A Middle Ground on Race and College

Richard D. Kahlenberg

Spring 2023

Over the past quarter-century, public opinion has shifted dramatically on a number of issues, perhaps the most prominent being same-sex marriage. At the same time, the demographics of the country have changed substantially — from 72% to 59% non-Hispanic white. Yet throughout this period, public opposition to racial preferences at selective colleges has not budged. Polls showed that majorities of Americans held this view in the mid-1990s, when I first published a book on affirmative action. A poll conducted by the Washington Post in October 2022 similarly found that 63% of Americans oppose the consideration of race in admissions. Interestingly, the same poll also found that 64% support taking other actions to increase racial diversity in colleges.

Some elites on both sides of the debate think the public is terribly confused in supporting racial diversity but opposing racial preferences — trying to have its cake and eat it, too. But a growing body of evidence has found that universities can employ affirmative action based on socioeconomic disadvantage and geographic considerations, rather than racial preferences, to produce healthy levels of racial and economic diversity.

These practices are likely to move to center stage in the near future. In October, the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments in lawsuits brought by a conservative group challenging racial preferences at Harvard and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC). Most observers are predicting the Court will significantly curtail, or strike down completely, the ability of universities to consider race in admissions. A decision is expected by the end of June.

For over half a century, universities have used racial preferences to enroll minorities from the upper-middle class in the name of diversity alongside legacy preferences to enroll wealthy students, who are overwhelmingly white. Ending those advantages and giving a leg up to talented working-class students of all races would be more expensive than using racial preferences, since these students will likely require financial aid. But if the Court outlaws racial preferences, selective universities that wish to maintain racial diversity (which is virtually all of them) will have no choice but to pursue race-neutral alternatives. The pressing question for conservatives then becomes: Will they support these new avenues, or fight them?

To be sure, mainstream conservatives have expressed support for race-neutral alternatives to overt racial preferences for decades. But now that they are on the precipice of victory at the Supreme Court, some on the right have begun to push for a more extreme position: that even race-neutral alternatives pose problems if increasing racial diversity is even part of a university's goal in adopting them.

The American public's abiding beliefs on affirmative action reveal both a conservative and a liberal truth. The conservative truth is that racial preferences are deeply troubling in a liberal democracy dedicated to the principle that race and ethnicity should not count in deciding who gets ahead in life. The liberal truth is that leading institutions in a democracy like ours should strive to overcome historic wrongs and be inclusive of people from all racial and economic backgrounds.

For decades my fellow liberals, to their detriment, have ignored the conservative truth and casually embraced racial preferences as an appropriate (even possibly permanent) departure from meritocratic principles. Going forward, conservatives are in danger of ignoring the liberal insight that a multi-racial democracy needs to take appropriate steps to be inclusive. If mainstream conservatives embrace this radical approach, they will pay a substantial political price.


Most elites on the left have embraced racial preferences in recent decades, but it was not always thus. In the 1960s and '70s, liberals were split on the issue of race-based decision-making. Some, such as Whitney Young of the National Urban League, argued for a "decade of discrimination" in favor of black people, while others, such as Martin Luther King, Jr., Bayard Rustin, and Supreme Court Justice William Douglas, supported affirmative action for disadvantaged people of all races.

Part of the latter group's argument was principled — they believed disadvantaged whites deserved assistance, too. But their argument was also practical. Rustin, for instance, argued that black Americans needed allies, and that "[a]ny preferential approach postulated along racial, ethnic, religious, or sexual lines [would] only disrupt a multicultural society and lead to a backlash." By contrast, "special treatment can be provided to those who have been exploited or denied opportunities if solutions are predicated along class lines, precisely because all religious, ethnic, and racial groups have a depressed class [that] would benefit."

But at the university level, the Whitney Young approach of discrimination in favor of black applicants became the left's dominant position — and Young's "decade" of pursuing this practice became a half-century. This is in part because racial preferences benefit the upper-middle-class minority constituencies that dominate selective universities and civil-rights groups; working-class people of all races have no similarly powerful champions.

In the decades following the 1960s, when universities first adopted racial preferences, some leading Democratic politicians gave a rhetorical nod to race-neutral alternatives. President Bill Clinton, for instance, briefly considered shifting the basis of preferences from race to class. In early 1995, after a disastrous 1994 midterm election, Clinton declared, "I want us to emphasize need-based programs where we can because they work better and have a bigger impact and generate broader support." But when organized interest groups in Washington pounced on him and activist Jesse Jackson threated to challenge him in the primaries, Clinton retreated.

