Liberal Class Bigotry and its Consequences

It was the scandal of the decade in U.S. higher education. In 1998, Princeton University Press published The Shape of the River, billing the book as a powerful vindication of race-based affirmative action in college admissions. Six education scholars collaborated on the monograph, and the principal authors were William G. Bowen, former president of Princeton, and Derek Bok, former president of Harvard. The book presented a vigorous defense of race-based admissions preferences. But the authors shocked their fellow liberals by opposing gender-based affirmative action. (Administrators at nearly all top colleges stated that they did not practice gender-based affirmative action at the undergraduate level, but it was, and is, practiced in graduate schools, professional schools, and academic hiring.)

Of the reasons the authors gave for their stance, this one caused the most outrage:

Female students are less likely than male students of equivalent ability to complete their studies, attain professional or doctoral degrees, and earn high incomes.

Liberal activists and journalists were appalled by the claim that women could not qualify for affirmative action because they earned, on average, less money than men. On that basis, they pointed out, race-based affirmative action would have to be abolished as well.

The National Organization for Women organized protests against the book. The New York Times published a lead editorial, criticizing the authors for “blaming the victim” and “supporting discrimination against women.” In the same edition of the paper, columnist Maureen Dowd compared Bowen and Bok to “Gilligan and the Skipper stumbling around on deck, fighting a storm they should have seen coming.” For their part, the authors profusely apologized. They promised that future editions of The Shape of the River would contain language strongly supporting affirmative action based on gender at institutions at which women were underrepresented.

Actually, none of that happened. There was no scandal. The authors did not disparage women; they disparaged low-income people. Here is what they actually wrote, offering one of the many reasons why they opposed class-based affirmative action.

Students with low socioeconomic backgrounds are less likely than students of equivalent ability from high socioeconomic backgrounds to complete their studies, attain professional or doctoral degrees, and earn high incomes.

Journalists and academics failed to see any problem. Conservatives criticized The Shape of the River because it endorsed race-based affirmative action. Liberals defended it for the same reason. Neither side was bothered that Bowen, Bok, et al endorsed class bigotry. That omission is all the more disgraceful when you consider that statistics in the book revealed the urgent need for affirmative action based on class. The authors showed that only 12% of black students and only 1% of white students at the most selective colleges were of low socioeconomic status, as they defined the term.

Bowen, Bok, et al were right about race-based affirmative action, but their progressive credentials make their reactionary attitudes on class all the more insidious. Likewise, their class bias pollutes their support of affirmative action on race.

Nonetheless, the book became a major work on college admissions and, for liberals, the definitive text on college diversity. Consider the implications of that. No one in the academic elite or the media elite (there is, of course, considerable overlap) saw any problem with discrimination against working-class college applicants, excused by social profiling. Rarely in recent history has bigotry found such unanimous support—or such illustrious supporters.

Little has changed since the publication and reception of that book. Starting in 1999, I wrote pieces criticizing class bias in admissions, citing, among other examples, the statements about low-status applicants in The Shape of the River. I advocated that colleges expand affirmative action to include social class.

That was a new argument at the time. Authors such as Richard Kahlenberg called for replacing race-based affirmative action at the undergraduate level with a class-based version of the policy. Bowen, Bok, and nearly all other liberals argued for keeping the race-based version of the policy while rejecting affirmative action based on class. It was a sterile debate: no one would acknowledge that the best approach would consist of adding class to existing affirmative-action criteria.

I submitted those articles to every major liberal publication and all the minor ones I knew. In particular, I sent different versions of those pieces to The New York Times in 2001-02. There was an op-ed version as well as a full-length article. I also included the piece as a writing sample when pitching other pieces or requesting an assignment. No one at the NYT replied.

However, that paper did endorse the idea of combining class-based and race-based affirmative action in 2012. An editorial from November of that year stated:

For colleges and universities committed to diversity, the right way to think about class- and race-conscious admissions is as complements rather than alternatives. Both are essential for a truly diverse campus.

It was nice to see my innovative (if also obvious) proposal endorsed by The New York Times eleven years after I had first submitted it to that publication. But while the Times editorial board claimed to regard class-based affirmative action as “essential,” neither they nor the paper’s reporters have indicated that subsequently.

