Diversity of the affluent

Race-based affirmative action lets us ignore economic inequality, writes Walter Benn Michaels in the New York Times Magazine. He’s an English professor at University of Illinois-Chicago, a non-elite college that serves diverse students from low- and middle-income families.

Elite universities serve the children of affluence, Michaels writes.

(At Harvard) 90 percent of the undergraduates come from families earning more than $42,000 a year (the median household income in the U.S.) — and some 77 percent come from families with incomes of more than $80,000, although only about 20 percent of American households have incomes that high. If the income distribution at Harvard were made to look like the income distribution of the United States, some 57 percent of the displaced students would be rich, and most of them would be white. It’s no wonder that many rich white kids and their parents seem to like diversity. Race-based affirmative action, from this standpoint, is a kind of collective bribe rich people pay themselves for ignoring economic inequality. The fact (and it is a fact) that it doesn’t help to be white to get into Harvard replaces the much more fundamental fact that it does help to be rich and that it’s virtually essential not to be poor.

I’d say it helps to be very well-educated, and it’s a lot easier for the children of the affluent to get the schooling they need to qualify.

In the end, we like policies like affirmative action not so much because they solve the problem of racism but because they tell us that racism is the problem we need to solve. And the reason we like the problem of racism is that solving it just requires us to give up our prejudices, whereas solving the problem of economic inequality might require something more — it might require us to give up our money.

. . . When student and faculty activists struggle for cultural diversity, they are in large part battling over what skin color the rich kids should have.

Michaels overstates the case: Plenty of affluent students can’t get into elite universities. But he’s right about the lack of economic and class diversity at highly competitive colleges. I remember a University of California study that analyzed the effect of replacing race-based preferences with preferences for students from low-income families. The conclusion was that such a change would increase the admission of Asians (mostly from poor immigrant families) and rural whites; most black and Hispanic students who qualify for UC come from middle-class families.

Via Amardeep Singh.

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Comments

  1. Independent George says:

    My problem with this article, which you touched upon briefly, is that he seems to favor replacing one set of quotas based on race with another set of quotas based on class. To me the solution is to improve schooling for poorer children, as opposed to treating the elite universities as an entitlement. Otherwise, we’re right back where we started – instead of seeking to improve achievement, we wind up lowering the bar.

  2. For whatever reason, my initial impression of this is that “it is ‘bad’ to be economically successful = being racist” and the implicit next step to redress this is for everyone who has worked hard to improve their economics to give up (or be taxed?) their “excess beyond the median” to those below the median so that everone has the same economic (dis)advantage ?

    Probably not the intent, but that’s my honest and initial impresson.

  3. Mad Scientist says:

    Pure Communism, plain and simple.

    “From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs”.

    Makes me sick.

  4. JorgXMcKie says:

    I agree that it is preparation that counts. I don’t personally know anyone who came from a family more poor than mine while I was an undergrad at a pretty elite univerity back in the ’60s, although there probably were a couple. We probably classified just above ‘dirt poor.’ (my Dad had a fair job full-time and my Mom worked part-time, but we were poor.) The main thing was that my rural school system wasn’t too bad, and they recognized my potential and I was helped to get a pretty good basic education. I was even able to take both calculus and physics at a very small high school.

    The difference was pretty obvious when I got to school. Clothes really showed the divide. I just shrugged, worked my 40 hours a week at night, took my classes and got on with it. I still see some of this today. It just isn’t as obvious. The class divide won’t go away, but I’m pretty sure it won’t be solved by confiscation of wealth.

  5. Diversity, if it is to be honestly sought, should include economic status. If 90% come from upper or middle class families and diversity is a goal of an institution, then 90% is too high.

    Like race, it’s a problematic concept to work with (divorced parents with odd custody arrangements, older working students, and trust fund incomes can all mess with the goal of finding and quantifying wealth). But I can see how this, added to racial quotas, makes a better system. Still flawed, but better.

  6. The article does show what a sham that diversity at elite schools can be. I attended Yale, which was quite diverse ethnically, something I thoroughly enjoyed coming from an extremely rural homogenous area. However, I always found it funny that minority students who attended private highschools were assigned minorty upperclassmen mentors to help them cope, something this country boy who didn’t understand the system could have used. (there was also a subtle, but only subtle push to make minorities, despite their wealth feel like victims).

  7. TWS Garrison says:

    “The fact (and it is a fact) that it doesn’t help to be white to get into Harvard replaces the much more fundamental fact that it does help to be rich and that it’s virtually essential not to be poor.”

    I weep for the Illinois system, if this what one can expect from one of their professors.

    (1) This is a non sequitur; he was previously talking about enrolled students, not admitted students. At a selective college, the makeup of the enrolled student body does not necessarily tell much of anything about the makeup of the body of admitted students. Also, he was previously talking about the incomes (and slightly about the wealth) of the families of students; this statment is about the wealth of the students themselves.

