“The opportunity gap in America is now as much about class as it is about race,” President Obama told a Washington, D.C. audience last week. Obama cited a recent study showing that the achievement gap between poor students and affluent students is almost twice the size of the black-white achievement gap.

The themes from President Obama’s speech will be at the heart of a debate on affirmative action taking place this week at the State University of New York’s Nelson A. Rockefeller Institute of Government.

TCF senior fellow Richard Kahlenberg will take the stage with Harvard Law School Professor Randall Kennedy and moderator Nicholas Lemann of the New Yorker to discuss “The Future of Affirmative Action.”

For liberals, the conversation promises to be an interesting look at the debate on affirmative action from within a progressive framework. While both are liberal scholars, Kennedy is a leading supporter of race-based affirmative action, and Kahlenberg champions class-based affirmative action instead.

Taking a closer look at where they agree and where their thinking diverges helps clarify the questions that liberals must tackle when evaluating the merits of racial preferences in university admissions and hiring.

Here’s a primer on the main liberal arguments for and against race-based affirmative action:

The Liberal Case for Considering Race

In his book For Discrimination: Race, Affirmative Action, and the Law, Randall Kennedy gives an honest account of the pros and cons of race-based affirmative action, concluding that the benefits outweigh the costs. “I champion sensibly designed racial affirmative action,” he writes, “because, on balance, it is conducive to the public good.”

Kennedy identifies at least four strong reasons to support giving a leg up to minority applicants in college admissions and job applications:

  • Affirmative action partially rectifies the injustices created by the legacy of racism and discrimination, particularly towards African-Americans, throughout American history.
  • Affirmative action acts as an antidote to the racial discrimination continuing today, in ways sometimes too subtle to pinpoint.
  • Affirmative action helps integrate minority groups—including recent immigrants—with the broader American society.
  • Affirmative action helps create diverse learning and working environments, which foster critical thinking and problem solving.

Still, Kennedy acknowledges that racial preferences do come with a trade-off:

“Like all policies, affirmative action entails costs. It risks instilling excessive race-mindedness, stoking resentments, and divering attention from those whose needs are even greater than those typically benefited by positive discrimination.”

The Liberal Argument to Use Class Instead

In a review of Kennedy’s For Discrimination, Richard Kahlenberg writes, “I’m torn by racial affirmative action, seeing considerable costs as well as considerable benefits.”

Despite sharing Kennedy’s commitment to addressing inequality through affirmative plans that give a leg up to disadvantaged applicants, Kahlenberg ultimately concludes that the costs of race-based affirmative action outweigh its benefits.

Instead, he favors programs that focus on socioeconomic disadvantage, for a number of reasons:

  • Considering socioeconomic status is an effective and more morally and legally defensible way of achieving racial diversity. Kahlenberg writes:

“When proxies produce a similar degree of racial diversity, they are superior to racial preferences. Proxies avoid the disadvantages associated with policies that directly use race, as there are costs and dangers to policies that legitimize grouping people by racial characteristics—even when statistically valid. If there is another way of getting to the same valued goal—racial diversity—without legitimizing race-based decision making, the alternative is to be favored.”

  • Placing class first helps build a racially diverse coalition in support of progressive policies to fight economic inequality.
  • As President Obama pointed out, socioeconomic obstacles are a bigger factor than race in student achievement and success.
  • In practice, universities put much more emphasis on race than class in their diversity policies unless they are barred from considering race.

The Future of Affirmative Action

For liberals committed to fighting the opportunity gap, therefore, the debate over race, class, and affirmative action hinges on a number of questions:

  1. Do the benefits of race-based affirmative action outweigh its ill effects?
  2. Which type of disadvantage—class-based or race-based—should affirmative action identify as its primary target?
  3. Can considering socioeconomic status produce enough racial diversity?
  4. If colleges are allowed to consider race, will they make a meaningful effort to consider socioeconomic status as well?

The discussion is happening Thursday, December 12, 1 p.m., at 116 East 55th St, NYC. Sign up if you want to hear Kennedy and Kahlenberg address these questions and more, or share your ideas with us on Twitter: @tcfdotorg.