Bigotry Against Working-Class Whites

Princeton University. In foreground: statue of John Knox Witherspoon, early president of the institution.
Princeton University, showing statue of John Witherspoon, early president of the institution.

A regular feature of American political journalism is the spectacle of bourgeois liberals publicly wondering why so many working-class whites are conservative. At The New York Times, The Guardian, The New Republic, and other elite outlets, the debate rages, especially during election years. Why do working-class white voters predominantly support Republicans? Is that a nationwide phenomenon or just a southern one? Do the Democrats even need the votes of working-class whites? If you’re interested, you can find a summary of recent developments in those discussions here.

Concern among liberals increased after the Republican landslide in last fall’s mid-term elections. Working-class whites played a crucial role in the GOP victory. According to CNN exit polls, 64% of white voters who do not have college degrees voted for Republican candidates for the U.S. House of Representatives.

That was a bizarre outcome. Economically disadvantaged whites suffer when wealth is redistributed to the rich, yet many routinely vote for right-wing candidates whose entire agenda is redistribution of wealth to the rich. But there are powerful cultural forces creating that contradiction. In the search for causes of working-class conservatism, I’d like to suggest one possibility to bourgeois liberals: Maybe it’s you.

We can start to discern the problem if we look more closely at the benchmark that pollsters use to determine who is working class: college attendance. If liberals and Democrats are worried about conservatism among non-college-educated whites, why not help working-class whites go to college? That idea should be easy to put into practice. Higher education is the sector of society over which liberals hold the greatest sway. And liberals on and off college campuses profess strong commitments to diversity and inclusion.

Yet, the liberals who run America’s top colleges are especially determined that working-class whites not go to college, at least not to their colleges. In their 2009 book No Longer Separate, Not Yet Equal, education scholars Thomas J. Espenshade (a Princeton University professor) and Alexandria W. Radford (a Princeton PhD) used data from eight highly rated, unnamed colleges and universities to assess how class and race affected applicants’ admissions chances “all other things held constant.”

At private universities involved in the study, admissions chances varied radically for different groups. The authors reported that “for white applicants to private institutions, there is a low SES [socio-economic status] admissions disadvantage.” Among equally qualified applicants, whites who identified as “lower class” had only an 8% chance of admission, compared to 23% for whites who identified as “upper class.” Among African-American and Hispanic applicants with the same qualifications, those who described themselves as “lower class” gained admission 87% of the time and 65% of the time, respectively. In the upper-class group, 17% of African Americans and 22% of Hispanics were admitted.

Espenshade and Radford’s social categories are imprecise, because they were obtained by asking students to select a category that best described them, rather than being derived from information on family incomes and parents’ occupations. However, it is clear that the “lower-class” group includes mainly working-class people, many of whom are poor.

That bias against low-status whites is worse than it appears at first glance. Students from impoverished, or simply working-class, backgrounds have to overcome many obstacles: underfunded schools, having to work to help their families, less information about how to prepare for and apply to college. When economically disadvantaged students of any racial background manage to achieve academic records as strong as those of wealthy students, it means they are more qualified than their rich competitors. But lower-class whites are only about one-third as likely to be admitted to top private colleges as upper-class whites with the same academic performance.

Note also that the applicant pool at elite private colleges is staggeringly weighted toward the rich. Upper-class whites with a connection to a particular college, such as “legacies” (children of alumni) and children of donors, undoubtedly have a far higher likelihood of admission than the 23% figure reported by Espenshade and Radford for upper-class white applicants in general.

The admissions disadvantages imposed on low-status whites—relative to racial minorities from the same social background and to high-status whites—shows that administrators at elite colleges practice affirmative action as long as rich, well-connected whites don’t have to pay for it. Leading colleges’ policy toward working-class and poor whites would be best described as “negative action.”

Espenshade and Radford’s conclusion that low social status benefits minorities but hurts whites differs from some other studies, which indicate that colleges do not grant any admissions advantage to low-income applicants, irrespective of racial background. Whichever claim is right on that point, it has been clear for some time that top colleges discriminate against working-class whites.

In their 1998 book, The Shape of the River, former Princeton President William G. Bowen, former Harvard President Derek Bok, and four other authors released data obtained from surveys of entering students at 28 mostly private, mostly high-rated U.S. colleges. The surveys were conducted in 1976 and 1989 and showed remarkable changes during the interim.

