How elites use zoning and NIMBYism to keep the working class out, with Richard Kahlenburg

On the penultimate day of June 2023, the Supreme Court ruled 6-2 to overturn race-based affirmative action programs in college admissions. Chief Justice John Roberts, in the opinion issued by the Court’s conservative members, declared that the racially determined admissions policies of Harvard University and the University of North Carolina violated the Equal Protections Clause of the 14th Amendment. Roberts wrote that while the stated goals of those universities’ admissions policies were “commendable,” including training future leaders and exposing students to diverse outlooks, these were “not sufficiently coherent for purposes of strict scrutiny.”

For decades, Richard Kahlenberg has been the country’s leading advocate for replacing race-based affirmative action with class-based affirmative action. Kahlenberg, who until recently was a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, laid out his position in the 1996 bestseller The Remedy and has consistently adhered to it ever since. Inspired by the example of Robert Kennedy’s 1968 presidential campaign, he has called for “a liberalism without elitism and a populism without racism.” 

Toward that end, Kahlenberg has written a new book about the housing policies that, in his view, have harmful effects on education and life chances for students of all colors from less advantaged backgrounds. Largely invisible zoning laws and regulations often dictate which socioeconomic grounds can live where. The most liberal and well-educated communities deploy these practices to keep the working class out. As Kahlenberg writes in his new book Excluded: How Snob Zoning, Nimbyism, and Class Bias Build the Walls We Don’t See, “exclusionary zoning is one of America’s most damaging and pervasive forms of class discrimination.” And the extent to which left-leaning communities practice it contributed to his growing recognition “that liberalism — the political ideology I was raised in and still am most generally attracted to — has a serious elitism problem that needs correcting.”

In this podcast interview, recorded just before the Supreme Court issued its decision in the Harvard and UNC case, Kahlenberg discusses his long advocacy for class-based affirmative action and his more recent view that decisions by housing authorities are often more consequential for students than the decisions of school boards. He describes how zoning laws often result in “state-sponsored economic discrimination” and suggests how to reform them. He also talks about what is good and bad about meritocracy, the different ways that elites and the general public perceive issues like class-based affirmative action, and ways that the Democratic party may go about trying to improve its standing among working-class voters. 


Richard Kahlenberg: As Democrats become increasingly reliant on upper middle class White liberals, as a central part of their electoral coalition, it becomes dangerous to take on things like exclusionary zoning. You don’t want to go after what has become, in essence, the base of the Democratic Party.

Geoff Kabaservice: Hello, I’m Geoff Kabaservice for the Niskanen Center. Welcome to the Vital Center Podcast, where we try to sort through the problems of the muddled moderate majority of Americans drawing upon history, biography and current events. And I’m pleased to be joined today by Richard Kahlenberg. He is a non-resident scholar at Georgetown University’s McCourt School of Public Policy, a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute and a professorial lecturer at George Washington University’s Trachtenberg School of Public Policy and Public Administration. He was for 24 years, a senior fellow at the Century Foundation, a progressive think tank, under whose auspices he wrote or edited most of his 18 previous books.

During that time, he became known as the country’s chief proponent of class-based affirmative action in higher education, admissions, and an authority on housing segregation, teachers unions, charter schools, community colleges, and labor organizing. Welcome Rick.

Richard Kahlenberg: Thanks so much for having me, Geoff.

Geoff Kabaservice: I really wanted to have you on the podcast today to talk about your fourth coming book, Excluded: How Snob Zoning, NIMBYism and Class Bias Build the Walls We Don’t See, which will be published on July 11th. I also just wanted to thank you for being a model of the kind of principled integrity and scholarship that’s rare in any field. You’ve been consistent in your positions over the years, sometimes at a personal and professional cost in a way that has always made your work worth reading and respecting even when I’ve disagreed with some of your positions.

Richard Kahlenberg: Well, thank you and the admiration is mutual.

Geoff Kabaservice: Well, thank you. I would like to ask you about your role in the debate around affirmative action in higher education that has made you a national figure, at least since the publication of your 1996 book, The Remedy: Class, Race and Affirmative Action. I want to talk first about your new book, Excluded, which is a terrific, and I think terrifically convincing argument for addressing what you call the state sponsored economic discrimination that adheres in zoning and other aspects of housing policy. I want to start with the anecdote with which you begin the book, which describes your presence at a school board meeting in the Charlotte, North Carolina area immediately after Donald Trump’s election as president in November 2016. Can you sort of set the scene for us?

Richard Kahlenberg: Yes. So many of us were feeling quite despondent. Donald Trump had been elected president, and to my mind, this was something akin to electing George Wallace. Yet, I came to appreciate the ways in which our education system has dispersed local control because I was there in Charlotte to try to do something positive for kids. There is research going back decades to suggest that economically disadvantaged students will do better on average in economically mixed schools as opposed to high poverty schools. Charlotte to its credit was trying to do something about it. I worked with the school board and the civil rights leader and others to try to create a system where the magnet schools, the schools that people choose into, would attempt to get a healthy economic mix of middle class low income and wealthier students.