If they truly supported class-based affirmative action, they would pressure elite colleges to increase enrollment of low-income students dramatically. They would not credit a top college with achieving diversity unless its percentage of undergraduates receiving Pell Grants (federal scholarships for low- and middle-income students) was comparable to those of leading institutions that practice class-based affirmative action. At UC Berkeley, for instance, 36% of undergraduates were Pell recipients, at last federal count. Most top private institutions, including nearly all Ivy League ones, are in the teens or lower.

The percentage of wealthy students at top colleges is many times greater than that. A few years ago, I examined statistics posted on Harvard’s web site. Though the university’s annual cost of attendance was estimated at $52,652 for the 2011-12 academic year, approximately 40% of its undergraduates did not require any funding from the university’s need-based scholarship program.

But even if the Times were to start challenging top colleges on social exclusion now, the paper missed a crucial opportunity in 2001-02. Had the NYT addressed class discrimination then, other liberal outlets would have followed suit. Had journalists pointed out these inequities to the people, aggressively and persistently, the public might have demanded change.

Had such demands grown by the time the Democrats took over Congress in 2007, or the White House in 2009, we may have seen meaningful legislative proposals to combat social exclusion on campus. Imagine how much more advanced America’s thinking on class might be—and how much change might have resulted—had “the newspaper of record” and other liberal publications taken on the issue with vigor.

Of course, it is possible that the American public would have failed to act. It may well be that working-class and middle-class people will continue to accept the rule of the elite until the elite finish making this planet uninhabitable for humans. Even if we accept that as the most likely outcome, it would not absolve those who have the means of finding and revealing the truth from doing so—especially when they claim that it is their job.

Let’s bring the story of class bias up to the present. In March, I resigned my job at Washington University in St. Louis to protest blatant class bias in admissions at that tax-exempt institution. In an open letter of resignation, I offered detailed proof of bias, drawn from publicly available sources, linked in the letter. I sent the letter to countless media outlets, activist groups, and anyone I thought might help get the word out.

That didn’t go so well. The idea that working-class people have basic civil rights hasn’t caught on. Likewise, virtually no one in the media, however liberal, is interested in corporate welfare when it involves tax exemptions for wealthy colleges that discriminate based on class.

I did not expect The New York Times to concern itself with the problems of working-class people. But, in two of the paper’s articles, I noticed errors that exaggerated Washington University’s feeble commitments on the subject of social diversity. I submitted corrections to the Times. Editor Jane Karr initially refused to make the more important changes, which were a matter of arithmetic.

She also offered this elitist insult: “Good luck with any new venture. We see you’ve quit your job over this statistic, but we are comfortable with what we’ve written.” A few hours later, however, Karr corrected the more recent of the two articles.

There you have the response of elite liberals to invidious discrimination against working-class people. They ignore it. If they are compelled to take notice of it, their response is derision. I e-mailed the Times’s executive editor, Dean Baquet, about my correspondence with Karr and asked what he thought about her actions. He did not reply.

What do you think would have happened if a male editor at the NYT had mocked a woman who protested gender bias at a top college—especially if the root of the disagreement was an arithmetic fact about which the editor was wrong? I believe such an editor would have been fired, accompanied by considerable media comment about “mansplaining.”

Was Karr “bourgsplaining?” I’m guessing that wasn’t the only time she did so. There could hardly be a better example of the casual, reflexive hatred for working-class people that prevails at The New York Times. (You can read my response to her insult and to the Times’s failure to address discrimination against working-class people here.)

I thought there might be a chance that The Guardian would be interested in my story. Given the paper’s many apparently radical stances, its occasional discussions of social class in Britain, and its recent emphasis on U.S. issues, I hoped its editors would want to deal with the issue of class bias in American college admissions. Since The Guardian has been guilty of grossly overstating social diversity at Ivy League colleges, there is all the more reason to try to get things right now.