Likewise, in his bid for the 2008 presidential nomination, then-senator Barack Obama said his own educationally privileged daughters did not deserve a preference in admissions. Echoing Rustin, Obama argued that "resentment builds" among whites "when they hear an African-American is getting an advantage in landing a good job or a spot in a good college because of an injustice that they themselves never committed." This, he said, is not "misguided or even racist," but rather "grounded in legitimate concerns." Yet when it came to taking a position on a legal controversy over affirmative action, the Obama administration toed the line of civil-rights groups and universities and filed an amicus brief in support of racial-preference policies.

Joe Biden also expressed misgivings about racial preferences early in his career. In the 1970s, then-senator Biden remarked:

I do not buy the concept, popular in the '60s, which said, "We have suppressed the black man for 300 years and the white man is now far ahead in the race for everything our society offers. In order to even the score, we must now give the black man a head start, or even hold the white man back, to even the race."

But as president, Biden has defended racial preferences in court and even created new programs that employ racial preferences in distributing federal aid.

After the murder of George Floyd in May 2020, white America began to gain a greater appreciation of the continuing obstacles black Americans face, which has been a positive and necessary step forward in race relations. But some whites — particularly highly educated white liberals — are showing signs of further overreach, embracing with new fervor Ibram Kendi's notion that the "only remedy to past discrimination is present discrimination. The only remedy to present discrimination is future discrimination."

Kendi's approach is troubling because it goes far beyond the already deeply unpopular idea that racial preferences should provide a temporary remedy to past discrimination. Instead, he advocates a dystopian vision — perpetual rounds of back-and-forth discrimination — in which society treats people not as individuals, but as members of racial tribes, possibly for generations to come.


In the face of a variety of legal and political challenges, no set of institutions has embraced racial preferences more proudly than elite universities. Flouting public opinion, top colleges championed explicit racial preferences and successfully defended them in the 1978 Regents of the University of California v. Bakke case, the 2003 Grutter v. Bollinger case, and the 2016 Fisher v. University of Texas II case, winning by a single vote on the Supreme Court in each. But that string of successes is likely coming to an end.

During the oral arguments in October, conservatives on the Court appeared highly skeptical of the use of race at Harvard and UNC. Unlike earlier cases, which involved named individuals who came forward to tell the story of how they were harmed by racial-preference policies, the challenges at Harvard and UNC were brought by Students for Fair Admissions (SFFA), an umbrella group created by conservative activist Edward Blum. In a telling statement on campus culture, several Asian members of SFFA who might otherwise have stepped forward as named plaintiffs chose to remain anonymous — they knew that challenging racial preferences would make them anathema to the elite university circles they hoped to join.

Lacking a sympathetic individual plaintiff for the press to profile could have posed a public-relations disadvantage for SFFA, but it didn't appear to matter to the public. Every good story needs a villain, and Harvard and UNC seemed to fit the profile — especially when litigation revealed the unseemly underbelly of the admissions practices at both schools.

Evidence presented at trial, for example, suggested that in order to ensure enough spaces for black, Hispanic, and white students, Harvard capped the number of Asian students it accepted. Just as the university used subjective "character" considerations to limit the number of Jewish applicants admitted in the early 20th century, it appears to have routinely rated Asian applicants as less likely to have subjective attributes like "integrity, helpfulness, courage, kindness, fortitude, empathy, self-confidence, leadership ability, maturity, or grit."

Discovery during the litigation also revealed details about Harvard's backdoor admissions process, known as the "Z list," through which students agree to take a gap year between high school and college in order to gain admission. Donors' children and other preferred candidates have been heavily represented among the students on the Z list. At the same time, just 2% of Z-listed students in recent years were black, while only 1.2% were economically disadvantaged.

The litigation further revealed that Harvard's use of racial preferences — often depicted in the press as a way of helping inner-city kids from economically struggling families gain admission — tended to benefit upper-middle-class black and Hispanic students. According to the numbers revealed, 71% of underrepresented minority students admitted to Harvard were from the top socioeconomic fifth of black and Hispanic populations nationally. At the same time, Harvard and UNC both routinely provided considerable admissions preferences to mostly white, mostly wealthy children of alumni and faculty. UNC, the self-described "university of the people," enrolled almost 16 times as many students from the richest fifth of the population as it enrolled from the poorest fifth.

