Beyond “White Anxiety”: Class, Race, and College Admissions

When I hear pundits and politicos pitting “the working class” against people of color (which usually in American popular discourse means either African-Americans or Mexican immigrants), my response is predictable: I want to remind the commentator that a) most people of color are working class and b) despite the popular mythology, racism is neither unique to nor primarily perpetuated by the white working class.  That response kicked in back in the 2008 election when journalists kept asking me whether Youngstown’s white working class could possibly support a black presidential candidate, and again in the past year, as some commentators have suggested that the success of the Tea Party is primary due to white working-class fears about losing their political power and social privilege.

So you can imagine my gut response when I read Ross Douthat’s commentary last week on a recent report on selective college admissions, “The Roots of White Anxiety.” Douthat suggests that the study supports Pat Buchanan’s claim that Harvard discriminates against “white Christians.”  I immediately started muttering my usual line: “it’s more complicated than that.”

Before we get to the troubling heart of this matter, some background.  Douthat’s column was based on an article by conservative political scientist Russell K. Nieli, which appeared on Minding the Campus.  Nieli’s piece was, in turn, based on a recently-published study by Thomas Espenshade and Alexandria Walton Radford, which shows that working-class and poverty-class white students were significantly less likely to be admitted to private universities than wealthier whites with similar test scores.  The opposite was true for students of color: poorer students were more likely to be accepted than those from better-off families.  This finding is especially striking given the much-touted recent efforts by elite schools like Harvard, Princeton, and several others to increase their socioeconomic diversity by offering generous financial aid packages – in some cases eliminating the family’s tuition responsibility entirely — for low-income students.

For both Nieli and Douthat, the study proves that admissions programs that consider diversity are so problematic that they should be eliminated.  Nieli suggests that “elite colleges should get out of the diversity business altogether and focus on enrolling students who are the most academically talented and the most eager to learn. These students should make up the bulk of their entering classes.”  Does he really believe that the majority of students entering elite schools have been admitted because of diversity policies?  A 2006 report shows that fewer than 10% of students at most of the nation’s elite schools are black – those are the students whom Nieli suggests have most benefited from diversity admissions.  I guess 90% doesn’t equal “the bulk” of a college class?

Nieli also notes that Espenshade and Radford identified patterns of discrimination against “red state,” Midwestern students and against those who participated in ROTC, 4-H, or Future Farmers of America.  For Douthat, that translates into discrimination against Christians.  He implies that Christians must be a small minority on college campuses, though a 2004 Harvard study found that 35% of college students define themselves as “born again,” and the majority of college students who claim any religious affiliation – that is, the majority of a whopping 88% — identify as Christian.

Douthat also expresses concern that this study will “breed paranoia” and feed the “alienation from the American meritocracy” that he suggests explains working-class acceptance of “racially tinged conspiracy theories.”  Working-class people have many reasons to be suspicious of those with power and wealth.  They don’t need a report like this to convince them that they have been excluded from the equal opportunity that lies at the heart of the American myth.  Sadly, that’s old news for the working class.

Which is not to say that we shouldn’t be upset about the findings of this study. While other reports, such as William G. Bowen and Derek Bok’s 2005 book The Shape of the River, reach slightly less dismal conclusions, we should be concerned that policies designed to increase access might, even inadvertently, lead to an either/or competition between students of color and white working-class students – no matter which side wins such a competition.

Neither the scholars who have been studying this issue, nor conservative commentators who cry that it proves the existence of reverse racism are alone in thinking about these issues.  A number of critics on the left have suggested that the problem with admissions standards that seek to create a diverse student body is not that they lead to reverse discrimination but that they are too limited.  That is, as Richard D. Kahlenberg has been arguing for more than a decade, such programs should focus on socioeconomic status – on class – rather than solely on race.  The Chronicle of Higher Education started a new discussion of the concept in December, with a diverse group of academic and political leaders weighing in, mostly supporting the idea of bringing class into the admissions equation.  The goal of class-based affirmative action isn’t to give preference to white working-class students over working-class students of color, but to expand our understanding of “diversity” to include economic status.