So I was feeling very good about this and at the same time, bumped up against something I’ve been struggling with for really decades, which is that you may be able to help a small number of students get into schools of choice that are economically integrated, and that’s great for them, but the vast majority of students are going to remain in highly segregated schools. Schools that have concentrations of poverty that are racially separate in many ways. So it spurred me to really tackle the question of housing directly and the discrimination that we see in housing.

Geoff Kabaservice: Can you describe what the basic concepts of state sponsored economic discrimination as you see it, are that impact housing and everything that flows from housing including education?

Richard Kahlenberg: So we all recognize that there are certain neighborhoods that are more affluent, some that are poor, some that are predominantly Black, some that are predominantly White. Many people, I think see that as a natural working of the marketplace. And it is true that in communities that have stronger public schools that are safer, the property commands at a higher price. What that misses is that government has … local governments have socially engineered that segregation by erecting all sorts of barriers to people of modest means from living in certain communities. So to give you some of the most common examples, a community may say, anyone can live here so long as they can afford a single family home.

We’re going to ban apartments, we’re going to ban even duplexes and triplexes only single family homes. Many take it a step further and they say, you can live here so long as that single family home sits on a plot of land that is at least a half an acre in size or sometimes even larger. So this is a form of discrimination because the government is deciding who can live where, and it directly discriminates base on income. If you are Black and of means, you can come to the neighborhood, but anyone of any race who is economically disadvantaged will be shut out. Of course in our society that has a terrible disproportionate impact on Black and Hispanic people who are disproportionately poor as well.

So if you go back to the origins of these laws, many of them were actually racially motivated. There was racial zoning in this country for many years in the early 20th century, Baltimore, Louisville other places said that if you were Black, you couldn’t buy in certain neighborhoods. When that was struck down by the Supreme Court, it morphed quickly into economically discriminatory zoning that lives with us to this day. It’s one of the most pervasive forms of class discrimination that we have in our society, and one of the most damaging.

Geoff Kabaservice: I’m sure we’ll get into this, but it’s a peculiar thing about this phenomenon which you describe in your book that often it’s the most politically liberal and highly educated areas that engage most intensely in this form of class discrimination.

Richard Kahlenberg: Yes, and as a liberal myself, this is particularly disconcerting. One might assume if you’re a liberal, that conservatives who are … or at least some conservatives who are in favor of building walls between nations and maybe may have a reputation as being more exclusionary, would have the worst kinds of exclusionary zoning, but in fact, the opposite is true. That in part, may be for benign reasons, historically, that as liberals were more concerned about environmental protection, more concerned about making sure that when public decisions are made, that there’s lots of input. Those environmental laws and public input laws have been weaponized today by wealthy folks to exclude.

And the less benign interpretation is something that Michael Sandel and others have put their finger on, which is that if the cardinal sin of some on the right, historically has been racism, the cardinal sin of liberalism today is elitism. Sandel cites a powerful study which found that upper middle class, well-educated people are less discriminatory in their attitudes towards Blacks and other traditional targets of discrimination. They have higher levels of prejudice against those with less education, and that manifests itself in lots of different ways. It manifests itself when Hillary Clinton talks about millions of working class White people as deplorables and that those fundraisers where she talked about it, wealthy people laugh.

And it manifests itself in exclusionary zoning where we have this very high level found in communities with highly educated liberals who think of themselves as particularly enlightened on issues of prejudice and in fact, have this glaring blind spot.

Geoff Kabaservice: So you point out in your book that we are in the midst of what by some measures is one of the worst housing shortage crises that we’ve experienced in this country for decades and you say further that this shortage is not just something produced by the market, actually in many ways is driven by these government discriminatory policies. Can you tell something about that?

Richard Kahlenberg: Yes. So we all remember during the pandemic that there were shortages of cars and then, the price of cars that … used cars in particular skyrocketed because there wasn’t enough supply. We have basically kind of a permanent supply malfunction in the housing sector. So, normally if you want to produce more cars, the market will fill that need. In housing, if it were a genuinely free market, then builders would build more housing where people want it, but government interferes with that and artificially inflate prices. Now that works well if you’re an incumbent homeowner and the price of your home continues to accelerate because there’s limited supply.

If you’re a young family starting out and are looking for a home, if you are a low income or working class family that is looking for better opportunities for your family, this just imposes a lot of pain when we regulate the housing supply in a way that artificially increases prices.

Geoff Kabaservice: So as a way of getting at some of these issues from a different angle, can you tell me something about your own personal background, where you come from, where you went to school, and what kind of influences brought you to the work that you do?

Richard Kahlenberg: Sure. So I was born in Washington DC. My formative years were in Minnesota, and I grew up in a kind of, I guess traditional upper middle class White liberal household. My father was a minister and my mother was involved in lots of civic activities. She was on the school board. So I was raised with a deep concern for civil rights and for inequality. Then when I went off to college at Harvard, there was kind of … I guess I came to appreciate a twist on that traditional liberalism. I came across a biography of Bobby Kennedy Senior, I will emphasize. And this was transformative for me because Bobby Kennedy was in many ways a liberal, strong supporter of civil rights, but also, recognized in a way that a lot of liberals have not. The importance of class and equality in American society and the ways in which working class White people also deserve a better break.