    (2) Even if he had bothered to find a correlation between student wealth and admission to Harvard, he doesn’t even pretend to try to prove causation one way or the other; he just asserts it.

  8. I don’t know if anyone has studied the financial characteristics of the Ivy applicant pool. With tuition heading above $30,000 per year, many kids who could handle the courseload, but feel that their families can’t afford the cost, choose not to apply. Has anyone proven that an education at an Ivy institution is worth the extra money?

    Affluent families can afford to aim for the “brand names” in education, those names which are perceived to stand for achievement. The parents may perceive this as proof that they’ve “done their duty” by their kids. This does not mean, however, that the kids would not have done just as well at another university.

  9. Jack Tanner says:

    ‘I can see how this, added to racial quotas, makes a better system. ‘

    Better than what – outright racism? Judging people’s worth by the color of their skin is never going to make anything better. You can rationalize it anyway you want and you can use any phony baloney quota system you want but the only people who benefit are the individuals who play the system at the expense of others. I couldn’t believ emy eyes and ears when in the MI cases US Rep Harold Ford (D-TN go figure) said with a straight face that preference programs allowed him to go to UT. His father was a Congressman and he was admitted thru a preference program? Explain how that’s better than anything.

  10. Michelle Dulak says:

    TWS Garrison: A check of Harvard’s website reveals that 78% of their 2003 admits actually enrolled. You’re correct that admittee stats and enrollee stats aren’t necesssarily identical, but I’d bet that they’re pretty close.

    And the question of whether the kids themselves are rich or only their parents . . . please. It’s a question of whether a student has always had whatever s/he needed or wanted, not whether there’s 20K in the kid’s personal bank account.

  11. This is not a surprising thing to me. I was raised in Detroit over 30 years ago, the son of a delivery truck driver with a mother who had to work to keep us going. It was far from a bad life. However, between my Junior and Senior years in High school, I was admitted to a special institute for science and math. In that program, I was exposed for the first time to the people that lived over ‘8 Mile Road’ (yes, it had that reputation far before a semi-literate rapper took it over). It became quickly clear that the kids whose parents were well off had enormous advantages over me. There schools were more advanced, they had more opportunities and it was clear to me that more money means more advantages.

    I doubt I’m the only one who felt that way. In fact, I think that most persons get that lesson delivered to them in spades. It just stuck with me until now I can look back and know how true that lesson was.

    The biggest changes I see in education are related to the increasing definition of education as an economic solution to survival rather than as the creation of good citizens and the quest to be better persons. Eventually, we will pay the price for this one-dimensional approach to life.

  12. Poor kids who go to one of the Ivies get treated like dirt by most of their fellow students.

    It’s not just about being able to do the classwork. You’ve got to fit in socially at college, and that’s something that poor kids don’t have the resources (or – at risk of offending too many socialists’ sensibilities – the social education/manners) to do. The alternative is to go into debt to ‘keep up with the Joneses’ kids’ or try to pretend to be something you’re not. And they’ll probably still snub you – they do it to each other all the time, too.

    No, poor kids usually choose not to go to an Ivy League school NOT because they can’t cut it academically but because they don’t want or like the social aspects.

    No, a smart-but-poor kid might like to be able to say “I got accepted to Harvard or Yale”, but he/she’s unlikely to actually attend if accepted.

  13. “Better than what – outright racism? Judging people’s worth by the color of their skin is never going to make anything better.”–J. Tanner

    Better at their goal: diversity. These are private institutions that want to have diversity in their student bodies. If they want diversity, then that’s up to them. I think affirmative action is racist, but it replaced other systems that were often… racist. I like the idea of quotas looking at more than one or two things: race and sex. If diversity is the goal, and quotas are the means, then there’s a lot of legitimate ways to look at and evaluate people.

    When Ivy League schools start to say yes to unworthy students, then affirmative action will have gone too far. As it stands, there are a lot of worthy students getting turned away from spots that get taken by other worthy students.

  14. $42,000? So I’m affluent now? Cool.
    Gotta love America where mechanics, electricians, millwrights and welders are all “affluent.”

    I think somewhere, someone decided to lower the standard for affluence so that the middle class could be used in some way.

    Kal

  15. The problem with substituting socio-economic class diversity for that of races and ethnic groups is that the lower-income, but high-achieving, students do not posess the kind of diversity that is sought.’america in black and white’ by the Thernstroms, gives a table which shows that white students from the bottom classes do better than black students from the top socio-economic percentiles, as indicated by income and education of their parents. It may sound anti-diversity or anti-minority to point this out, but it is unavoidable if one is to consider the alternatives to racial diversity as a direct object of affirmative action. An increase in background diversity will eliminate the racial diversity that these institutions seek. In any case , diversity is not really a valid goal; there are insuperable contradictions in it, as is discussed further by the undersigned…

  16. JSBolton: How can diversity not be a valid goal? It can be quantified in many ways. Measured over time. Achieved or not.

