Affirmative Distraction

July 29, 2010

Please excuse this article’s being here posted in place of overdue original content, but it makes some good points, and makes them well… especially for The New York Times. Though, it’s heartening that venerable rag hired Ross Douthat and let him write this. Mr. Douthat, in addition to NYT columnist, doubles as film critic for National Review and hails from New Haven, Connecticut. He joined the paper in 2009 and his career will bear watching.

In March of 2000, Pat Buchanan came to speak at Harvard University’s Institute of Politics. Harvard being Harvard, the audience hissed and sneered and made wisecracks. Buchanan being Buchanan, he gave as good as he got. While the assembled Ivy Leaguers accused him of homophobia and racism and anti-Semitism, he accused Harvard — and by extension, the entire American elite — of discriminating against white Christians.

A decade later, the note of white grievance that Buchanan struck that night is part of the conservative melody. You can hear it when Glenn Beck accuses Barack Obama of racism, or when Rush Limbaugh casts liberal policies as an exercise in “reparations.” It was sounded last year during the backlash against Sonia Sotomayor’s suggestion that a “wise Latina” jurist might have advantages over a white male judge, and again last week when conservatives attacked the Justice Department for supposedly going easy on members of the New Black Panther Party accused of voter intimidation.

To liberals, these grievances seem at once noxious and ridiculous. (Is there any group with less to complain about, they often wonder, than white Christian Americans?) But to understand the country’s present polarization, it’s worth recognizing what Pat Buchanan got right.

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.

This may be a money-saving tactic. In a footnote, Espenshade and Radford suggest 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.

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.”

This provides statistical confirmation for what alumni of highly selective universities already know. The most underrepresented groups on elite campuses often aren’t racial minorities; they’re working-class whites (and white Christians in particular) from conservative states and regions. Inevitably, the same underrepresentation persists in the elite professional ranks these campuses feed into: in law and philanthropy, finance and academia, the media and the arts.

This breeds paranoia, among elite and non-elites alike. Among the white working class, increasingly the most reliable Republican constituency, alienation from the American meritocracy fuels the kind of racially tinged conspiracy theories that Beck and others have exploited — that Barack Obama is a foreign-born Marxist hand-picked by a shadowy liberal cabal, that a Wall Street-Washington axis wants to flood the country with third world immigrants, and so forth.

Among the highly educated and liberal, meanwhile, the lack of contact with rural, working-class America generates all sorts of wild anxieties about what’s being plotted in the heartland. In the Bush years, liberals fretted about a looming evangelical theocracy. In the age of the Tea Parties, they see crypto-Klansmen and budding Timothy McVeighs everywhere they look.

This cultural divide has been widening for years, and bridging it is beyond any institution’s power. But it’s a problem admissions officers at top-tier colleges might want to keep in mind when they’re assembling their freshman classes.

If such universities are trying to create an elite as diverse as the nation it inhabits, they should remember that there’s more to diversity than skin color — and that both their school and their country might be better off if they admitted a few more R.O.T.C. cadets, and a few more aspiring farmers

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The Right Choice

June 30, 2009

The United States Supreme Court correctly decided today to move away from racial hiring quotas, or anything smacking of them, and special-interest favoritism by ruling in favor of a group of New Haven, Connecticut firemen wrongfully denied promotions they had earned because too few minority candidates had been able to earn similar promotions.

The New Haven fire department had formerly administered a “promotion exam,” scores from which were intended for use in measuring the qualifications of firemen for advancement. A good number of New Haven firemen, black and white, studied hard for the test and took it. Some scored highly enough to be promoted, some did not. None of the test-takers scoring in the quartile necessary for advancement were black and so the city, fearing discrimination lawsuits, scrapped the test altogether and began to write a new one. The firefighters who had been promised promotions in exchange for high test scores were left twisting in the wind, despite earning the requisite scores.

Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote the opinion for the 5-4 majority in the matter, formally Ricci vs. DeStefano, requiring employers to show a “strong basis in evidence” before throwing out legitimate test results in cases of anticipated promotions, not just a fear of lawsuits by minority special-interest groups. The Wall Street Journal’s Jess Bravin explains: “Employers must be on very solid ground before making any decisions that would discriminate against a specific group of employees,” especially when deciding to disregard honest test results for fear of lawsuits from under-performers.

While New Haven claimed the scarcity of blacks scoring highly enough to be promoted would be interpreted as racism on the test’s part and lead to lawsuits, no way has yet been found in which the test, its administration, grading, or subject matter could advantage one race over another. Black, white, and Hispanic firemen were all consulted in designing the test.

Yesterday’s ruling reverses a previous one in favor of the city. The appeals court responsible for that earlier ruling included President Obama’s Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor, who voted for the city and against the firemen. Ms. Sotomayor, if confirmed, will replace retiring Justice David Souter.

According to Ms. Bravin, the ruling begs the question: “When is it proper to discriminate against one group in order to remedy discrimination against another?”

One answer, though circuitous, may be: groups which desire equal rights shouldn’t seek special treatment.

“The Supreme Court was sending a message to all employers,” one attorney says. “You shouldn’t engage in a form of intentional discrimination to avoid unintentional discrimination.” As Justice Kennedy notes in his opinion: “Whatever the city’s ultimate aim – however well-intentioned or benevolent it might have seemed – the city made its employment decision because of race.”