So in 1968, he believed that we had to get up at some of these fundamental issues of class, and he campaigned on that in a way that brought together working class White and Black people and Hispanic people, altogether. And I think he could have transformed the country and made it fair if he’d lived and gone on to be president. So I’m very inspired by that vision. So I remain a liberal, but I’m also sometimes tough on liberals who aren’t living up to kind of that ideal.

Geoff Kabaservice: What religion was your father a pastor in?

Richard Kahlenberg: He was a Presbyterian minister and was someone who gave sermons from a … I would say from a liberal perspective, which sometimes got him in trouble.

Geoff Kabaservice: I want to say it was Robert McAfee Brown, who was actually a sort of leader in the Presbyterian church in the 1960s who very much put his institutional weight on the side of the Civil Rights Movement.

Richard Kahlenberg: Yes, yes, that’s right. My father, he did his master’s work with Reinhold Niebuhr at Union Theological Seminary, so there were lots of powerful influences on him that in turn, I would say influenced me.

Geoff Kabaservice: So I actually do feel when I read your work that in many ways, you are faithfully channeling an older form of liberalism that was not indifferent to matters of race and identity, because after all, it was deeply associated with the Civil Rights Movement, but it also had its roots in the new deal in awareness of class discrimination, in support for the labor movement. It seems to me that Robert Kennedy was a very faithful exemplar of that kind of liberalism as well. You wrote in your book as well as in some earlier pieces that what Robert Kennedy was able to do was not just bring together working class Black, Latino, and White constituencies, but also to champion a liberalism without elitism and a populism without racism. And I think that in some ways is an appealing model that is absent from the American political scene right now.

Richard Kahlenberg: Absolutely. I mean, when I hear someone like Donald Trump say that the system is rigged, part of me finds that appealing. A recognition that things aren’t fair for working class people, but then he infects it with this terrible racism, blatant racism that’s deeply immoral. And on the liberal side, there is that appreciation, deep appreciation for the ways in which Black and Hispanic people in America face extra obstacles. Because that focus has been so central, it becomes easy to ignore issues of class inequality and indeed, it’s convenient to vilify working class White people for their attitudes on race as a way as kind of an excuse for continuing on with the economic status quo. So, you see that in the affirmative action context and others where actually upper middle class Whites benefit greatly from an exclusive focus on race.

In one of my classes that I teach at George Washington University, I talk about that sign that we all have seen in various educated communities where they’re getting at issues that I care about deeply as well, civil rights and gay rights and immigration, treating immigrants well, all of these things that are powerful, but there’s never anything about class, nothing about … that will cost upper middle class White liberals something in terms of whether they’re going to have to pay higher prices because labor unions will extract fair wages or whether it has to come to the issue we’re talking about, housing. So I want to push liberals, my fellow liberals to appreciate that issue more intensely.

Geoff Kabaservice: So you have a fasting statistic, which I’ve seen before in your book, but in 1960, John F. Kennedy, Robert’s older brother won working class White voters, but lost White college graduates by a two to one margin. Joe Biden running in 2020 saw the reverse of those issues. He won White college graduates by two to one, but lost the White working class. There is so much to be said about this change in the two parties respected bases, but from your perspective, why does it seem to you that the Democrats have become so unpopular with their former base in the party of the people among the White working class?

Richard Kahlenberg: Well, I think that when you listen to the rhetoric of Democrats and hear them talk about issues of inequality, in terms of, as I say, important categories, race and gender, sexual orientation, people notice that you’re leaving something out, you’re leaving out the concerns of working people. I feel like Joe Biden tried to make some amends in that area, but it’s hard to get … it’s been hard for him to penetrate with that message, in part, because of policies like racial preferences that are clearly geared in one direction. So President Obama said that he felt like his own daughters did not deserve a break in admissions and that working class people of all races do. I think he was onto something very important there.

That’s not what voters hear, because when this recent case came before the Supreme Court, there was Joe Biden defending racial preferences, class blind racial preferences. So Democrats have lost the ability to speak clearly to working class Whites in a way that’s deeply troubling. I think the real tragedy is that because so many working class Whites have supported Donald Trump, now, a lot of liberals have just given up and said, “Well, this is a group of deplorable people whom we can feel superior to because we have more enlightened racial attitudes.” Voters aren’t stupid. They see that. They see the condescension, and I’m hoping that one day liberalism will get back on track in part out of a matter of necessity.

That if you want to win the Senate, if you want to win in the electoral college, then you have to get at some of the kitchen table issues that really animate voters who are struggling economically.

Geoff Kabaservice: So why did you want to go to law school and how does your law training, your legal training relate to the kind of work that you’ve been doing in the think tank world?