The authors divided students into three categories of socioeconomic status: high, middle, and low. The percentage of incoming white students defined by the authors as “high socioeconomic status” increased by 10% between 1976 and 1989—from 40% to 44%. Conversely, the percentage of whites defined as “low socioeconomic status” fell by 50% during that time, from an already low 4% to just 2%. Among college-age students nationwide, only 9% of whites fit into the high-status group in 1989, while 22% were low status. In the era of affirmative action, the rich have increased their share of admissions slots at prestigious colleges. And working-class whites have been the ones excluded to make room.

Exclusion of working-class whites was yet more severe at the colleges and universities Bowen, Bok et al rated as “most selective” (Bryn Mawr, Duke, Princeton, Rice, Stanford, Swarthmore, Williams, and Yale). Among white students entering those institutions in 1989, only 1% came from the low-status group.

Significantly, recruited athletes were not excluded from those data. It is therefore an open question whether any of the colleges classified as “most selective” had in its student population a single working-class white person who was not a recruited athlete. At elite colleges, the concept of “diversity” is very close to “no working-class whites need apply.”

As well-paid industrial jobs disappeared from America and higher education became essential for upward mobility, top colleges slammed the door on working-class whites. But liberals in the media failed to see any problem with that exercise in class bigotry.

It was Ross Douthat, a conservative writer for The New York Times, who raised the issue in a July 2010 column titled “The Roots of White Anxiety.” Unfortunately, Douthat tried to turn an issue of class bias into one of conservative victimhood. Citing Espenshade and Radford’s findings, he wrote: “The gatekeepers of elite education seem to incline against candidates who seem too stereotypically rural or right-wing or ‘Red America.’” Tellingly, Douthat failed to call for ending bias against working-class whites or for expanding affirmative action to include social class—either of which would address the problem directly.

The leading conservative magazine, National Review, soon took up the case, criticizing liberal college administrators more severely than Douthat had. NR columnist Nathan Harden wrote:

Amazing, isn’t it? Elite universities are so deeply concerned about equality and social justice when it comes to doling out racial preferences. Meanwhile, they are shunning highly qualified, working-class whites in favor or [sic] the rich and privileged. There is a word for this kind of thing: It starts with an “H,” and the last part rhymes with “aristocracy.”

Right-wing anger on behalf of working-class white college applicants disappeared as soon as the issue of race was removed from the equation. In February 2012, National Review’s Ron Haskins enthusiastically endorsed Charles Murray’s newly released book Losing Ground, which asserted that working-class whites are morally inferior to rich whites, for reasons of heredity.

How did Murray reach that conclusion? Well, for starters, he noted that there are very few working-class students at elite colleges, while the rich predominate. “Bias with the admissions process isn’t the problem,” Murray wrote. He claimed that the rich whites, and the rich in general, monopolize admissions places because they are high-scoring achievers with good genes: “They are smart in large part because their parents are smart.”

How soon the National Review gang forgot that elite colleges’ exclusion of working-class whites is a matter of policy rather than a measure of merit. If Murray’s book—and conservatives’ reaction to it—proves anything, it is that right-wingers are genetically incapable of siding with economically disadvantaged whites, except as a pretext for race-baiting.

Conservatives’ use of Espenshade and Radford’s findings was utterly cynical, but the discrimination was real and rightists curried favor with working-class whites by pretending to be troubled. How did liberals respond? In general, they didn’t. And when they did, it would have been better if they hadn’t.

At the liberal online magazine Salon, David Sirota wrote a piece mocking the very idea that working-class whites could be targets of discrimination. Sirota referred to “New York Times columnist Ross Douthat’s (subsequently discredited) argument that ‘white anxiety’ is justified because white working-class students are supposedly among ‘the most underrepresented groups’ at elite universities.”

The words “subsequently discredited” linked to a post by anti-racist author Tim Wise, but Sirota mischaracterized Wise’s argument. Wise disagreed with Douthat’s interpretation of Espenshade and Radford, but accepted the fact that working-class white students are disadvantaged in college admissions. “The point about lower income status working against whites in admissions, whereas it helps applicants who are black or Latino,” he wrote, “deserves legitimate consideration and concern.”

Memo to David Sirota: It pays to read posts before you cite them.

Memo to every other liberal journalist: It has been nearly five years since this debate and we are still waiting for the problem of discrimination against working-class whites to receive “legitimate consideration and concern” in the media.

Likewise, what are the odds that Sirota would dismiss out of hand a claim by Ivy League experts that women or minorities faced disadvantages? How likely is it that he would employ the sneering word “supposedly” to refer to under-representation of women or minorities, when the relevant data clearly demonstrated it? Politically correct liberalism is a cult with a bizarre cosmology, one in which the devil is not the rich white man, but the working-class white man.