    Using examples of starfish and viruses aren’t going to convince me that we aren’t better off with men and women, whites and blacks, rich and poor, having the opportunity to take part in all aspects of our society. I didn’t read the entire JSBolton piece, but I read enough to know that he’s from philosophical la la land. Here on Earth, I’m glad diversity is a goal.

  17. Mad Scientist says:

    How can diversity not be a valid goal? Are you for real?

    Look at the balkans. Yougoslavia was forced in being a “diverse” society. That worked out really well.

    The problem with diversity is that it treats all ideas and experiences equally. In theory, true diversity would give the rantings of a white supremacists the same weight and validity as the more thoughtful musings of the diversity crowd.

    I guess diversity if fine, as long as you agree with those who preach diversity. Unfortunately, the diversity crowd is far too closed minded to even listen to concepts that challenge their sacred cows.

    Talk about irony!

  18. This is not a surprising thing to me. I was raised in Detroit over 30 years ago, the son of a delivery truck driver with a mother who had to work to keep us going. I was far from a bad life. However, between my Junior and Senior years in High school, I was admitted to a special institute for science and math. In that program, I was exposed for the first time to the people that lived over ‘8 Mile Road’ (yes, it had that reputation far before a semi-literate rapper took it over). It became quickly clear that the kids whose parents were well off had enormous advantages over me. There schools were more advanced, they had more opportunities and better chance for keeping a hold of a comfortable life. It was clear to me then that more money means more advantages for schooling.

    I doubt I’m the only one who felt that way. In fact, I think that most persons get that lesson delivered to them in spades. It just stuck with me until now I can look back and know how true that lesson was.

    The biggest changes I see in education are related to the increasing definition of education as an economic solution to survival rather than as the creation of good citizens and the quest to be better persons. Eventually, we will pay the price for this one-dimensional approach to life.

  19. PJ/Maryland says:

    Poor kids who go to one of the Ivies get treated like dirt by most of their fellow students.

    No, a smart-but-poor kid might like to be able to say “I got accepted to Harvard or Yale”, but he/she’s unlikely to actually attend if accepted.

    Interesting opinion, Claire, but I’d like to see some facts to back it up, since it contradicts my own experience. The dress code at my college, for example, was scruffy jeans (this was before ripping them was required) and T-shirts. My family was scratching to stay in the middle class at the time, though I think my social education was pretty good. I didn’t have a car at school, let alone a Beamer, but I don’t remember being treated like dirt. Certainly not by anyone whose opinion I cared about.

    I can see that someone with zero social manners might have been uncomfortable, but wouldn’t you expect someone “smart-but-poor” to pick those up pretty quickly? (And isn’t it true that no one at MIT, for example, has any social skills?)

    Also, the Ivies and similar schools are actually easier for a smart-but-poor kid to attend; they have endowments that enable them to offer significant scholarships, unlike state schools. Between grants and loans, my family (and I) had to come up with only about a third of the “list price” of my education.

  20. Alexander says:

    The reason ‘rich’ kids have better opportunities in education is not becuase they (their parents) are rich. Their parents are rich because they are successful. They are successful because they work at being successful. (Some are quite dense, but never stop working.) These successful parents ensure that their children do-what-is-necessary-to-get-ahead. That is, work for a good education.

    The greatest advocates of dumbing down public education are *surprise* the teachers from poor backgrounds! To them education is useless, work a bad word. Rich are rich because they are rich. Poor are poor because nasty rich people steal their money, are born with it or it falls out of the sky on them. Some mystical luck thing. Probably in the middle of the nite. Their antidote is: Be happy, feel good, don’t work. Most certainly don’t stigmatize the lazy with grades!

    Send lazy Johnny to MIT. Can’t add. Money fall out of sky. Be happy.

  21. Re: comments from jon of tax day… Diversity can be defined and measured, but it is (very conveniently) not often done. This allows for including women as diversity-items even when they are numerically dominant, as may have been done here. Diversity has to mean more than one alternative, not just one, as in the case of the comparison of men and women. The lala planet I am from has the same laws of nature as the one my critic was born on. If it means being from the ethereal lotus-land, to have energy to consider philosophical questions, then every educated person is from there. Do you mean, perhaps that I should be so short-term practical-minded as to just go along to get along, on the subject of diversity-value? And since I don’t do that, I must have resources which place me on a plane that is beyond the level of those who, in Rome, must do as the Romans do? Why can’t one live in or among the diversity, and function without valuing diversity as such; especially when this is what everyone must do?

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  1. Diversity of the affluent

    joannejacobs.com: Diversity of the affluent Joanne Jacobs, chronicler extraordinaire of the educations scene, posts this very interesting take on race based versus economic based affirmative action.