Richard Kahlenberg: Well, this is a question I’ve been asked by family members because I did go to law school, I never practiced law, I never even took the bar. Originally, I wanted to promote certain liberal values. So I was attracted to the idea of being Thurgood Marshall, like Atticus Finch back in the day when Atticus Finch was a model, and Ralph Nader back when he was a model as well. So, the law could be a tool for progress and social change, and I was very attracted to those models. Actually, the first book I wrote was a memoir about my experiences at Harvard Law School, and I was discouraged that people who were rhetorically far to the left of me were at the same time marching off to big law firms. So that may have been part of the beginning of my questions about fellow liberals

Geoff Kabaservice: What led you to write that book on class-based affirmative action and how that would be a preferable model to race-based affirmative action?

Richard Kahlenberg: Well, part of it was that because I was studying the law, I recognized that there were vulnerabilities to using race in admissions. It turns out that this was in the late 1980s, that that concern was postponed for many years until probably very soon we’ll hear from the Supreme Court on this issue, but there was a practical concern about the need to have some kind of affirmative action that would prevail. So, I wrote a paper with Alan Dershowitz at Harvard Law School on that topic and wrote about … there were maybe a page or two in my memoir about Harvard Law School. In those days, people didn’t send emails, but they did send me a lot of letters. It was extraordinary because this was just a short passage in a much longer book about lots of issues. And yet, a lot of people seemed animated by the idea of creating a fair affirmative action that would address class inequality.

So that was part of what motivated me. Part of it was that I just looked around the college and law school environments that I’d been in and saw that there was racial diversity, which is a good thing, much less class diversity, and that seemed like an omission, and it was a way of, in essence, trying to implement what I saw, what I read to be the Bobby Kennedy vision of really trying to address class directly in our public policy. I saw that that wasn’t happening with respect to affirmative action.

Geoff Kabaservice: It seemed to me, looking at this debate from the outside, that your original proposal for class-based rather than race-based affirmative action in higher education admissions was received very favorably by many on the left, but it seemed to me that as the left more moved toward a kind of liberalism, organized more around racial identity than around class and equal opportunity, that this view fell increasingly out of favor to the point where a lot of people would denounce such a proposal today. How did that look from inside? How did you experience that?

Richard Kahlenberg: I would distinguish between elites and the public. So among elites, it is true that there was a shift where … when I first wrote about this topic, I had an article in The New Republic and Bill Clinton was very intrigued by the idea of class-based rather than race-based affirmative action. So there was some momentum, but interest groups … there are strong interest groups as there should be to protect the interests of Black people, Hispanic people, women. There once was this powerful labor movement in this country that would also defend class interests, but over time, the labor movement, because it wanted to preserve alliances with other groups, really bought into the idea that affirmative action should be based on race and gender rather than class. So over time, elites shifted.

Again, I think it’s in part because it’s very convenient in their self-interest to emphasize issues of race and gender rather than class, and by that, I don’t mean to dismiss the importance of race and gender. It’s just that it’s much less expensive to deal with those questions than it is with fundamental issues of class. I draw the distinction between elites and the popular opinion because if you look at rank and file Democrats, many of them do support affirmative action based on class, and many are uncomfortable with racial preferences. So to give one example, California in 2020, November 2020, which was at a moment when we were all dealing with the very, very serious issues raised by the murder of George Floyd, California voters overwhelmingly elected Joe Biden and overwhelmingly rejected racial preferences.

So the public hasn’t shifted. They still want affirmative action based on class rather than race, but among elites, opinion is hardened. My hope is that a conservative Supreme Court decision on race will actually free liberals to help push a host of liberal policies that address, support working class students of all races. I mean, when I remember talking to an Obama staffer a number of years ago and saying, “Oh, I’m so excited by President Obama talking about his own daughter’s not deserving a break and wanting to base affirmative action based on class,” and she said to me, yes, but the courts are going to have to force him to do that. There’s no way politically that he could urge the shift. Now, that seems likely to happen.

And I think it will liberate Democrats to embrace an affirmative action based on class that will disproportionately help Black and Hispanic people, but will also open the doors to working class White and Asian students.

Geoff Kabaservice: It’s strongly discouraged in the podcasting business from giving any actual dates that you are having this conversation because that dates the conversation, but I have to add parenthetically here that you and I are talking in late June, but before the Supreme Court has issued its decision on affirmative action, and of course, it’s widely expected that the Supreme Court is going to reject affirmative action in higher education admissions, what would you regard as a positive and a negative outcome in the Supreme Court decision that we do not yet know what it will be?

Richard Kahlenberg: So in terms of the decision itself, I think a positive ruling would say that you cannot use race in admissions, but you can do lots of other good things to promote racial diversity indirectly, and that is adopt programs like a class-based affirmative action. A negative ruling or a problematic ruling in my view, deeply problematic ruling, would go much further and say, you can’t use race and admissions and if part of your motivation for supporting class-based affirmative action is that it will produce some racial diversity, then that itself is illegal. This is a position kind of throws on … further to the right are pushing.