I wrote to numerous editors there, including Lee Glendinning, who advised me to contact reporter Amanda Holpuch. I did, but heard nothing further. I also pitched an article on my resignation to another editor, Jessica Reed. I received no reply from her. With almost no exceptions, media liberals do not consider class bigotry newsworthy, no matter how egregious or meticulously documented.

Why is that? Because working-class people do not fit liberals’ concept of the disadvantaged. I realize that the bourgeoisie is about exclusion. But excluding the most excluded people from reporting about the excluded is a bold gambit, even for a bourgeois.

Media liberals get away with that for the same reason that college administrators do: they know that they hold a monopoly on debate. Top media-makers are overwhelmingly drawn from expensive, socially exclusive, private colleges. They derive credibility from their association with those institutions, and, if they have children, are eager for them to be admitted. The last thing a typical New York journalist wants is for old alma mater to end biases toward the rich and well-connected, especially before the kids enroll. The ideology of privilege is so pervasive that the few top journalists who are not from the upper- or upper-middle class still follow the dominant viewpoint.

In most cases, however, the experience and influence of privilege are direct. In this post, I examined the stranglehold that graduates of private colleges possess on columnist jobs at The New York Times. You can also see the connections that bind the media-Ivy complex in this segment about Slate from my (rejected) 2009 book proposal.

Slate obtains its illustrators, technical staff, editorial assistants, and interns from a wide variety of colleges and universities. In the case of the editorial staff, the story is quite different. I have ascertained the educational backgrounds of 26 editors and writers at that magazine. Twenty-four attended colleges in the northeastern United States (defined as north of the Mason-Dixon Line, east of Ohio). Twenty, or 77%, graduated from Ivy League institutions and 16 (61%) went to Harvard or Yale. Another three hail from other private colleges—Guilford, Oberlin, and Swarthmore—and one of those holds a PhD from Harvard. Only three (12%) attended public universities: Rutgers in one case, and the University of Virginia in the other two.

However, two of the public university graduates had other advantages to play. Virginia alumnus John Dickerson is the son of Nancy Dickerson, a famous reporter and one-time vice president of the National Press Club. Likewise, the Rutgers graduate on the masthead happens to be Robert Pinsky, who atoned for his public-university bachelor’s degree by receiving a PhD from Stanford and by earning a reputation as a distinguished poet and literary scholar back when Slate was just a glint on Bill Gates’s computer screen.

The same pattern holds in the area of graduate and professional education. Of the magazine’s fourteen writers and editors who hold advanced degrees, eleven obtained them from private universities: six from Ivy League institutions, two from Stanford, and one each from M.I.T., the University of Chicago, and Warren Wilson College. The only public, domestic institution on the list is the University of California at Berkeley, and there are two foreign universities—Oxford and Cambridge.

Nearly all Slate contributors went to colleges where, with few exceptions, the working-class people are the ones tending the lawns or cleaning the bathrooms. When a magazine draws its talent from such a privileged group, the result is a narrow, warped perspective, no matter how many of the staffers describe themselves as liberals.

The circle of privilege shrinks further due to the effect of unpaid internships. Many top media outlets virtually insist that successful applicants have experience working without pay in New York City media. (I wrote about that here.) Top journalists and commentators, liberal and conservative, are overwhelmingly drawn from the most privileged sectors of the social elite. That elite is committed to protecting its privileges and to discriminating against working-class people. It is astonishing that the people allow such a narrow, hostile group to decide which issues are worthy of discussion.

The class bigotry of elite liberals has especially destructive consequences. A viable left requires working-class unity. Working-class unity requires knowledge of the effects of social class on daily life. Prejudice and discrimination against working-class people are the most easily understood examples of class difference in action. If we don’t talk about such cases, how will Americans ever understand class?

They won’t, and that is the point. That is why bourgeois liberals aggressively play up every form of identity politics except class. They only express concern for the disadvantaged when doing so poses no threat to their own economic privileges. They divide and conquer, and their tactics are heavy on posing.

Liberals at outlets such as The New York Times and The Guardian do more harm than any right-wing pundit could. With every article and opinion piece calling for fairness and diversity, but ignoring class, they discredit the idea that progressives care about working-class people. If you were wondering why there is no functioning left in America, you now have the answer.