Does Harvard Discriminate Against Whites?

Rural whites are outperformed by Jews and Asians and passed over by blacks and Hispanics in the name of "diversity" by elite universities.

In a posting titled “The Roots of White Anxiety,” Ross Douthat cites a decade-old speech by Pat Buchanan at Harvard excoriating the university for discriminating against white Christians in its admissions as a roundabout way of arguing that America’s elite institutions are biased against working class whites and their values.  

Tim Fernholz retorts that

Buchanan is homophobic, racist, and anti-Semitic. Those despicable Ivy Leaguers are right! There is also plenty of evidence that Buchanan is wrong — starting with the fact that a plurality of Ivy Leaguers are white Christians. So Douthat has to draw a narrower case — that America’s elite colleges discriminate against not just white Christians but working-class, rural white Christians. Oh, and the presumption is that they must be his kind of Christian — you can’t be liberal and Christian, or “elite” and a Christian. As Adam [Serwer] notes, what discrimination exists comes down to a question of class, not culture.

But, apparently Buchanan’s speech was memorable, indeed, because Matt Yglesias was there and remembers its nuances.

Buchanan was—perhaps ironically or perhaps earnestly—offering a “disparate impact” analysis of Ivy League admissions. His point was that due to the massive overrepresentation of Jews and Asians at Harvard relative to our presence in the American population, white Christians end up underrepresented in just the way that African-Americans do. And yet while liberals are eager to draw attention to the idea of a given institution having insufficient black representation, nobody speaks up for the poor underrepresented white Christians. One can scoff at this if one likes, but Fernholz’s point that a plurality of Ivy League students are white Christians confirms what Buchanan was talking about, it doesn’t refute it.

Presumably, Jews and Asians are disproportionately represented at Harvard because they tend to get higher standardized tests scores and perform better in high school.   The schools also put their thumbs on the scale for African Americans, who tend to underperform on those measures, in an effort to achieve diversity and remedy the lingering effects of past discrimination.    Which leaves rural whites screwed from both ends:  Outperformed by Jews and Asians and then having blacks that they’ve outperformed chosen over them to fix a problem they have nothing to do with.

But none of that is new.  It was a hot topic when I was in junior high three decades ago.   More interesting is this:

[W]hile 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.

If the cited study is true and well-executed (that is, ROTC or FFA membership isn’t simply masking something else) then it’s puzzling indeed.  The former, especially, would seem to be a valuable addition to the campus community, in terms not only of specialized knowledge but also leadership skills and discipline.

Regardless, Douthat makes arguments right out of the majority opinion in Brown v. Board of Education for why this is a bad thing:

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.

I’ve long argued that affirmative action programs should stop focusing on race and instead seek to help students from economically disadvantaged households.   Blacks and Hispanics would still  disproportionately benefit, of course, but the remedy be better targeted at the problem.  As it is, places like Harvard achieve “diversity” by giving admission priority to children of wealthy blacks and those with dark skin but no legacy of slavery and Jim Crow (i.e., recent immigrants, Jamaican Americans).

FILED UNDER: *FEATURED, Education, Race and Politics
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is a Security Studies professor at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. john personna says:

    Didn’t we cover this in the 1980’s? ;-).

    It’s trivially true that a minority preference is discriminatory. The question has been whether it is justified in a broader social context. I think it’s time to move on, and for that reason I agree with this:

    I’ve long argued that affirmative action programs should stop focusing on race and instead seek to help students from economically disadvantaged households.

  2. Dave Schuler says:

    Is Harvard a public accommodation? If not, it can do any darned fool thing it cares to in its admissions policy.

    I see no problem with that whatever. The problem is with our major financial firms, law firms, universities, and government out-sourcing their hiring to Harvard’s admissions department. Harvard’s admissions department is not selecting the best students or the smartest students or the most capable students or trying to provide proportional representation so that the Harvard graduating class looks like America, whatever that means.

    Harvard’s admissions department is preserving Harvard’s brand by selecting for future prospects of success in its graduates through some combination of social connections, intelligence, achievement, and Lord knows what. It’s got a good track record of doing that. Some of that success is undoubtedly self-fulfilling prophecy.

    However, as a society we’d be better off it we understood the limits of the approach. Among those limits is that merit and success are not synonymous.

  3. TangoMan says:

    The schools also put their thumbs on the scale for African Americans, who tend to underperform on those measures, in an effort to achieve diversity and remedy the lingering effects of past discrimination.

    Since Bakke, the remedy for past discrimination justification has been illegal. Diversity for diversity’s sake is now the sole rationale for this type of discrimination even though studies of students and professors show that the quality of the educational experience is diminished when some of the current targeted groups are favored:

    As the proportion of black students enrolled at the institution rose, student satisfaction with their university experience dropped, as did assessments of the quality of their education, and the work efforts of their peers. . . .

    The same pattern held for the faculty sample’s evaluation of the educational milieu. Among faculty members enrollment diversity was negatively related to perceptions of the quality of education, the academic abilities of students, and the work efforts of students, . . .

    Preliminary data analysis finds that the proportion of Asian students is positively related to favorable evaluations of the educational and racial milieu among students, faculty and administrators, while comparable findings for Hispanic enrollment are mixed. So the influence of enrollment diversity may be specific to the ethnic or racial group.

    Diversity: A policy in search of a justification.

