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

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

  1. Christie B says:

    At least with regard to elite institutions, this seems to ignore the strong effect of Asian students on the demographic mix. While Asian-Americans are only 4-5% of the US population, 17% of students at Harvard and 28% of students at MIT are Asian. Most of these students receive no preferential treatment as they are clearly not an underrepresented minority and, in fact, where race-blind admissions have been instituted the proportion of Asian-American students rose significantly. Many Asian students would qualify for class-based preferences. In the same way that Asian students outcompete White students for those seats not set aside for underrepresented minorities under the current system, they would similarly outcompete White, Black and Hispanic students for seats set aside on the basis of family income. It seems that the only way to guarantee both racial and economic diversity is to create more categories and defend the box labeled something like “poor or working-class, possibly rural, white” with as much effort as we currently do the preferences for other underrepresented groups.


    • Brown Person says:

      I am an Asian Indian and I must say that discrimination against white Christians is real. I see preferred religious and minority group members say things like you do not get to be a dean or do a fellowship at an elite institution because “you are not Hispanic” or my mom is Jewish and you are not so it doesn’t matter how smart you are or if you are a better surgeon, you are Asian so you cannot and should not be in power. It’s a sense of entitlement. It is a minority supremacism against Asians and white Christians like the class action lawsuit against the University of Michigan.


  2. William Boggs says:

    In the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education, administrators have been pressured by Harrisburg to increase graduation rates. The surest and fastest way to accomplish this is to admit students from higher income, college educated, upper middle class families. Thus, we see luxury housing being constructed across the state, more than doubling the cost of residence. SAT requirements grow more stringent, and we know that those scores are directly related to family income. One report shows that most students who quit are self-supporting students who find the combined academic and job pressures too much to endure. In short, college administrators are rewarded for excluding working class students, and public higher education now serves more to keep people “in their place” than to offer a helping hand. We work to develop an awareness of classism as a serious problem, but when sessions on diversity are held those of us who deal with working class issues are an afterthought if thought of at all.


  3. William Boggs says:

    I am most grateful that Sherry Linkon responds with solid informed statements that make people rethink the university’s role in shaping or reshaping the issue of class. In the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education one of the “Performance Indicators” used to reward individual universities is the graduation rate. The best and fastest way for an administration to increase graduation rates is to admit students who have the best chance of graduating in the specified time. These students are usually from homes where one or both parents have achieved a college education, they have higher SAT/ACT scores (directly related to family income), and they are unlikely to experience the difficulties of lower income students. The latter difficulties may include unreliable transportation, being a caretaker for a relative, or simply having a job that creates exhaustion and stress.


  4. Great points, Sherry.
    When people pit class versus race in affirmative action, they’re missing the point that many of the beneficiaries of class-based affirmative action would be people of color. Without a class criterion, many selective colleges fill up their diversity slots with elite international students and other unusually privileged applicants of color, rejecting working-class and poor applicants of all races.


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  6. Amy Hanauer says:

    Great points as always Sherry. It’s not weak attempts to have modest racial diversity that have hurt white working class kids, it’s the massive economic and cultural barriers, and the huge advantages that privilege passes on.


  7. Alisa says:

    Thanks for this post, Sherry. A colleague of mine (from a working-class, black family in Over-the-Rhine in Cincinnati) once told me that she thinks college admissions should be based exclusively on class. As she said, “admissions generally place folks of different shades but from the same income bracket into their schools thus making the student body ‘diverse.'” I don’t know that I agree with her, particularly given your recent findings, but I’m encouraged by such dialogue.

    Perhaps my colleague said what she did because at Miami we see this dynamic firsthand: working-class black students are often athletes and generally form their own enclaves, and not on the basis of race alone. At Miami, it’s pretty easy to discern more class privileged African-Americans from their working-class counterparts: if the typical Miami girl dresses well and with pearls, so does the African-American girl of privilege. In fact, aside from such generic categories as “color,” they look exactly alike. No doubt their values and attitudes are similar. The black students from working-class backgrounds, however, much like white students from the working-class, don’t don Miami dress (read: J. Crew, designer labels). At Miami, the difference is one of class.

    I conducted a study last year with Miami’s access initiative students, or those students receiving full-tutition scholarships because their parent(s) make less than 30 thousand dollars anually. I had seven (out of 300) students respond. Of those seven, all but one identified as white, with one student identifying as African-American. All students, regardless of race, wrote that Miami needs to be more sensitive to issues of class diversity. For the African-American student, this discourse was also racialized, as she mentioned that administrators should be attuned to the difficulties faced by black students from poorer backgrounds. What this student essentially told me was that it’s not just about race — at Miami, it’s also a question of class.


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