Kahlenberg and his supporters are right, for several reasons.  Douthat actually suggests one: such policies may help to perpetuate classism by limiting the opportunities of more privileged students to interact with peers from lower classes, making it easier for them to accept stereotypes and exaggerations about the working class: “the lack of contact with rural, working-class America generates all sorts of wild anxieties about what’s being plotted in the heartland.”  Kahlenberg dismisses this concern, and I agree that the effects on privileged students should not be our primary concern.  Still, I have to wonder whether some of those who have lately been describing the unemployed as lazy and undeserving of extended benefits might not have limited experience interacting with the people they’re denigrating.

For Kahlenberg, the primary issue is fairness.  In an almost immediate response to Douthat, he argues that “High-achieving, low-income students deserve to have a seat at the table because they’ve worked hard and done well, despite what research suggests are very formidable obstacles.”  Discriminatory admissions policies both reflect classism and contribute to the class divide, just as excluding African-American, Latino, and other “minority” students reflects racism and exacerbates racial and religious divides.  Simply put, they perpetuate inequality.

Indeed, the injustice of discriminatory college admissions does not just occur at the point of entry.  Because the status of the institution from which a student earns a degree influences his or her opportunities after graduation, this kind of discrimination has a long-term effect.  If we limit working-class students’ access to selective colleges, we also limit their access to the best jobs and to social networks that have significant power in American politics and business.

America has never fully lived up to the ideal of equal opportunity.  Truly equal opportunity may not be possible, but we can make things a little more equal for poor and working-class students, regardless of race, by improving their access to higher education.  That means encouraging more schools to develop programs to make college affordable, in whatever ways possible, and developing admissions policies that recognize that both class and race matter.

Sherry Linkon, Center for Working-Class Studies

Evangelicals and Working-Class Politics

According to the popular stereotype, evangelical Christians want little to do with working-class politics.  Instead, we tend to imagine evangelicals as people who are either uninterested in politics or focused entirely on fighting the culture wars, rather than as people who care about issues like unemployment, inequality, and poverty.  If the stereotype were accurate, that would be bad news for people hoping for policy changes that would benefit working-class Americans.  Such changes only come about when the public puts pressure on governmental leaders, and evangelicals make up about one-third of the American public.

There are, however, good reasons to believe that this stereotype oversimplifies what is in fact a complicated topic.  I’d like to review a few of those reasons here, including a survey of evangelical clergy that I conducted last year in Stark County, Ohio.  Stark County, which is located near Cleveland, Akron, and Youngstown in Northeastern Ohio, is home to about 380,000 people who are spread across a diverse collection of cities, suburbs, and rural hamlets.  For the better part of the 20th century, the three principal cities of Stark County—Canton, Massillon, and Alliance—were important manufacturing centers, particularly in steel and related heavy industries.  Over the course of the past several decades, however, Stark County has conformed to the postindustrial storyline of manufacturing job loss and deepening economic insecurity for the working class.  By 2008, 27.9 percent of families in Canton were living below the poverty line, a rate that is nearly three times the national average and also the highest among Ohio’s big cities.  In March of 2009, the Stark County job market drew national and even international attention when a whopping 835 people applied to fill a vacant custodial position at the Edison Junior High School in Perry Township.

Because Stark County voting patterns have resembled national ones for a long time, Stark has also earned a reputation as “a bellwether county in a bellwether state,” making it a magnet to campaigning politicians, as well as a better-than-average spot to check the pulse of American opinion with a survey.  Two hundred thirty-one clergy from the 553 congregations in Stark County filled out, at least in part, the questionnaire sent to them last year.  Along with conventional questions about theology, membership, and so on, the survey gave respondents an open-ended opportunity to identify what they considered to be “the most serious issue facing residents of Stark County today.”  The responses to that question don’t quite fit the stereotype.

Evangelical ministers are far more concerned with economic issues than prevailing stereotypes suggest.  Ninety of the Protestant churches that answered this final question self-identified as ‘born-again’ congregations—a very good indicator of evangelical belief.  Eighty-two of these churches were predominantly white, while eight were predominantly African-American.  Forty-two of the 90 ‘born-again’ churches listed an economic problem of some sort as the most serious issue facing Stark County residents.  Thirty out of these 42 identified the need for jobs as Stark County’s number one issue.  The remaining 12 churches identified poverty, food security, and child care, among other things.