In the Wall Street Journal, there was a piece recently which said if you use race neutral means and you are partly motivated by increasing racial diversity like George Bush was when he promoted the top 10% plan in Texas to admit students in the top 10% of their high school class, that itself is just as bad as using racial preferences. So if the court went that far, then I think we’re really in deep trouble, but if it takes this middle ground, which is where the American public is, racial diversity is good, racial preferences are not the way to get there, then I think we’ll have a much less divisive future and one that really starts to address some of the issues of class and equality.

Geoff Kabaservice: As you know, I wrote my first book on Kingman Brewster, who was the president of Yale University during the 1960s when Yale, I think really touched off a second wave of meritocracy. Harvard had gone there under President James Conant in the 1930s, but Brewster really was head of the institution at the time that it was grappling with the changes that came out of the civil rights movement, but also the general wave of egalitarianism that affected the American public in the wake of World War II and trying to implement that in higher education and admissions. There’s any number of avenues we could take that discussion down, but I do want to point out that although meritocracy is now a term that is denounced on the left and meritocracy comes in for some criticism in several of your chapters in Excluded.

It originally was seen as a liberal means of breaking the hold of something like an American aristocracy over the most prestigious elite universities like Yale, like Harvard, other members of the Ivys, as well as Stanford and a handful of others. It in fact was much more widely searching the country to find talent, particularly from people from challenged social economic backgrounds, and then in some cases giving them preference in admissions relative to what they’d had before against people from exclusive prep schools and advantaged backgrounds, but the fact is that the left has now decided that this is a bad thing. Meritocracy is something they object to, partly because it has become an ocracy of its own and is self-replicating.

So I just wonder where your perspective is on when and why meritocracy might have gone wrong from the left’s perspective and when it ceased to operate as a generally benign liberal principle, opening up education to a more diverse set of groups and as well as to both sexes when we’re talking about co-education?

Richard Kahlenberg: Well, I’d say a couple of things. One is first I hold on to meritocracy. I believe deeply in meritocracy. I mean the alternative is nepotism or some sort of system that’s based on inherited privilege, I find that problematic, but my definition of meritocracy would be an expansive one that looks at obstacles that a student has overcome as well as what her record, academic record, leadership record and other things are. So it’s a genuine meritocracy that I think is quite … that we should be striving for, and I think this is something that people outside of elite liberal circles recognize. I remember being on a panel on school diversity in New York City with Hazel Dukes who’s president of the statewide NAACP.

And I said, “We’ve got to be against segregation but for meritocracy,” and she absolutely agreed, she understood that if you took some of this faculty lounge politics about suggesting that meritocracy itself is a problem, you would lose the public. So I’m very much in favor of meritocracy. There are two caveats, I guess. One is that it needs to be genuine meritocracy, looking at hurdles overcome, not just test scores and grades. The other is that one has to be very careful about addressing the hubris that comes along with meritocracy and the sense that … and again, Michael Sandel talks about this very eloquently that the winners in meritocracy inhale too deeply of their success and we see that in various ways. He talks about Hillary Clinton bragging that yes, she lost the election, but she won the most prosperous areas, the successful areas.

And I think Democrats got in trouble when they went too far in talking about the importance of a college education when close to two thirds of the country doesn’t have a bachelor’s degree to be denigrating them seems and is problematic. So it’s the attitudes of entitlement that are sometimes a byproduct of meritocracy that in my view are a problem and not meritocracy itself.

Geoff Kabaservice: It seems that an awful lot of this debate over meritocracy at selective college and university admissions departments is symbolic in the sense that we aren’t really talking about a huge number of students who are admitted to such schools each year. Far more important in the overall scheme of American opportunity are the community colleges, which you’ve written about extensively, but I think it’s also fair to say that the elite university admissions do matter because they have a disproportionate record of producing the nation’s leaders.

Richard Kahlenberg: Right. Yeah. I mean, there’s one study that found … that roughly half of government leaders and half of leaders in the business community come from just 12 selective institutions.

Geoff Kabaservice: That was Dai, I want to say is the name of the author.

Richard Kahlenberg: That’s correct. And that’s why it does matter who goes to selective colleges and why it would have, I think, in my view, a very beneficial impact if there were many more … if there’s a larger proportion of the student body who … at these elite institutions who had known struggle themselves, economic struggle. I think that would give our leadership class a different shape than we have today. So I think that it does matter. At the same time, if you are concerned about inequality in society, it’s absurd to focus only on those institutions. I did spend a lot of time writing about … researching and writing about community colleges because those are the quintessential institutions in America for the aspiring middle class, and we grossly underfund them. The students who need the most get the least.

So I think we have to do both, change the elite institutions that provide our leadership class disproportionately and fundamentally find ways to support the institutions that serve the great number of working class and low income students in America.

Geoff Kabaservice: David Brooks writing in his New York Times column a few weeks ago gave a very laudatory shout out to some of your own work on this subject. And he particularly mentioned a study you had done with Duke economist Peter Arcidiacono.

Richard Kahlenberg: Arcidiacono.

