The roots of white anx­i­ety

Austin American-Statesman - - OPINION -

In March 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 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 on the con­ser­va­tive web­site Mind­ing the Cam­pus, was which whites were most dis­ad­van­taged by the process: the down­scale, the ru­ral and the work­ing-class.

That 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.

It may be a money-sav­ing tac­tic. In a foot­note, Espen­shade and Rad­ford sug­gest that in­sti­tu­tions, con­scious of a 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 ROTC, 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.”

It 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: law and phi­lan­thropy, fi­nance and academia, me­dia and the arts.

That breeds para­noia, among elite and nonelites 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 ex­ploit — 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 im­mi­grants, and so forth.

Among the highly ed­u­cated and lib­eral, mean­while, the lack of con­tact with ru­ral, work­ing-class Amer­ica gen­er­ates 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.

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

If 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 their school and their coun­try might be bet­ter off if ad­mit­ting a few more ROTC cadets and as­pir­ing farm­ers.

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