For his part, Professor Espenshade weighed in on the debate (such as it was) started by Ross Douthat. “It seems highly doubtful that elite college admission practices play much of a role in producing white, working-class anxiety,” he wrote, “especially because selective private colleges and universities enroll only about two percent of each year’s entering college freshmen.”

First, why do writers (including one of the authors of the book in question) keep insisting that this is an anxiety issue rather than a discrimination issue? We have proof that elite private colleges discriminate against a group of disadvantaged applicants—proof uncovered by experts affiliated with a pre-eminently elite private college. What is the result? A condescending discussion of whether working-class whites are suffering a fit of irrational anxiety.

Second, how can Professor Espenshade understand so little about the implications of his work? Allow me to explain how invidious discrimination carried out by top colleges against working-class whites not only causes “anxiety,” but strengthens right-wing politics.

I’m white and my parents did not attend college. They were manual laborers during their working lives, during which time they were almost always deeply in debt. They were also racists and Christian fundamentalists. Their favorite politician was George Wallace.

Thanks to financial aid, I was the first in my family to attend college. It was through that experience that I obtained the knowledge and critical skills necessary to question and ultimately reject fundamentalism. It was also thanks to college that I rejected family-taught stereotypes of gays and racial minorities, partly by learning more about the history of bigotry and partly by interacting with fellow students from those backgrounds. Someone who comes from a family like mine, but doesn’t attend college, won’t have as much chance to transcend prejudices learned from family and friends.

Then there are the direct effects of discrimination. Let’s look at a hypothetical example that shows how class bias at American colleges can turn a young, working-class white person into a middle-aged right-winger. Imagine that you are a working-class white American, and that you graduated high school in 2000. You applied to several prestigious private universities that had the money to offer full scholarships. You didn’t get in, but some students at your school did: members of racial minority groups with weaker academic records than yours.

Liberals are right that the truly undeserving applicants are the rich and mostly white students who get admitted due to biases in favor of prep-school graduates, donors, and legacies. For instance, Harvard annually admits a “Z-list” of applicants whose qualifications are so weak that they are required to take a year off before enrolling. When journalist Daniel Golden investigated the Z-listers in his 2006 book The Price of Admission, he found that nearly all were legacies, children of donors, graduates of posh private schools, or some combination of the three.

It is indeed the children of the rich who receive unfair privileges from the college-admissions system. But this is the problem: You, the working-class white person in our example, didn’t go to school with those rich kids. They attended private schools far away from your neighborhood. Their privileges seem abstract and disconnected from your life. A concrete reality for you is that you had a stronger academic record than some black or Hispanic students in your high-school class, but those students were admitted to top private colleges and you weren’t.

You did receive admission to some state universities, but due to budget cuts, the financial-aid offers you received were small and relied heavily on student loans. So you joined the National Guard to raise money for college. (In numerous Pentagon surveys of recruits conducted at the time, respondents listed money for college as the top reason they would consider military enlistment.)  The Guard’s recruitment ad said, “A weekend a month, two weeks a year, and we’ll pay for college.” But you got sent to Iraq on a more permanent basis. After being stop-lossed, you finally returned home.

If those were your experiences, would you reject conservative rhetoric about “privileged” minorities and “reverse discrimination” or would you find it credible? If you heard right-wingers describing government programs such as the Affordable Care Act as “giveaways to minorities,” might you believe them? How would you feel about immigration from Latin America if you knew that the immigrants’ children will qualify for affirmative action when they apply to prestigious colleges, while your children will be specifically targeted for exclusion? What conclusions might others in your social circle—including those who never considered applying to college—draw about politics, based on your experiences?

American racism has deep roots and many causes beyond educational policy. But liberals are supposed to search for ways to undermine racist views, not reinforce them.

The problem of working-class white conservatism will only worsen if the U.S. Supreme Court outlaws race-based affirmative action. Should that happen, elite colleges will have to adopt some form of class-based affirmative action in order to maintain a degree of racial diversity. They will be forced to start admitting more working-class whites, just to protect themselves against lawsuits claiming that their affirmative-action policies are still based on race.

In that event, working-class white students and their families will certainly notice that the doors of top colleges only started to open to them after conservatives on the High Court banned race-based preferences. They will also notice when liberals decry the court’s decision and vow to reverse it. It is difficult to imagine a scenario better suited to Republicans’ divide-and-conquer racial tactics. Such is the poisonous effect of elite liberals’ policy of ensuring that undeserving, rich whites are not inconvenienced by affirmative action.

Bourgeois liberals support discrimination against white people of the working class, even though that practice strengthens right-wing electoral politics. They cannot even refrain from ridiculing the idea that economically disadvantaged whites can suffer discrimination. The least they can do is stop asking why working-class whites often prefer conservatives to them.