Even though universities are required by law to explore whether they can create diversity using race-neutral alternatives, neither Harvard nor UNC appeared to take the duty seriously. At the same time, simulations conducted for the litigation showed that Harvard and UNC could create racially diverse, academically excellent student bodies if they eliminated their preferences for wealthy, disproportionately white students and gave a meaningful boost (about half the size of the preference currently given to athletes) to economically disadvantaged students of all races.

As an expert witness for the plaintiffs in the case, I couldn't help but wonder: Shouldn't it give university leaders pause to know that they are engaging in a practice that, according to the Pew Research Center, 74% of the public — including majorities of people of color — disapprove of? Do leaders ever stop to ask why they are so out of step with the public, or whether they should be trying a different approach to achieve racial diversity?

Yet instead of attempting race-neutral alternatives, elite universities continue to employ racial preferences while taking a dismissive attitude toward average Americans who raise questions about such practices — often implying that they are either rubes or bigots. Even within the academy, objections to affirmative action have been shut down. Recently, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology canceled a scheduled lecture by a geophysicist who was invited to give a speech about climate science because he had spoken out against race being used as a factor in college admissions. In a turn of phrase George Orwell would surely have marveled at, academics asserted that opposing racial preferences was a form of "color-blind racism."

Along with its allies in academia, the left more generally has overstepped on the issue of racial preferences. During the Supreme Court's oral arguments in the Harvard and UNC cases, the signs of such overreach were everywhere. Liberal justices argued that, on the one hand, race is an insignificant factor in admissions — just one of 40 factors at UNC, it was said. Yet at the same time, they held that if universities could not use race in their admissions decisions, there could be a catastrophic decline in black and Hispanic representation. The evidence showed that race did count a great deal in admissions — much more than virtually any of the other 39 factors — and that if schools eliminated racial preferences and did nothing else, large declines in black and Hispanic representation would ensue. However, the evidence also showed that race-neutral strategies could produce high levels of racial diversity, and much more socioeconomic diversity, than racial preferences.

The most riveting moment in the Supreme Court arguments came when Seth Waxman, representing Harvard, declared that race counts in admissions the same way that being a good oboe player can count. This line of thinking was likely to strike average Americans as bizarre. They know full well that there is a fundamental difference between Harvard's treating students differently based on a musical ability that can be honed though hard work and treating them differently based on an immutable factor like race. Chief Justice John Roberts saw an opening. He told Waxman: "We did not fight a Civil War about oboe players. We did fight a Civil War to eliminate racial discrimination."


For years, conservatives — including the most conservative members of the U.S. Supreme Court — have strongly supported race-neutral alternatives as a desirable way of achieving racial and economic diversity. For example, in a 1979 law review article, then-professor Antonin Scalia argued:

I am entirely in favor of according the poor inner-city child, who happens to be black, advantages and preferences not given to my own children because they don't need them. But I am not willing to prefer the son of a prosperous and well-educated black doctor or lawyer — solely because of his race — to the son of a recent refugee from Eastern Europe who is working as a manual laborer to get his family ahead.

Likewise Clarence Thomas, during his 1991 confirmation hearings, expressed his support for giving assistance to economically disadvantaged students of all races. "[T]he kids could come from any background of disadvantage," he suggested. "The kid could be a white kid from Appalachia, could be a Cajun from Louisiana, or could be a black kid or Hispanic kid from the inner cities or from the barrios, but I defended that sort of a program [in the 1970s] and I would defend it today."

Conservatives in the judicial branch aren't the only ones who have expressed support for race-neutral alternatives. In the 1990s, when racial-preference programs were dismantled in Texas and Florida, Republican governors (and brothers) George W. Bush and Jeb Bush both created programs that gave an admissions break to socioeconomically disadvantaged students of all races and admitted students from the top of their high-school class (the top 10% in Texas and the top 20% in Florida) irrespective of SAT or ACT scores. They also boosted financial-aid programs to ensure that economically disadvantaged students would not only be admitted to college, but could afford to attend.

Both governors shrewdly understood that while the public disliked racial preferences, it also did not want higher education to re-segregate. Both were sensitive to the fact that ending racial preferences would be seen by some citizens, particularly black Americans, as a betrayal. And both found it worthwhile to signal that they valued diversity and inclusion, so long as it is achieved by means other than racial preferences. Some worried that students admitted without regard to SAT or ACT scores might struggle in college, but subsequent research has found that these students have not suffered academically or in terms of graduation rates.

