Tuesday, July 20, 2010

The Politics of White Grievance

These days white conservatives like to complain that they are being discriminated against. Glenn Beck took the lead in this whining when he said America was turning "into the 1950s overnight, except the races are reversed."

Into this arena charges Ross Douthat, whose column "The Roots of White Anxiety" has been the most popular item on the New York Times web site for two days now. Douthat starts from an old claim of Pat Buchanan's, that America's universities discriminate against white Christians. As various liberals have pointed out (see here, here, and here), this is silly. Douthat is too clever and sane to defend Buchanan's broader claim, so he slides over to the claim that America's universities discriminate against poor, rural whites:
Last year, two Princeton sociologists, Thomas Espenshade and Alexandria Walton Radford, published a book-length study of admissions and affirmative action at eight highly selective colleges and universities. Unsurprisingly, they found that the admissions process seemed to favor black and Hispanic applicants, while whites and Asians needed higher grades and SAT scores to get in. But what was striking, as Russell K. Nieli pointed out last week on the conservative Web site Minding the Campus, was which whites were most disadvantaged by the process: the downscale, the rural and the working-class.

This was particularly pronounced among the private colleges in the study. For minority applicants, the lower a family’s socioeconomic position, the more likely the student was to be admitted. For whites, though, it was the reverse. An upper-middle-class white applicant was three times more likely to be admitted than a lower-class white with similar qualifications.

. . . cultural biases seem to be at work as well. Nieli highlights one of the study’s more remarkable findings: while most extracurricular activities increase your odds of admission to an elite school, holding a leadership role or winning awards in organizations like high school R.O.T.C., 4-H clubs and Future Farmers of America actually works against your chances. Consciously or unconsciously, the gatekeepers of elite education seem to incline against candidates who seem too stereotypically rural or right-wing or “Red America.”

I don't think this is ridiculous, but I think Douthat leaves out a lot of context. It is true that university admissions are unfair, in the sense that universities routinely consider things other than how good a student you are. If they did not, their student bodies would be very different. Back when I was at Yale, I was told that if the university considered only grades and test scores 2/3 of the students would be Jews from greater New York and the rest WASPs from elite prep schools. Nowadays I suppose the top academic candidates are Jews and Asians. But the university aspires to be something other than just a haven for New York nerds; they want to place graduates in leadership roles all across America. They know, for example, that black students are much more likely to end up volunteering or running for office in poor black communities than white students, and they want to support the diversification of America's ruling elite, so they give points to black applicants. They know that most people end up living near where they grew up, and they don't want to be a New York school, so they give points for being from the rest of the country. They give points to people who have special skills in the arts or sports. Etc.

Now it is almost certainly true that a white kid from Iowa will have to have a more impressive record to get into an Ivy League school than a black kid from East Saint Louis. But he will have a much easier time than a Jew from Long Island. I suspect that I benefited from this arithmetic as a white kid from a small town in Missouri. I am willing to have a discussion about the merits of various types of affirmative action, especially the possibility that we ought to be using class rather than race to pick students for special treatment. But let's be clear that if elite universities admitted solely on the basis of academic qualifications, white Christians would not be the beneficiaries. Jews and Asians would.

1 comment:

David said...

Perhaps it's worth noting that Douthat doesn't seem to be asking for pure meritocracy, but for a kind of affirmative action line for white conservatives. He wants a place at elite schools for people he identifies with.

In any case, as you often point out, this isn't about objective facts or statistics, but about a deep divide between two very small but very loud groups who really hate each other, and who have an occasional ability to make their own divisions the basis on which other Americans choose sides.