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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Playing The Ponies

July 23, 2010

If the D.C. social circuit turns itself out for any function this year, it will be the America’s Polo Cup, the equestrian sport’s equivalent of the similarly-named sailing event.

Or so hope Tareq and Michaele Salahi, who plugged the event (which they’ve organized) on Carol Joynt’s “Q&A Cafe” program in Georgetown. The pair formerly made headlines bluffing their way into President Barack Obama’s first state dinner, gaudily sans invitation.

The aspirational couple.

Since, they’ve been chomping impatiently and loudly at the D.C. social bit. To their advantage, that particular bit is unusually susceptible to chomping because of the transitory nature of that city: the in-crowd changes every four-to-eight years, providing for a cultural memory more myopic than, say, Greenwich, Connecticut.  

The headlining event will be the match between the United States and Costa Rica. The Cup has long been an event of political and cultural significance in D.C., as diplomats and industrialists from competing nations migrate to host countries for the duration of the tournament. President Warren Harding was in the stands in 1923, meeting and greeting benefactors (established and potential) from around the polo-playing world.

The 2011 America’s Polo Cup will be held on the National Mall, set back from the Lincoln Memorial and Washington Monument. Since it’s not sanctioned by the Federation of International Polo, the match is largely thought a spectator event. There is no word yet from the organizers as to the price of tickets, or if security will be any tighter than a White House state dinner.

Like most things Salahi, the Polo Cup is already a little fraud-tarnished: its website once listed India’s Kingfisher Beer as a sponsor but Yashpal Singh, president of Kingfisher’s parent company, disagreed. “We are not sponsoring this event and have informed the people managing this event of that… We have sent legal notices to this effect, and he keeps on advertising us as a sponsor. I don’t know what world he’s living in.”

Land Rover withdrew its sponsorship in 2009, when a charity associated with the event was investigated by the Virginia Office of Consumer Affairs for tax irregularities.


Barbarians At The Gate

December 5, 2009

With celebrity gossip and reality television often taking media precedence over coverage of military engagements and economic recession, it’s little wonder that the two would eventually travel perpendicular paths. It may be a testament to the tragic prominence of pop culture “news” in our national consciousness that those paths would cross at so venerable an event as a White House state dinner.

The hopeful Salahis.

The hopeful Salahis.

Aspiring nouveau socialites Tareq and Micheaele Salahi, known for dodging creditors and for courtroom brawls with relatives, secured their coveted fifteen minutes of fame by bluffing their way in to President Obama’s first-ever state dinner. The two engineered the stunt as part of a bid to appear on Bravo’s “Real Housewives of D.C.” reality television series. Previously, Michaele had also claimed to have been a Redskins cheerleader and appeared at a cheerleaders’ alumni event for that team; she was unable to perform any of the cheers and was quickly outed.

The couple (he, a polo-playing vintner and she, a blonde) are in the habit of forcefully rubbing shoulders with those who would rather not. The two maintain a Facebook account which documents, in pictures, their aggresively upward social mobility. His family owns a Virginia winery, the subject of protracted legal battles with his parents: he wants it, they say they need to sell it to pay off his debts. The couple have already lost their Virginia home to foreclosure. A photo of Tareq posing with Prince Charles hangs prominently inside that house and its closets contain, by Michaele Salahi’s own estimate, about 300 pairs of her shoes.

“Nobody wants to deal with them,” say the couple’s Virginia neighbors. “The sheriffs have come by twice already looking for them” in connection with their Maserati and Aston Martin, both of which have been repossessed.

The pair were spotted almost immediately at the White House dinner by a D.C. society columnist who was there to cover the event. The columnist, apparently more in tune with that town’s social radar than the two aspiring insiders, alerted an event staffer that the Salahis appeared out of place. A quick check revealed that neither actually had an invitation. Appropriately fitting that two such ladder climbers, hopeful for reality television riches, would be turned in by one of that ladder’s own guard dogs.


The Honorable Lobbyist

November 2, 2009

Legal Bisnow reports recently that Ed Mathias, co-founder of the nebulous private equity shop Carlyle Group, described business interests without lobbyists on retainer as “extraordinarily vulnerable.” Mr. Mathias was speaking at a Washington, D.C. event at which Patton Boggs attorney Nick Allard also described lobbying as an “honorable, and increasingly essential, profession.”

Mr. Allard further pointed to a growing demand for lobbying services spurred by ever-more complex government regulation of industry and increased Federal spending; businesses have a lot of government hoops to jump through and a shot at a lot of government money, so large rewards exist for the skilled lobbyist who can help to navigate those hoops in search of that money. Mr. Allard is hoping to do just that, helping clients comply with government stimulus spending disclosure requirements.

Mr. Allard and other lobbyists also criticized President Obama’s anti-lobbyist stance at the event; they note “it’s just not good government to refuse to listen to people who disagree with you.”