Only 22 of the 90 born-again churches, however, identified a religious problem such as “absence of faith” or “spiritual complacency” as the most serious issue facing the county.  Six more identified traditional “culture wars” issues such as family breakdown and declining morality.  Together, these 28 answers accounted for only 31 percent of the total, which is far less than what stereotypes about evangelicals would predict.  In contrast, nearly 50 percent of the born-again churches—42 out of 90—placed an economic issue at the top of their list of concerns.  Others identified crime-related issues, such as drugs and violence, or miscellaneous public issues such as racial prejudice and highway repair.  A few responses were too ambiguous to categorize.

Examining these returns even more closely suggests important differences within the broad evangelical community, especially between fundamentalist and non-fundamentalist clergy.  Though both embrace the core evangelical doctrines, fundamentalists tend to be more separatist, literalist, and less tolerant of doctrinal differences, even on secondary issues such as dress codes and alcohol consumption.  Of the 64 clergy that self-identified as ‘born-again’ but not ‘fundamentalist,’ 53 percent identified an economic issue as Stark County’s number one concern.  Meanwhile, only 31 percent of clergy that identified as both ‘born-again’ and ‘fundamentalist’ did so.  It is common for opinion surveys to uncover a divide of this sort between fundamentalist and non-fundamentalist evangelical believers.  This divide is rooted in the complex history of American Protestantism, rather than in the core religious doctrines that all evangelical traditions share.

The Stark County data are illuminating for what they tell us about evangelical clergy, but they may not reflect the views of the ordinary believer in the pew.  For several decades, however, scholars have been tracking the opinions of ordinary evangelicals through surveys and polls.  Although these studies have added a lot to our knowledge of evangelical opinion, they have not demonstrated a clear link between evangelical belief and economic attitudes.  In fact, these studies are often inconsistent with one another.  Many of them—perhaps even a small majority—do indicate that evangelicals tend to be slightly more conservative on economic issues than non-evangelicals.  Others, however, find no significant difference between evangelical and non-evangelical attitudes toward the economy.  Some very good studies even show that evangelicals tend to be more liberal on economic issues than non-evangelical Americans.  And to complicate the picture even more, some studies show that evangelicals in other countries are more liberal than their fellow believers in America.

In any event, data from Stark County and elsewhere indicate that many evangelicals are alive to the importance of economic issues in contemporary America.  This fact is not enough to demonstrate that evangelicals will support specific policy proposals.  What these results do suggest, however, is that support may exist among evangelicals for economic ideas that depart from the conservative to moderately conservative American mainstream.  Making the most of these openings and building support for economic strategies that benefit working-class communities will, however, take political work.  Both evangelical and non-evangelical conservatives undertook this kind of work for more than a generation, and it turned out to be pivotal in delivering electoral victories to Republicans from Ronald Reagan to George W. Bush and in driving the Democratic Party to the right.

Today, however, more and more evangelicals are working to convince their fellow believers that struggling on behalf of decent living standards for all people is part of what it means to be a faithful Christian.  They are reinvigorating currents of evangelical protest that were once prominent in American life, as in the early labor movement and during the agrarian populist upsurge.  These evangelicals—many of them young people—have been inspired by prominent believers such as John Perkins, Jim Wallis, Ron Sider, and Tony Campolo, as well as the Scriptures themselves.  Already it is becoming evident that young evangelicals are more liberal on economic issues and less preoccupied with the culture wars than their parents and grandparents.  Because evangelicals account for such a large segment of the public, we should be encouraged by these developments.  They have the potential to affect the course of future economic policy in ways that benefit all working-class Americans, regardless of their religious background.

Mike Boyle

Mike Boyle is a Ph.D. student in Cultural Anthropology at the City University of New York whose research interests include political economy, class, and religion.

How Unequal Should Our Incomes Be?

I think the top one-tenth of U.S. households should get about one-third of all income.  I may be unduly influenced by living in a household that is part of that top tenth, but here’s my reasoning.