Geoff Kabaservice: I know, I was going to mess that one up. Thank you. That was based on data you had from Harvard and the University of North Carolina and trying to build an admissions model that would end racial preferences and preferences for children of faculty members and alumni, but boost applicants from poor families and disadvantaged neighborhoods. Can you tell me something about what you found running this model?

Richard Kahlenberg: Yes, and I should add, it’s a very sophisticated exercise because usually when you run simulations, you don’t have all the information and you may know test scores and you may know grades but not that much more. We had the full scope of Harvard’s information and UNCs information about how they viewed applicants, the strength of their extracurriculars and all sorts of things that do matter and should matter in admissions. Basically, we found there was an overall increase in diversity when you shift from race to class. So most obviously, socioeconomic diversity increases quite a bit and you don’t have, as Harvard does, 15 times as many wealthy students as low income students. Under the new model. In terms of racial diversity, racial and ethnic diversity, the Hispanic representation increased.

The Asian representation increased, the White representation decreased, and what many people are focused on and is notable is that also Black representation decreased from 14% to 10%. One thing to note though is that Arcidiacono and I did not have access to Harvard’s information about the wealth of applicants. So we had income, rough information about income, but not an education levels of the parents because Harvard used those indicators to tag students as economically disadvantaged. Wealth matters a lot to opportunity in America because you can afford to buy a home in a neighborhood with strong public schools if you have wealth, income alone doesn’t necessarily do it. So it’s the fair thing to do, to count wealth, but also, it better captures our terrible history of slavery, segregation, red lining, all of which have resulted in a huge wealth gap between White and Black Americans.

So Black Americans make about 60% of what White Americans make in terms of income, but the wealth gap is much bigger. Black families often have about 10% of the wealth of White families. So if we had access to wealth, the number of African Americans in the simulation would’ve increased, and that’s something that is important to me and important I think to universities to note because they can do better than the Harvard simulation suggested.

Geoff Kabaservice: You mention of the Black-White wealth gap naturally leads us back to Excluded because it does seem that the whole history of exclusionary zoning and other housing policies put in place by the government or at least enforced by the government, are deeply implicated in the Black-White wealth gap.

Richard Kahlenberg: That’s right, so we have … the wealth gap has been socially engineered in this country, and Richard Rothstein and others have … Ta-Nehisi Coates have done a great job of explaining the ways in which racial discrimination in the 20th century led to the wealth gap. In essence, I’m updating that story by also talking about the ways in which exclusionary zoning, which are not a matter of a disgraceful past, but are omnipresent today, these laws that forbid multifamily housing and the like that disproportionately hurts Black people today because of the wealth gap that has developed over time. So, in the book, I talk about one mother, working class mother in Columbus, Ohio, who just wants better for her kids.

She lives in a dangerous neighborhood where she has to drive her kids to her mother’s house just a couple blocks away because it would be unsafe to have them walk, and she wants strong schools. She’s got one kid who’s gifted and it’s this terrible shame that she doesn’t have access to good schools and she’s African American. In the old days, it would’ve been race explicitly that kept her out of better neighborhoods. Today, it’s the class impediment. There are upper middle class Black people who can buy into neighborhoods that have greater opportunity, but low income and low wealth Black families are particularly hurt today by the class barriers.

Geoff Kabaservice: You describe in the book how the Supreme Court in 1917 overturned explicit racial bans on African-Americans living in particular neighborhoods in cities, but there also was the Fair Housing Act of 1968, which outlawed racial discrimination, and yet it actually seems that this economic discrimination exploded after the passage of the Fair Housing Act. Can you tell us how that process unfolded?

Richard Kahlenberg: Every time there was an advance in civil rights, you saw wealthy or White people respond with new means of excluding Black people and many working class Whites as well. So there were two upticks in the use of exclusionary zoning where suddenly communities started cracking down, really tightening who could live in the community. The first one came in the early 20th century after that 1917 decision, which outlawed racial zoning. So you saw a great expansion of exclusionary zoning. The second time you saw an expansion or an uptick in exclusionary zoning came in the 1970s. Again, the timing is suspicious because the Fair Housing Act said that you can’t exclude people, discriminate based on race per se in housing, but towns could use exclusionary zoning policies to effectively exclude any way by excluding people who are less wealthy.

As we were discussing, that’s particularly effective at excluding working class Black people, but it’s still somewhat effective in excluding even upper middle class Black people because they may be upper middle class in terms of income, but many will be new to the middle class and not have acquired wealth, not had a chance to acquire wealth. So it remains effective and as I say, suspicious. Now, I want to be clear at the same time that in upper middle class White liberal communities, I don’t think it’s a racial animus that is driving exclusion today. There are people in upper middle class White communities who will celebrate the fact that there’s a Black neighbor, who’s a doctor or embassy official down.

They genuinely like that and I don’t doubt that. I do think they would be horrified if there were meaningful numbers of working class people, including working class people of all races in the community. So, I don’t want to suggest that today’s exclusionary zoning is primarily motivated by … and educated communities is primarily motivated by race, but that is a powerful effect of exclusionary zoning to exclude most Black people.