The Bushes were not the only conservative leaders to support race-neutral alternatives. In states such as Nebraska and Arizona, following the enactment of bans on racial preferences, new programs were implemented to increase financial aid and boost consideration of socioeconomic status in admissions.

Tellingly, in the U.S. Supreme Court, attacks on race-neutral alternatives have come not from the right, but from the left. In the 2013 case Fisher v. University of Texas, the Court, by a 7-1 vote, gave universities a strong push to use race-neutral alternatives rather than racial preferences to achieve diversity. The conservatives — Roberts, Scalia, Thomas, Samuel Alito, and Anthony Kennedy — were joined by liberals Stephen Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor in holding that universities have "the ultimate burden of demonstrating, before turning to racial classifications, that available, workable race-neutral alternatives do not suffice." The Court then remanded the case to the lower courts to apply the new standard.

The lone dissenter in the case was Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who claimed that race-neutral alternatives, like the top-10% plan, were really no different than racial-preference programs. "Only an ostrich could regard the supposedly neutral alternatives as race unconscious," she argued. To her mind, Texas's plan capitalized on the racial segregation of high schools: "It is race consciousness, not blindness to race, that drives such plans," she wrote. Ginsburg's position was that if universities want to achieve racial diversity, they should be frank about inevitably using racial preferences to do so.

Ginsburg was wrong in denying that there exists a material difference between overt racial preferences and race-neutral alternatives that are partly aimed at creating racial diversity. While racial diversity was a goal of both the top-10% plan and Texas's plan to prefer socioeconomically disadvantaged students of all races, it wasn't the only rationale — or the only outcome.

Geographic diversity, for instance, has long been a value recognized by educators in its own right, and the top-10% plan significantly broadened the number of feeder high schools that serve the University of Texas (UT) at Austin. The plan also increased socioeconomic diversity. The university admits approximately three-quarters of its students through the top-10% plan and another quarter through discretionary admissions (which began to include race after 2004). In 2013, 21% of students admitted through the plan came from families with an annual income of less than $40,000; only 6% of those admitted under discretionary admissions could say the same. In other words, the top-10% plan produced similar levels of racial diversity as racial preferences, but it had a very different subset of beneficiaries — namely greater numbers of low-income and working-class black and Hispanic students. Only by viewing racial groups as a monolith can one conclude that the top-10% plan's effect was identical to that of racial preferences.

Another distinction goes to the issue of stigma. As Glenn Loury, an economist at Brown University (who is black), observes, racial preferences can be insulting to their intended beneficiaries. "Knowing that I'm being judged," he asserts, "by standards that are different and less rigorous by virtue of the fact that my ancestors suffered some indignity is itself undignified." By contrast, the top-10% plan does not hold any racial group to a lower standard; instead, it rewards students of any race who have worked to achieve the very highest GPAs in their high school.

Additionally, while racial preferences are highly divisive — pitting students of different races against one another in an explicit and direct manner — the top-10% plan has facilitated desirable cross-racial coalitions in support of the policy. Race and ethnicity may be powerful fault lines in Texas politics, but when the top-10% plan was put forward, working-class white, black, and Hispanic parents rallied around it; they understood that the policy would give their children — many of whom attended high schools that had never sent a student to UT Austin — a chance to access the state's flagship university. And in 2009, when the university tried to significantly curtail the number of seats that would be awarded through the plan, a remarkable coalition of right-leaning legislators representing working-class whites from rural areas and left-leaning legislators representing working-class people of color in urban ones joined forces to block the effort.

Most conservative organizations have recognized the important distinctions between racial preferences and race-neutral programs partially motivated by the goal of promoting racial diversity. At the K-12 level, for example, the Pacific Legal Foundation (PLF) sued the state of Connecticut in 2019 for using race in a school integration plan. In 2020, when the state shifted the basis of its integration plan from race to socioeconomic status, PLF was satisfied with the change and dropped its lawsuit. Similarly, SFFA hired me as an expert witness in the Harvard and UNC litigation because the group supports race-neutral alternatives over racial preferences.