Absolute income equality would be great, but it won’t work.  Per capita income in the U.S. is about $47,000, so if income were shared equally, every person would receive that amount, regardless of their age, whether they worked, and whether they are talented or hard-working.  Thus, a single parent with two children would have $141,000 to live on, while a couple with two children would have $188,000, and an empty-nester married couple like my wife and me would have $94,000.  These are not averages.  Every three-person household, for example, would get exactly the same amount, $141,000 — and that amount happens to be enough for everybody to live pretty well and for the vast majority of people to live much, much better than they do now.  And, as productivity increased and the economy grew, everybody would get more.

Most economists will tell you, however, that the economy would not grow under those conditions because incentives to work and innovate would disappear.  Though I suspect they’re probably right, these economists’ wisdom is based on a speculative assumption about a fixed human nature that a lot of world-class philosophers have contested.  And that would be a great discussion to rekindle if only somebody could figure out a workable, sustainable, and just mechanism for completely equalizing income without giving the government totalitarian powers.  So far as I know, nobody has figured out such a mechanism, and those who were trying to find a way have given up trying.

So, anything like absolute equality of income is impossible – or at least not practical enough to be worth thinking about for now.  Nor is it necessary.  During the period in American history when economic growth was strongest and when real wages, family incomes, and the general standard of living improved the most – from the 1940s into the 1970s – the top ten percent received one-third of all income in the U.S.  Historians refer to this era as “postwar prosperity.”  One-third was our share of the pie when the pie was growing at its best, and almost everybody benefited from that distribution.

Degrees of income inequality matter.  In a recent study, The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger, two British social scientists have assembled data from nearly two dozen of the richest countries in the world.  The data shows how strongly levels of income inequality correlate with a variety of indicators of social well-being.  As a rule, more unequal societies have more homicides, violent crime, and prisoners; more mental illness (including drug and alcohol addiction), obesity, teenage births, and infant mortality; lower levels of trust, child well-being, children’s educational performance, and social mobility; and lower life expectancies.

The U.S. is by far the most unequal of these societies (with Portugal and the United Kingdom coming in second and third), and Japan, Finland, Norway, and Sweden have the most equal incomes.  In chapter after chapter, with only a few exceptions here and there and some nuances on some of the indicators, the U.S. is Number 1 in negative social indicators, followed by Portugal and the UK, and near the bottom in positive ones (including social mobility!).  Likewise, Japan and the Nordic countries uniformly have the most positive outcomes.

The Spirit Level authors, Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, make the argument that we now know “how to make substantial improvements in the quality of life for the vast majority of the population” (p. xi): move toward greater equality of income.  For a variety of sometimes complicated but often simple reasons, greater equality of income improves social well-being across a society – including for the top fourth and probably even for our top tenth (though the data they are working with does not allow a firm conclusion by tenths).

So where does this leave my thesis that the top tenth should get one-third of all income?  It actually strengthens it, because right now we’re getting about half of all adjusted gross income in the United States, with the other 90 percent of people sharing the other half.  Our share used to be about one-third, from the 1940s to the 1970s during the most prosperous period in American history, but it has been increasing pretty steadily since about 1980.

My guess is that most people in the top tenth, like my wife and me, did not intend to grab such an outsized share.  We didn’t even know we were doing that, and we certainly didn’t intend for our share to correlate with increased violence, lower rates of child well-being, and lower life expectancies.  But guilt, like blame, looks back, not ahead.

If we top-tenners got one-third instead of one-half of all income, we’d still be doing very well, and there would be about $1.5 trillion more for the other 90 percent.  That’s a lot of money, and it means that we could live in a society where no one would be poor, especially not the nearly one-half of people who work full time for less than a livable wage.

What’s more, as a society we probably know a lot about how a substantial redistribution of income could be accomplished over time.   We can look at how we did it during the period of postwar prosperity, when there were strong labor, then civil rights, then women’s and other social movements; much more progressive income taxes; a growing social wage; actual enforcement of fair labor standards; and a steadily increasing minimum wage.

How to do that again in very different circumstances, both political and economic, is undoubtedly more difficult than I imagine.  But it is valuable to know just how unequal our incomes have become and how big a price in social well being all of us pay for that, some more than others.  It’s also good to have a clear goal for just how unequal our incomes should be.  I think that goal should be that old-fashioned postwar prosperity share of one-third for the top tenth.

Jack Metzgar