Geoff Kabaservice: You actually have an interesting vignette from Prince George’s County Maryland on the outskirts of Washington DC, looking at Jack Johnson who was the PG County chief executive, and the ways in which he sought to put in place zoning restrictions that would discriminate against economically disadvantaged Black people in this largely Black county.

Richard Kahlenberg: Yes, we see it throughout the country that wealthy Whites exclude lower income Whites and wealthier Black people exclude working class Black people. So, Jack Johnson did it essentially by providing a defacto ban on new townhouses that were less expensive and really trying to make Prince George’s County more exclusionary in the way that Montgomery County, nearby Montgomery County has been. So, it was class discrimination within racial groups and that’s gone on for years, but it was an important factor in Prince George’s County in the late … or I guess early 21st century and late 20th century.

Geoff Kabaservice: In your survey of other elite communities which effectively discriminate against the working class, you point out that some of the weapons in their arsenal are requirements for single family homes in a particular area, the size of the minimum lot that can be allowed. You have an example, for example, the Massachusetts, in Cambridge, the minimum lot size is 900 square feet. In Weston, it’s 240,000 square feet and there’s a lot of other permit and regulatory hurdles that exist as well. Particularly, this is what we … part of the overall field that we’re calling state capacity, where there is what Nicholas Bagley refers to as the procedural fetish.

The ways in which there’s a vetocracy by which advantage people can slow down the process to make it economically unfeasible, to build multifamily homes, other kinds of zoning reforms that would advantage less advantaged homeowners who want to buy into the community. Is the state capacity field something with which you have explicitly engaged or is it simply there’s people working on this around you who are coming to the same conclusions that you are coming to?

Richard Kahlenberg: Yeah, I haven’t studied that particular literature, although I’m deeply familiar with the concept as you describe it. So there are an array of tools that wealthy interest can use to slow down or make housing more expensive and therefore to kill projects. Sometimes, they’ll do it under the guise of progressive policy. So they’ll say that we want there to be more affordable housing in this particular housing project, which makes it then therefore unprofitable for the developer to move forward. I mean, there are all sorts of tricks, including the use of requirements that if you are going to have multifamily housing, it’d be quite expensive and use certain types of siding. I think there’s an interesting way in which … and maybe this is partly what you’re getting at. There are ways in which liberals and conservatives can come together on this.

So conservatives who don’t want government regulation have under certain circumstances, allied with liberals who are seen exclusionary zoning as an question of civil rights and segregation where they can’t come together around a common idea, even if they’re coming at it from very different perspectives.

Geoff Kabaservice: I want to ask about the remedies that exist that you’ve proposed to the whole situation of the inequality that stems from our housing policies. You’ve described the number of measures that could be taken both at the local level and then also, on the national level to try to bring about reform in this area. Can you tell me something about both of those spheres?

Richard Kahlenberg: Yes, and this is one of the encouraging things about this policy space. For years, NIMBYs, the not in my backyard folks, almost always won. That was pretty much of a safe bet. If there was a dispute and there were wealthy interests who wanted to stop the project, not in my backyard, they would almost always prevail. In the last five years, we’ve seen an explosion of reform, and it started in Minneapolis where there was an effort to end exclusive single family zoning throughout the city. It spread to Oregon where they’ve also legalized duplexes and triplexes throughout the state and in California in the south and Charlotte, there’ve been a number of local efforts to address exclusionary zoning, and they require that in the case of state reform, that localities adopt more open policies for development.

At the federal level, we’ve seen less action, but some interesting coalitions coming together. So there’s been a bipartisan effort to provide 80 million dollars in funding to in essence provide an incentive for communities to adopt more inclusive zoning policies. So we’re seeing the beginnings of an effort. I think we need to do much more at the federal level though.

Geoff Kabaservice: Have we seen any kind of improvements in the situation that have stemmed from efforts like Minneapolis’s decision to end single family zoning?

Richard Kahlenberg: Yes. So in Minneapolis itself, the research suggests that it wasn’t so much the ending of single family exclusionary zoning that had the big impact, but there were some other efforts to build multifamily housing around transportation that have had a positive impact. There was a study that Pew did on Minneapolis and some other communities that found greater development and less and lower rent increases than was true nationally. One of the most dramatic examples of success is in the Los Angeles area where after California passed some legislation, legalizing, the technical term is, accessory dwelling units. These are the granny flats that can be put either in a backyard or garage apartment or within a unit. That has become the major source of growth in Los Angeles now, where there are many more thousands of these small units built than actual home, full scale single family homes.

So we are beginning to see some change. It’s never immediate because it requires time to see the fruition of reforms, but we are seeing some positive results already.

Geoff Kabaservice: Yeah, you do mention that statewide in California, since ending of that ban, ADUs comprised 10% of new housing, which is up from less than 1% eight years earlier.

Richard Kahlenberg: That’s right.

