Douthat's Tribalism

I dont usually read Douthats column. But todays headline caught my eye. I figured from the title that he was going to blame liberals for racial hostility on the Right. Thats not quite what he did. Nevertheless, I found his column to be perverse, but in a slightly different way than I had expected. His discussion relies heavily on a study of admissions at elite colleges and universities, which found that poor whites are less likely to be admitted to these institutions than comparably qualified whites with higher incomes:
while 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 arent racial minorities; theyre 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.

Where to start. First, let me say straight out that, as a resident of a rural area, I agree that theres a real problem with how this country addresses (or, more accurately, neglects) problems of rural poverty. And I agree that that neglect includes elite educational institutions, though I doubt my employer has that problem to the same degree as Douthats alma mater. Of course, the problem goes well beyond college admissions. But, like David Brooks, Douthat is expert at taking social science and twisting it to suit his preconceived partisan agenda. So he chooses to focus on those godless liberals running Americas top universities.We then arrive at his strange parenthetical about elite schools discriminating not only against the urban poor but against white Christians in particular. Whats his evidence that white Christians are uniquely disfavored by elite colleges? None that he points to in the piece, unless we are to take his claim about what the alumni of highly selective universities (i.e., Douthat himself) already know as an authoritative source. Why does Douthat think that poor, rural white Christians are particularly disfavored, as opposed to rural, white working class people in general? Which non-Christian white, rural working class people are being welcomed by admissions officers? While most of the disfavored group (the white, rural poor) are in fact Christian, whats the evidence that their religion is motivating their exclusion in any way? Are wealthy Christians suffering the same fate? Its interesting that, of his examples of the activities colleges disfavor (4-H, FFA, and ROTC), none of them are, in fact, religious.Douthats lack of evidence that the white Christian poor are uniquely disenfranchised raises the crucial question: why stretch to Christianize this point? Why not simply let the data speak for itself and talk about the struggles of the rural poor in America? Because that would ruin Douthats partisan objectives. If the struggles of the rural poor are a problem of poverty and the shortcomings of our meritocracy in dealing with issues of poverty, particular rural poverty, then the solution is plainly redistributive. Or, put another way, if the problems of the rural poor are framed in economic terms, rather than religious/cultural ones, then Douthats column and the data it highlights would raise the question of what either party has been doing for the rural poor. This would be a particularly interesting question to address in light of recent stories about rural counties tearing up paved roads because they cant afford to maintain them at precisely the moment the Senate GOP is filibustering federal aid to state and local governments.But that conversation would be far too messy for Douthat, so, despite the pesky lack of evidence, he has to turn the story from one of class bias into one of religious bias in order to fit it within the tidy red-state, blue-state framework. Add the label Christian to the group being excluded, and, voila! class struggle becomes culture war. The enemy is not the elite, which resides in both parties (though we could have a nice discussion about which partys policies better serve the rural poor). The enemy is the liberal, urban, secular elite out to keep you from finding Jesus (as a Republican congressional candidate from Missouri put it the other day). Pay no attention to the GOP agenda of tax cuts and deregulation, which will do nothing for the rural poor, white or black or brown. This is just pure hackery. I should have stuck to my normal policy of ignoring Douthats columns.

Eduardo M. Peñalver is the Allan R. Tessler Dean of the Cornell Law School. The views expressed in the piece are his own, and should not be attributed to Cornell University or Cornell Law School.

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