During the Supreme Court oral arguments, the justices raised the question of whether, if the Court were to strike down racial preferences, conservatives would turn around and challenge race-neutral alternatives motivated in part by a desire to produce racial diversity. To my mind SFFA's attorney, Patrick Strawbridge, drew the correct line when he said that SFFA would likely oppose "a pure proxy for race," such as a preference for the descendants of slaves. But he acknowledged that other approaches — such as socioeconomic or geographic preferences — would be both desirable and entirely legal because there is a "race-neutral justification" for adopting them. The key for Strawbridge is that the plan proposed be justified in part by factors other than race.


Against this backdrop of conservative support for race-neutral alternatives over several decades, a few on the right have now suggested that eliminating racial preferences is not sufficient. Under this new thinking, plans that have racial diversity as part of their goal also pose problems.

The novel legal theory was advanced in a lawsuit against Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, a selective public school in Fairfax County, Virginia. For years TJ, as it is known, used a rigorous test as a major component of its admissions process. The school draws students primarily from Fairfax County, whose public schools are 37% white, 27% Hispanic, 20% Asian, and 10% black.

During the 2020-21 school year, TJ's student body was 72% Asian, 18% white, 3% Hispanic, and 2% black. Low-income students were also significantly underrepresented. In Fairfax County (and in other, smaller districts from which TJ draws), 30% of high-school students were economically disadvantaged in 2019 and 2020, but only 2% of TJ students were similarly situated. And although 20% of Asian high-school students in the area were low income, just 2% of Asian students enrolled at TJ were.

Fairfax officials wanted to come up with a new plan that would draw in greater numbers of black, Hispanic, and low-income students without employing racial preferences. In 2020, the district decided to eliminate TJ's admissions test and $100 application fee, and instead implemented a new process guaranteeing admission for students in the top 1.5% of eighth-graders in each of the system's middle schools — a version of George W. Bush's top-10% plan for UT Austin.

TJ's plan could be justified as a way of diversifying racially as well as geographically and socioeconomically, given that students from higher-poverty schools would effectively have a better shot at admission. And the new approach did not incorporate racial preferences; a white or Asian student in a predominantly black or Hispanic middle school, for example, could benefit. This process filled about 450 of the 550 seats available. For the remaining 100 seats, students were evaluated holistically based on such elements as GPA, an essay, and "experience factors," which included attending a historically underrepresented middle school, coming from a low-income family, being an English-language learner, or being a special-education student. Race did not count as an experience factor.

When the plan was implemented in 2021, Asian admissions for the class of 2025 dropped from 73% the previous year to 54%, while the proportion of black students increased from roughly 1% to 7%, Hispanics from around 3% to 11%, and whites from 20% on average to 22%. At the same time, the proportion of students who were low income increased from 2% to 25%.

In March 2021, a group called "Coalition for TJ," which included families of Asian descent, sued the school with the help of PLF — the very group that had supported race-neutral alternatives in Connecticut the previous year. The plaintiffs claimed that the policy was aimed at "racial balancing," and that Asian students were the victims. Stunningly, the types of race-neutral policies that indirectly promote racial diversity — policies that conservatives have long advocated — are now the subject of attack.

Remarkably, these supporters of a theory endorsed to date by not a single U.S. Supreme Court justice were able to convince a federal district-court judge to go along with them. In February 2022, Judge Claude Hilton ruled in favor of the plaintiffs, buying the novel argument that it is illegal for a school that eschews racial preferences to employ a geographic and socioeconomic merit-based admissions plan that has, as part of its motive, increasing black and Hispanic representation. By pointing to the drop in Asian representation, Hilton seemed to suggest that a change from extremely high levels of overrepresentation to merely high levels of overrepresentation was somehow proof of discrimination. It would be one thing if TJ officials were motivated by racial animus against Asian students, but the overwhelming evidence cited by the judge suggested that the school board was motivated by a desire to raise black and Hispanic representation, not to punish Asian students.

The new attack from the right on policies like TJ's adopts the left's mistake of assuming that all inequalities should be viewed reductively through the lens of race. For decades, people on the left have used race as a flawed proxy for class, supporting racial preferences that fail to recognize that not all black and Hispanic students are poor, and that not all poor students are black or Hispanic. TJ's plan corrected for that error by providing assistance directly to students who have attended under-resourced middle schools or come from socioeconomically disadvantaged families. For that very reason, the new plan at TJ increased the share of students from low-income families by twelve-fold, while the proportion of students from historically underrepresented middle schools increased from 6% to 31%. TJ was doing what America has been pining after for a quarter-century: pursuing racial and economic diversity without the use of racial preferences.

