Friday, July 23, 2010

Why is it that we get stupid when we talk about race?

I was in O’Brien County earlier week, a piece of the heartland tucked away in the northwest corner of Iowa.  This county is in the fifth congressional district, home to none other than congressman Steve King.   While there, I read with great interest Ross Douthat’s comments on “the root of white anxiety.”   I also had a great conversation with an old farmer, now retired, about economics, politics, and even a little political theory.  Whatever is the matter with Kansas, if my conversation with this one farmer is a true reflection of the fifth congressional, is also the matter with Iowa.

I’ll set aside the latter conversation for a future post.  For now, I am far more interested in what Douthat is trying to tell us, and why I think he’s not even close to the mark.

According to Douthat, we mistake the many racialist diatribes coming from the likes of Pat Buchanan, Glen Beck, Limbaugh, and those who criticized Justice Sotomayor for her “wise Latina” comment” as “noxious and ridiculous” rants by demagogues seeking attention and political advantage.  Instead, we should understand them as representative of a core segment of the Republican Party, a segment at once marginalized and kept away from the corridors of power by the elites in charge of our colleges and universities.  In his view, these “white grievances” – and that is all they are – take root, unsurprisingly enough, in the admissions decisions by these very elites and the institutions they represent.  If only these universities were interested in real diversity, rather than taking the easy way out and only granting preferential admissions to students of color, working class whites would subsequently join the ranks of the elite and no longer offer the Becks and Limbaughs of the world the “racially tinged conspiracy theories” that they so skillfully exploit.

If this sounds too simplistic, it is probably because it is.  The reason why race plays a central role in the culture wars is because elite universities are not accepting working class whites in larger numbers.  Who knew?  The reason why congressman King and Beck both call Obama a racist, and Limbaugh excoriates the “cracker” George Steinbrenner days after his days death for making so many black players millionaires and firing so many white managers, is because Harvard does not accept a high enough number of working class whites into their freshman classes.  I can only hope for Douthat’s sake that I am misunderstanding his argument. 

In fairness, this is not Douthat’s original claim, but based on the work of Princeton sociologists Thomas Espenshade and Alexandria Walton Radford as well as Russell K. Nieli, writing on Minding the Campus, a conservative web site.  Needless to say, I need to read their work before commenting on it, yet I still wonder: how many working class whites apply to admission to these elite institutions, and how many are ultimately accepted?  Douthat writes that “[a]n upper-middle-class white applicant was three times more likely to be admitted than a lower-class white with similar qualifications. I don’t even know what that means.  Is an education from

Hunter High School or Stuyvesant comparable to an education from rural high schools across America? Lest I be accused of class bias, I am not even sure that such an education is even comparable to the education my children receive at our local high school in Bloomington. I suspect they are miles apart. Same with extra-curricular activities, or AP courses, or everything else that makes a college application stand out for admission officials at elite institutions. How could we begin to compare?

In this vein, here’s an argument that just blows me away: 
“But 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.’” 

In saying this, I must point out that I am not a big fan of Justice Powell’s diversity rationale; and yet, for the life of me, I cannot figure out why an admissions officer would consciously discriminate against poor rural whites for no better reason than class bias. The argument seems so bizarre on its face that I cannot for the life of me fathom what it could possibly mean.

Here’s what I suspect is really going on: anytime the topic of race comes up, we get stupid. See, for example, the recent Obama administration official who was recently fired for telling a story about racial reconciliation. (Here’s the reason, from the Secretary of Agriculture: “There is zero tolerance for discrimination at USDA, and I strongly condemn any act of discrimination against any person. We have been working hard through the past 18 months to reverse the checkered civil rights history at the department and take the issue of fairness and equality very seriously.”.” How Sec. Vilsack is not fired for stupidity is beyond me.)

Similarly, Espenshade and Radford write in a footnote that “these institutions, conscious of their mandate to be multiethnic, may reserve their financial aid dollars ‘for students who will help them look good on their numbers of minority students,’ leaving little room to admit financially strapped whites.” Essentially, white resentment would end, and Beck and Limbaugh would cease fanning the flames of racial hatred, if colleges did away with affirmative action on the basis of race and instead admitted more poor whites.

I’ll let you decide, on a scale of one to ten, how stupid this argument is.

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