Geoff Kabaservice: I have to go back to a question about your early models and mentors. You wrote a book about Albert Shanker, who once was very well-known as a labor leader in the educational field, now, perhaps is a bit obscure, but your 2007 book was called Tough Liberal: Albert Shanker and the Battles Over Schools, Unions, Race and Democracy. Can you tell us something about who Albert Shanker was, how he was perceived, and what he would think about some of these battles you’re writing about nowadays you think?

Richard Kahlenberg: Well, so Albert Shanker, although in many ways is very different than Robert Kennedy was in many ways a parallel figure. As a labor leader, he understood the realities of class in America. Al Shankar was … his parents were immigrant Jews in New York City, so he faced discrimination. He knew that reality, and at the same time, he went to get a PhD at Columbia in philosophy, didn’t finish, ended up teaching in the New York City public schools, saw how poorly teachers were paid and how disrespected they were as well. So, he was deeply aware of issues of class inequality and he worked with Martin Luther King on voting rights and civil rights and believed in that model of anti-discriminatory laws. I first met him when I was interviewing people for my book, The Remedy on Class-Based Affirmative Action.

I was just so intrigued because here was a labor leader who was very much for affirmative action based on class because he saw how divisive it was to treat people differently based on race in deciding who gets ahead. I think Al Shanker, like Robert Kennedy was onto something that is inspiring and looks very, very different than Liberalism does today. So after the biography came out, I was accused of engaging in seance and would say, well, I think Al Shanker would be for X or Y. I got into some trouble for that, so I hesitate to go too far into that territory. I would say that someone with Al Shanker’s outlook on the world would fully recognize that there is rank class discrimination going on in housing, and it’s designed to keep people of modest means out, and that that’s just fundamentally wrong and wouldn’t be afraid to take on that issue.

I mean, one of the problems for Democrats today, of course, is that as Democrats become increasingly reliant on upper middle class White liberals as a central part of their electoral coalition, it becomes dangerous to take on things like exclusionary zoning. You don’t want to go after what has become, in essence the base of the Democratic Party, the new base. So, I think Shanker would’ve acknowledged that right away and said, “Listen, there are costs to this new coalition of just Black, Hispanic and …” well, increasingly college educated, Hispanic and highly educated Whites. I mean, it keeps you from doing things that an Al Shanker or a Robert Kennedy cared about.

Geoff Kabaservice: Woody Allen engaged in his own kind of seance in the film Sleeper set in the distant future where he said that an apocalypse happened when a man named Albert Shanker got ahold of an atom bomb. Shanker was seen as an incredibly divisive figure for his role in the teacher strikes in New York City in the late 1960s, which had such overtones of Jewish versus Black animosity. Yet, that toughness in a way is actually what people want, I think, from liberalism nowadays, the toughness that is required to get things done, whether it’s building housing, putting in place the kind of green energy environment that liberals say they want, all of these things that are actually held up by the vetocracy and the ways in which people of advantage can actually bring the process to a halt.

Richard Kahlenberg: Absolutely. Just as a footnote, I might push back a little bit on the idea that it was Al Shanker who was divisive because in the teacher strikes, it was the community control advocates who terminated a number of White teachers, most of whom were Jewish, and without any due process, there were no credible complaints against these teachers. It was kind of a power grab. So, to my mind, Al Shanker was standing up for integrated schools, for labor rights, for due process, for not firing based on race. So, I do not see him as divisive, but I think you’re absolutely right that people … part of the attraction to people like Al Shanker or Robert Kennedy is that they understand the realities of the world and are not soft-minded. They are tough and are willing to take stands.

Lots of liberals do take stands and lots of issues, but in New York state on this issue of exclusionary zoning, it was deeply troubling to me that you had a governor and Kathy Hochul who was trying to do something good, Democrats controlled the state … both houses in the legislature, and the Democrats in essence killed housing reform. It was seen as too volatile. So I think that it’s a bigger problem with American liberalism and something that is an illustration of the larger issue and an important illustration because housing is central to so many of our debates. If we talk about inflation, housing is right up there. It’s the single biggest expense that Americans face. If you talk about opportunity in America, where you live, determines … in almost all cases where your kids are going to go to school and what sort of opportunities they’re going to have.

If you care about the environment, then the ways in which exclusionary zoning, push housing further and further on the periphery of communities should be troubling. So for all these reasons, housing is a … the housing debates are a symbol of the larger problem with challenges for American liberalism, but also an incredibly important one on the merits.

Geoff Kabaservice: I agree, and I really want to congratulate you, Rick, on the publication of your new book, Excluded: How Snob Zoning, NIMBYism and Class Bias Build the Walls We Don’t See. It’s a terrific read. This is a terrific contribution to the dialogue that we’ve been having on both the left and the right, and I’m so glad you were able to join me here today.

Richard Kahlenberg: Well, I enjoyed the conversation so much, Geoff. Thanks for having me,

Geoff Kabaservice: Thank you all for listening to the Vital Center Podcast. Please subscribe and rate us on your preferred podcasting platform, and if you have any questions, comments, or other responses, please include them along with your rating or send us an email at Thanks as always to our technical director, Kristie Eshelman, our sound engineer, Ray Enginery, and the Niskanen Center in Washington DC.

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