Ross Douthat Advocates Diversity

“Include me out.”

Samuel Goldwyn

I just caught up with Ross Douthat at The New York Times on “The Roots of White Anxiety.” Up until Douthat’s OpEd, I would have said the root (singular) is that it isn’t all about them (whites) anymore. But now Douthat tells us, No, really, it isn’t all about whites anymore.

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.

It seems – long and short of it – that Pat Buchanan (Douthat tells us) has a case.

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.

Let’s for the sake of argument, accept all this as true. (Monica Potts at Tapped offers a different take on the study.) What, then, is to be done? Says Douthat,

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….

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….

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.

If you work anywhere in academia, you know that “white anxiety” working its way through various court challenges pretty much banished the earlier bogey man of  “affirmative action” from the admissions and hiring lexicon. What replaced it was “diversity,” whether merely as a verbal cover, as it often is, for affirmative action still, or as the real thing – a conception of what provides for a superior educational environment and more integrated socialization. So here is what strikes me about Douthat’s argument. Aside from the courage he demonstrates in defending Pat Buchanan on anything, he actually offers a defense of diversity as a policy in college admissions. It is undoubtedly true – we see the evidence of it everywhere – that many highly educated liberals lack contact with rural, working class America and tend to belittle it. It is likewise undeniable that for the rural, working class “alienation from the American meritocracy fuels the kind of racially tinged” (and other) “conspiracy theories” that currently riddle the American political scene. I think it is true, too, that the “country might be better off if [elite universities] admitted a few more R.O.T.C. cadets, and a few more aspiring farmers.”

What cannot be but further striking (and once noted, we may move on the productive fellowship of our common recognition and mission) is that once again a conservative sings the praises of a liberal cause – opposition to racism, non-discriminatory policies, the virtues of diversity – when it is perceived that white people rather than others are in need of it. Now the song is “include me in.”



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1 thought on “Ross Douthat Advocates Diversity

  1. Hi Jay, the point of the study, at least for me, is the hypocrisy of those who claim to promote diversity, yet avoid it strenuously when it comes to “others” who they don’t identify as fellow “progressives.” There are many Conservatives, me included, who oppose affirmative action on principle – regardless of the group being given the advantage. I think, moreover, it is undeniable that many liberals on college campuses today live in a (progressive) ideological bubble and, to the degree that promoting diversity may indeed have any significance at all in an academic environment, it would seem that political diversity indeed may be of value. I think it is undeniable that most progressives hang out with fellow progressives, so may indeed have their mind “broadened” by learning in an environment which includes students and professors who don’t share their views. Again, I’m not promoting affirmative action, as such, simply saying that – as Eric Alterman’s comments on the Journo-list was evidence of – many self-styled progressives not only don’t have tolerance towards Red-Staters (who he referred to as “Nascar retards”), but have, most often, had little actual experience with such folks. How many, for instance, liberals have friends who serve our country in the Armed Forces? I don’t think this is an insignificant question.

    Anyway, as always, thanks for your thoughtful post.


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