Higher poverty schools have the resources they need. But what about chipping away at the segregation itself? The underlying segregation that is based in race and also based in class.
If you look at trends over time, we’ve seen about a 30% reduction in racial segregation since 1970. And we’ve seen a doubling of income segregation during that time period. And that’s what really impacts academic achievement. It’s not that Black students somehow improve academically when sitting next to white students.
It’s always been that low-income students do better in middle class environments, and there are a number of school districts that are trying to address this issue. And the Century Foundation where I worked has identified 171 places, school districts and charter schools that are trying to address the economic segregation of schooling.
But I think complimentary to that, we should just eliminate some of the outright class discrimination in zoning that perpetuates income segregation in America.
CHAKRABARTI: Richard, by the way, I should have asked you a question with a national perspective here.
Where do you see this class bias in housing rearing its head the most in the country?
KAHLENBERG: There’s been a lot of research on that question, and a Brookings scholar, Jenny Schuetz summarized it as follows. You see the worst forms of exclusionary zoning on the coasts. You see it particularly Washington, D.C. through Boston, and you see it on the West coast, California, Oregon, Washington.
And your listeners will realize those also tend to be the most liberal areas of the country. Which on the one hand gives me some hope for reform. Because if we can appeal to, if I and others can appeal to liberals that this is a system that’s unfair and exclusionary and bad for civil rights, bad for the environment, bad for housing costs, then maybe we can get reform and we’re starting to see reform in some places.
But it’s deeply troubling to me and says something larger about American liberalism, that this worst form of exclusion is found in our own backyards.
CHAKRABARTI: And the research that you quote, or the researchers I should say, because as you said, there’s been a lot done. Find that the more liberal or the bluer county, the more restrictive their zoning laws are.
You quote political scientist Omar Wasow who says that there are people in the town of Princeton, New Jersey, who will have a Black Lives Matter sign on their front lawn and a sign saying, “We love our Muslim neighbors.” But he says, the truth is it really means we love our Muslim neighbors as long as they’re millionaires.
But why do you think that is? What is it in American liberalism that you think is allowing for this … view on what equality actually means and embracing race-based equality, but. Being openly disdainful of class-based equality.
KAHLENBERG: I think there’s a benign explanation and then a less benign explanation.
For zoning, the benign explanation is that liberals have historically been very concerned about the environment, very concerned about small d Democratic processes, wanting to make sure that everyone has a say in how government is run. And those are good values, but they’ve been weaponized to stop development and stop development, particularly in more exclusive areas.
And so that’s the benign, fairly benign explanation. The one that’s more troubling goes to this question of class bias. The Harvard philosopher Michael Sandel has a book on meritocracy, and he makes, cites some powerful research, which finds that more educated people who in today’s world are more likely to be liberal, politically liberal, have less bias against racial minorities, which is a positive thing.
We want education to open people’s minds and make them less prejudice, in terms of race. But upper middle, highly educated people are more prejudiced, more disdainful and dislike people who have less education which translates into people who have less income. And while there’s an admirable recognition that racial bias is wrong among liberals, I think a lot of us turn a blind eye to class issues.
And that’s explained in part because there is a disdain. Probably the most famous incident was during the 2016 campaign when Hillary Clinton said that working class white people, half of them, are deplorables. And on one level, one can understand what she was trying to say, which is that racism, homophobia, Islamophobia are unacceptable.
And I think she’s completely right on that. But to paint people with less education with that broad brush, and to not recognize that they have their own struggles, that they feel are being ignored. Has, is, I think it’s wrong. But it’s also politically disastrous. It paved the way for a president who I view as the closest thing to George Wallace being elected president.
I think it was a huge step back for the country. But, I think, there’s some liberal bias on class issues that plays into this.
CHAKRABARTI: And so since we, again, this is class and race have a strong overlap in this country. We know that. But picking up on what you just said, it sounds like you’re saying that college educated, affluent liberals, college educated, affluent, white liberals, especially in this country, by being, sounds like more or less openly disdainful about lower income Americans with the thought that, “I earned it and you didn’t.”
They’re being disdainful specifically, or more so of white working-class Americans. And that is what you say has paved the way for sort of the Trump version of authoritarianism to rise. So would you give me a quick example of what would you change in the world of housing, coming back to housing to overcome that?
KAHLENBERG: We’ve seen some positive change in places like California, not because upper middle class white liberals have come around, but because working class white people and working class Black and Hispanic people. The old Bobby Kennedy coalition came together in California and in Oregon to change the zoning laws.
Now in California, effectively you can build four units on what had been a lot for a single-family home. And that occurred only because Republicans from white working-class areas, many of them rural allied with Democrats who represented Black and Hispanic interests, to come together for that change.
And so it is possible. And the same exact coalition came together in Oregon. It was bipartisan and wouldn’t have passed except with white working-class support. And so that raises a larger question, what kind of a political coalition could Democrats put together if they did champion policies that are clearly aimed at class bias?
