The Corner

Poor White Christians

I’m disappointed by both Tim Fernholz’s and Adam Serwer’s takes on Ross Douthat’s column yesterday. Responding to empirical evidence that poor, white Christians are among the least well-represented “minority” groups at elite colleges, they both more or less default to saying ‘yeah, well, it sucks to be poor.’

Except Douthat’s point is that, when it comes to elite college admissions, it sucks more to be poor and white than it does to be poor and black, and a fortiori, that poor blacks’ chances improve as they get poorer, while just the opposite is the case for whites. Either Serwer and Fernholz are okay with this or they aren’t. But they won’t say, leaving us to assume that they view it as acceptable collateral damage in the battle for diversity.

They also dismiss as so much whining the feelings of alienation from “elite” culture felt by poor, working class whites — at their peril and ours.

I know, this sounds dangerously mushy-headed for a card-carrying conservative, and I’m not saying our top national priority should be the self-esteem of blue-collar whites. But that poor whites feel disenfranchised from participation in “elite” institutions is a problem whether or not they actually are, all the more so since we live with a political culture that tells them they have nothing to complain about. In some cases, feelings of discrimination become consequentially indistinguishable from actual discrimination. So when smarmy liberals look at poor gun-and-religion-clinging whites and ask what’s the matter with Kansas, this is part of the answer.

UPDATE: Fernholz just passed along some criticisms that I wanted to address. He facetiously wonders whether my (admittedly “mushy-headed”) claim that, in some instances, feelings of discrimination are consequentially no different than actual alienation, applies only to whites.

No, it doesn’t. But I should have been clear that feelings of discrimination matter when the distort the political discourse, and that they matter insofar as they should be addressed in that discourse (which is exactly what Douthat was trying to do). I’m not, by any means, saying that mere “feelings” of discrimination call on us to mobilizes the forces of government to provide some restitution to poor whites.

Fernholz points out that poor whites are more likely to lose slots at Ivies to legacies than to affirmative action candidates (I’ll take his word for it). Makes sense to me, if only because most university diversity policies are too coarse-grained, and too centered on race, to be sensitive to subbing one kind of white for another.

He wonders whether my post, seeming to fret over the relative success of poor whites in a diversity scheme, is a tacit endorsement of said scheme. It isn’t. One can suggest “diversity” policies fail on their own terms without endorsing those terms.

UPDATE II: And now I’ll respond to one criticism from Serwer, who writes:

In other words, I wrote that lower class Americans, black and white, deserve more access to elite institutions. Even the original blog post Douthat links to notes that in such contexts “black” often really refers to the progeny of elite African and Caribbean families and not African-Americans, so I don’t know why both he and Foster insist on framing this as a zero-sum death match between lower-class whites and lower-class blacks except that it’s worked really well for conservatives so far.

I don’t want to frame it that way. Fernholz and Serwer might be right that the admissions outcomes for blacks and poor whites have different engines of causation: poor whites are losing their spots at Ivies to rich white legacies, while blacks representation is bolstered by A) diversity policies that promote racial diversity above all else and B) the inclusion of African and Caribbean elites.

My point is just that, outside the black box of admissions decisions, what it looks like to a poor white kid is that a policy with a supposedly socioeconomic rationale is actually producing race-driven outcomes. Now I’d just as soon scrap “diversity” as it is currently understood from admissions decisions. That would certainly render moot the framing of this as a “zero-sum death match.” But the status quo is a policy that (quite transparently) favors some groups above others. It is natural that the ill-favored groups should chafe.

Daniel Foster — Daniel Foster is a former news editor of National Review Online.

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