  4. Sandra says:

    Considering that Harvard was founded in 1650 for the purpose of “”To advance Learning and perpetuate it to Posterity; dreading to leave an illiterate Ministery to the Churche” (Louis B. Wright, The Cultural Life of the American Colonies‎ (2002) p. 116) it is rather interesting that “Christians” need not apply, especially Caucasian Christians.

    I wonder what the founders, the ones that stipulated about receiving a balanced education, “but one consistent with the prevailing Puritan philosophy,” would think about what is going on at Harvard today.

  5. Anon says:

    To me, a leadership position in 4-H would not work against someone, but would be minor. On the other hand, so would a leadership position in the local math club, or whatever. Things like that just aren’t enough to distinguish the outstanding applicants from the”just” very good ones.

    I say this as a Princeton alumni who also conducts face-to-face interviews for them, which are one part of the admissions process (but a small one, I think).

  6. James H says:

    Do the Ivies still do legacy admissions? That is, do children of alumni still get a thumb on the scale?

  7. ponce says:

    This year, 30,489 students applied for a spot in Harvard’s Class of 2014, the first time in the college’s history that the number of applicants eclipsed the 30,000 mark. This ultimately led to a record-low 6.9% admission rate.

    Looks like there’s plenty of discrimination to go around.

  8. James Joyner says:

    Since Bakke, the remedy for past discrimination justification has been illegal.

    Not at private institutions it hasn’t.

  9. Brummagem Joe says:

    This whole storyline smacks of victimology to me. To start with Harvard is a private institution so it can do what it likes in terms of admission. I don’t know what the figures are off hand but obviously the vast majority of students who graduate are white. There are basically three reasons why most of these white graduates come from the middle and upper middle classes and none of them have anything to do with disadvantaging poor christian whites
    a)Alumni preference which is alive and well (pace James H)
    b)Much higher SAT participation in wealthier states which tend to be less obsessed by religion. I remember seeing a figure of something like only 15% SAT participation in Alabama whereas it’s about 75% in Mass.
    3)Resources. Even with scholarships and student loans, attendance at Ivies is backbreaking financially as I know having paid some bills. Parents in bible belt states don’t think it’s worth the investment at the same rate as parents in say CT.

  10. James Joyner says:

    @Brummagem Joe :I remember seeing a figure of something like only 15% SAT participation in Alabama whereas it’s about 75% in Mass.

    This is mostly a function of some states, for whatever reason, preferring the ACT rather than the SAT. The former was much more common in Alabama in the 1980s, at least. I took both but most just took ACT.

    Otherwise, I think the above is right.

  11. mike says:

    Harvard is not a wholly private entity – it accepts tons of fed money – just b/c something is private, does not mean it can discriminate.

    To answer the questions of whether Harvard discriminates – well of course it does – based on the color of someone’s skin color, they get a certain type of treatment – whether that treatment is better or worse treatment depends on the color of their skin. How is this not discrimination?

  12. Brummagem Joe says:

    mike says:
    Tuesday, July 20, 2010 at 13:41
    “Harvard is not a wholly private entity – it accepts tons of fed money – just b/c something is private, does not mean it can discriminate.”

    If you want to deny that Harvard is a private institution or that it cannot do what it likes about admission policy, it’s fine by me, after all reality denial is not an uncommon phenomena on blogs. But you would be wrong.

  13. Tom Maguire says:

    “I’ve long argued that affirmative action programs should stop focusing on race and instead seek to help students from economically disadvantaged households. Blacks and Hispanics would still disproportionately benefit, of course, but the remedy be better targeted at the problem. ”

    They would benefit disproportionately only in the since that they are over-represented in low income groups. However:

    1. Although the fraction of poor whites is lower, there are still many more poor whites than poor blacks.

    2. The test achievement gap on things like SATs does not go away when adjusted for income; poor whites outperform poor blacks on standardized tests.

    The upshot of (1) and (2) is that an affirmative action type program that focuses on income and ignores race will have a very hard time hoovering up enough blacks to fulfill a diversity goal.

  14. Brummagem Joe says:

    “and ignores race will have a very hard time hoovering up enough blacks to fulfill a diversity goal.”

    given the size of the pool I suspect that ultimately they’d be able to “hoover up” enough qualified minority students.

  15. sam says:

    “I wonder what the founders, the ones that stipulated about receiving a balanced education, “but one consistent with the prevailing Puritan philosophy,” would think about what is going on at Harvard today.”

    Some of them might think that Roger Williams had snuck back over the Mass border.

  16. Brummagem Joe says:

    sam says:
    Tuesday, July 20, 2010 at 14:56
    “would think about what is going on at Harvard today.”

    Torquemada wouldn’t be happy at the turn of events in the Catholic church either

  17. HankP says:

    I’m surprised, without those 4H and FFA students how do they fill all their agriculture classes?

  18. just me says:

    I think it is interesting that leadership in organizations thought to be rural or conservative is a negative, but unsurprising. I am not sure that holding a leadership position necessarily means the person in the position is a leader. When I was in high school and pretty much the case at my kid’s high school is that most leadership positions are a matter of popularity and who is in which clique than a matter of who is the best leader.

    Some organizations this isn’t the case, but in many of them it is-especially those related to school. The kid who is the president of 4-H may actually have leadership ability, but I would weight something like ROTC experience heavier because the leadership roles are determined by the adults in charge rather than a popular vote.