And I’ve proposed, for example, an Economic Fair Housing Act which would provide plaintiffs a chance to sue a government, local government like Scarsdale and say you’re discriminating based on income through your government laws. And you need to provide a powerful justification to explain what you’re doing.
And in that instance, there’s a similar use of this in civil rights law, it’s called disparate impact. If the burden shifts to the to the municipality to explain what it is they’re trying to do. And in many cases, especially with exclusive single-family zoning, I think those laws would have to fall.
CHAKRABARTI: Okay. I want to get back to the issue of class and race in this country because there are several studies, many studies in fact, and I would say ample evidence that even for Black Americans who have reached, middle, upper middle or even the wealthiest income brackets in this country, racism is still a fact in their lives.
And I want to give you a couple of examples. That one comes from my home station of WBUR. My colleagues there did an analysis regarding mortgage lending in Boston from 2015 to 2020. And they found that Black Bostonians were denied mortgage loans at much higher rates than white mortgage applicants were.
And I want to play a moment from a lead reporter on that investigation. This is Zeninjor Enwemeka.
ZENINJOR ENWEMEKA: We found that 6% of all loan applications to purchase a home get denied. Black and Hispanic loan applicants were denied at rates two to three times that of white applicants in Boston. We also looked at denial rates geographically, and we found something else really interesting.
We found it’s harder to secure loans to buy homes in majority black parts of the city. Lenders denied loans in these areas at two and a half times the rate of white areas.
CHAKRABARTI: So that’s WBUR’s Zeninjor Enwemeka.
CHAKRABARTI: And more broadly across the United States, there have been studies that found that national lenders give fewer mortgage loans to Black applicants than white applicants even when their incomes of both groups are high, and they have the same debt ratios.
So the Black applicants were rejected more often, which brings us to this core criticism, I think, of the class-based approach. And it comes from Richard Rothstein, who’s at the Economic Policy Institute, and he just says that class-based preferences are not an adequate substitute for race-based ones, because of the nation’s history.
RICHARD ROTHSTEIN: The pursuit of equity is quite a different matter from the pursuit of justice. This pursuit of justice is an entirely separate issue. Entirely distinct and should not be confused with the first, and that is the need to remedy centuries of slavery, segregation, and exploitation, a governmentally imposed caste system, not class system, but caste system on African Americans.
CHAKRABARTI: Richard Kahlenberg, briefly, what’s your response to that?
KAHLENBERG: First of all, I completely agree that there are distinct harms associated with racism, with racial discrimination that need to be addressed outside of the class approach. So when, for example, I talk about an economic Fair Housing Act, I’m not talking about repealing the Fair Housing Act.
We need to double down on more resources to crack down on discrimination in the housing market, in the mortgage market. And new tools to address racial discrimination. So the point isn’t that it’s class only. Race plays a huge role in American society. The murder of George Floyd is not explained by class.
It’s explained by race. And the larger message I’m trying to send here is that in addition to addressing those very important race issues, American liberalism hasn’t given enough attention to class. And that we have to do that.
On Richard Rothstein’s point about whether the need to address our history of slavery and segregation, I’ll completely agree. Martin Luther King, when he was looking at what to do after as the Civil Rights Act was being passed. He said we have this enormous legacy of segregation and slavery and redlining. We have to take affirmative action. But his remedy was a bill of rights for the disadvantaged.
And he recognized that precisely because of our history of discrimination, Black people would disproportionately benefit from a class-based approach. And at the same time, he said, it’s a simple matter of justice that poor whites be included, as well. So King and Kennedy were very much in sync on this, that we have distinct issues of race that we need to address, but we can’t ignore larger fundamental issues of class as well.
CHAKRABARTI: Yeah. The march was for jobs and justice.
KAHLENBERG: That’s right.
CHAKRABARTI: One last question, and we only have about a minute and a half to go here. Because I was thinking, you’ve written about how overall in this country, racism has declined, while income inequality has risen significantly.
And that brings to mind, the working-class white Americans out there, and you’ve spoken with them, for your book. Who say, “Just like my fellow Black Americans who are having, or Hispanic Americans who are having trouble putting food on the table. I too am having trouble putting food on the table for my kids.”
And yet I’m still hearing people from the Democratic party or colleges and universities saying, by virtue of me being white, I have some privilege. It’s no privilege to be able to not feed your children. So do you think that actually pursuing class-based policies and again, we only have about 40 seconds here, could actually then reduce racism as well?
KAHLENBERG: Absolutely. And we haven’t talked about labor unions at all, but that’s a key example. Right now, employers just go in and fire people for trying to organize a union, and that’s bad for people of all races. But one of the big findings is that when Black and white people work together in a labor union, the white people become less racist.
So it’s important substantively to deal with class. It’s important politically, but it’s also much better for our country as a way of healing some of the racial wounds that have existed for so long.
This article was originally published on WBUR.org.
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