Judge Hilton's ruling was appealed to the Fourth Circuit, where it may well be overturned. Already, the Fourth Circuit has stayed Hilton's ruling pending appeal. In issuing the stay, one Fourth Circuit judge noted that the lower court's decision looked like a "judicial bait-and-switch," given previous rulings encouraging schools to adopt race-neutral alternatives to racial preferences. A federal district-court judge rejected a similar lawsuit brought by PLF against selective Boston public schools, including the Boston Latin School, for considering academic achievement in light of a student's zip code. That decision is on appeal at the First Circuit.

In a new indication of how far some conservative leaders have been willing to move in the era of Donald Trump, Judge Hilton's assault on race-neutral alternatives was supported by Republican attorneys general from 16 states, who condemned TJ's socioeconomic and percentage plans as an illegal attempt to engage in "racial balancing." Ironically, the hard right has adopted the flawed thinking of Justice Ginsburg — that there is little difference between race-neutral policies and racial preferences — and used it as a sword to attack the very type of policies conservatives have been advocating as an alternative to racial preferences for decades.

Is this really an argument conservatives want to embrace — that a well-intentioned desire to promote racial and economic inclusion without racial preferences is unlawful? Is it really unconstitutional, for example, for a legislature to adopt an increase in the minimum wage for low-income workers of all races in part to decrease the income gap between black and white workers?

For decades, courts have treated government classifications by race and economic status very differently. A progressive income tax is perfectly legal, but one that applied different marginal rates to different racial groups would surely be unconstitutional. Are we to believe that an income-based marginal tax rate is itself a problem if part of the legislative rationale is that progressive taxation tends to fall less heavily on disadvantaged minorities? If this were the case, all of America's social safety-net programs — from food stamps to housing subsidies to Medicaid — could be called into question when racial equality was part of the motivation for these race-neutral policies.

It is important to acknowledge that if the Supreme Court were to strike down racial preferences, there may be universities that engage in outright cheating — that count race explicitly, and that give wealthy black and Hispanic students a preference, for example. Hiding behind opaque "holistic" admissions policies, some far-left admissions officers may try to disobey a Supreme Court ban on racial preferences in the name of civil disobedience.

Any such efforts to revive illegal racial preferences should be punished. Plaintiffs, through discovery, will be able to run statistical analyses — as SFFA did in the Harvard and UNC litigation — that will detect whether colleges are skirting the law. Even if colleges abandon the SAT, as some already have, it will still be possible to detect whether they are employing racial preferences. Institutions that consider thousands of applicants need some quantifiable factors in selecting students, and they will likely continue to rely on AP exam scores, SAT subject-matter grades, and high-school GPAs to do so. In evaluating large numbers of students, universities often apply quantitative ratings to even softer criteria, such as essays and recommendations.

But race-neutral alternatives are not an example of cheating. Indeed, they honor both the conservative and liberal interpretations of Brown v. Board of Education. Conservatives cite Brown as standing for the proposition that race shouldn't count as a factor in where one goes to school. Liberals cite it as standing for the proposition that we all benefit when students attend racially integrated schools rather than segregated ones. Policies that uplift the disadvantaged of all races — and that result in greater racial and economic integration without resorting to racial preferences — satisfy both interpretations of Brown.


While preferences based on race have divided Americans for 50 years, race-neutral alternatives have the potential to bring us together. And, until recently, they have: There are few policies that have the support of Americans from Martin Luther King, Jr., Bayard Rustin, and William Douglas to George W. Bush, Clarence Thomas, and Antonin Scalia. Class-based affirmative action happens to be one of them.

If the Supreme Court curtails racial preferences in college admissions, conservatives should celebrate the triumph of the truth that people should be treated as individuals rather than as members of racial groups. But they should also recognize the other big truth about affirmative action: that good-faith efforts to uplift economically disadvantaged students of all races help fulfill the cherished American goal of facilitating social mobility.

The fact that those efforts will disproportionately open doors to members of racial groups who have long suffered discrimination in America should not be viewed by conservatives as a cause for concern. To the contrary, it should be seen as a welcome and important step forward for a country that is forever seeking to form a more perfect union.

Richard D. Kahlenberg, an education and housing researcher and policy consultant, is a non-resident scholar at Georgetown University’s McCourt School of Public Policy. The author or editor of 18 books, he served as an expert witness for Students for Fair Admissions in its lawsuits against Harvard University and the University of North Carolina.


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