Mirror of Justice

A blog dedicated to the development of Catholic legal theory.
Affiliated with the Program on Church, State & Society at Notre Dame Law School.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Douthat's Tribalism

I don’t usually read Douthat’s column.  But today’s headline caught my eye.  I figured from the title that he was going to blame liberals for racial hostility on the Right.   That’s 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 aren’t racial minorities; they’re 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 there’s 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 Douthat’s 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 America’s 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.”  What’s 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 already know” (i.e., Douthat himself) 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, what’s the evidence that their religion is motivating their exclusion in any way?  Are wealthy Christians suffering the same fate?  It’s interesting that, of his examples of the activities colleges disfavor (4-H, FFA, and ROTC), none of them are, in fact, religious.

Douthat’s 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 Douthat’s 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 Douthat’s 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 can’t 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 party’s 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 Douthat’s columns.


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I agree, Eduardo, with you that the groups against which the "elite" colleges appear to be discriminating are not "Christian" groups, and that these groups members include many non-Christians. I also agree with you that discrimination by elite universities against rural applicants is troubling. But, so is discrimination against "conservative" Christians. And, with all due respect, I think (what I took to be) Douthat's main point still stands, and should still be troubling: I think we can safely assume that participation and leadership in these groups (especially ROTC) is (reasonably) perceived by admissions officials as correlating with "conservative" / "red state" beliefs, including (I think it is safe to assume) evangelical Protestant beliefs. And, I think it is fair to assume that discrimination against applicants who participate in or lead these groups is going to have a disparate, negative impact on "conservative" evangelical Protestants. Do you disagree?

Posted by: Rick Garnett | Jul 19, 2010 1:21:13 PM

Oops. I didn't mean to leave comments on. But, now that they're on, I'll leave them on. I think your comment, Rick, makes the same move that Douthat's column does -- attributes intent to discriminate (admissions officials perceive ...) on the basis of disparate impact (most rural people are religious, so discriminating against the rural poor is discrimination against religious people). I think framing things up this way is unsupported by the evidence he marshals. And it is unhelpful, as it needlessly ties a legitimate problem of distributive justice with a host of culture war issues that I doubt are playing much of a causal role. If you want to know why rural poor people are resentful, it's probably not unrelated to the fact that conservative media types are blasting this sort of message at them nonstop. And why is that, exactly? The political calculus seems obvious to me; Douthat's column is just a more sophisticated version of this same identity politics game. And it's no more constructive, in my view. So my answer to you is, yes. I do disagree to the extent that you are saying that elite universities discriminate against rural Christians as Christians rather than as poor people who do not have anyone going to bat for them. Is that a problem? Yes. But it's not a culture war, red-state blue state problem; and it's much broader than higher education.

Posted by: Eduardo Penalver | Jul 19, 2010 1:39:00 PM

"I do disagree to the extent that you are saying that elite universities discriminate against rural Christians as Christians rather than as poor people who do not have anyone going to bat for them." But isn't that precisely the point of the study? Doesn't the data suggest poor people are not discriminated against but (seemingly) only certain kinds of poor people? Eduardo, you are claiming the study overlooks exactly what it claims to be looking at. Or am I misinterpreting you?

Posted by: Rob | Jul 19, 2010 2:14:13 PM

Not that I can see, Rob. Douthat says that the study shows that poor whites do less well than rich whites, whereas poor blacks/latinos do better than rich blacks/latinos. I take it that, overall, the wealthy are advantaged in the college admissions process. Blacks and Latinos have been able to buck that trend through the use of targeted affirmative action. But disfavoring the poor in higher education is the background rule, not the exception. In the column, Douthat does not say that the study shows white urban poor are doing any better than white rural poor. He just moves from this apparently broad, class-based claim to his claim of discrimination against white Christians.

Posted by: Eduardo Penalver | Jul 19, 2010 2:27:24 PM

Well, at the risk of being charged by Eduardo with "hackery" , I'll just have to respectfully disagree. It strikes me as quite implausible -- and unnecessary for purposes of making Eduardo's sound point about the rural poor -- to insist that there is not, in fact, bias at work in our "elite" universities against "conservative" evangelical Christians specifically. Eduardo doubts, but I strongly suspect, that "culture war" issues *are* (as are other things) playing a role in the evidence Douthat discusses. I suspect this not as a tactic for stirring anyone up, but rather quite regretfully, because this bias hurts our universities, and our public conversation.

Posted by: Rick Garnett | Jul 19, 2010 4:04:29 PM

It seems worth noting that quite a larger percentage of African-Americans and Hispanics are also Christians, and in many cases the churches they belong to are conservative. But, according to Douthat, they are not being discriminated against. This seems to me to support the view that any discrimination here is not against poor or rural whites _as Christians_, since other Christians are not discriminated against. I don't doubt that "cultural" issues are somewhat at play, but it seems mistaken to cast this in terms of Christian or not, given that larger percentages, probably majorities, of the minority students are also Christians, usually from conservative churches.

Posted by: Matt | Jul 19, 2010 6:08:47 PM

That's a pretty big risk, Rick. Seriously, though, I would have thought it implausible that, contrary to conservative talking points, affirmative action actually benefits poor (rather than middle class or affluent) black and Latino applicants. So I think it's worth being a little cautious about getting too far in front of data based on prior assumptions about plausibility. That said, what I found hackish about Douthat's column is precisely that he did not admit to baldly assuming (on the basis of sheer plausibility to him) that elite universities discriminate against white Christians. Instead, he did so under the guise of describing social science that does not -- at least as he described it -- seem to support the conclusion he was arguing for.

Posted by: Eduardo Penalver | Jul 19, 2010 6:42:23 PM

Rick Garnett says: "I think we can safely assume that participation and leadership in these groups (especially ROTC) is (reasonably) perceived by admissions officials as correlating with "conservative" / "red state" beliefs, including (I think it is safe to assume) evangelical Protestant beliefs."

The study itself say the following:
“Excelling in career-oriented activities is associated with 60 or 65 percent lower odds of admission. These activities include ROTC and co-op work programs. They might also encompass 4-H Clubs, Future Farmers of America, and other activities that suggest that students are somewhat undecided about their academic futures” (p. 126).

It seems to me the study itself does not in any way make the assumption that ROTC participants are of any particular religious or political persuasion, but that they might be "somewhat undecided about their academic futures." A table on page 31 says that only 16.7 percent of applicants (the smallest number) participated in two or more years of career-oriented extracurricular activities, whereas 71 participated in academic extracurricular activities, 62.9 in performing arts, 78.4 in community service, and so on. The small percentage of applicants who have engaged in career-oriented activities could possibly indicate that these students tend to agree with those in charge of admissions to elite schools that elite schools are less likely to be the place for them.

Posted by: David Nickol | Jul 19, 2010 8:10:04 PM

I fail to see how Garnett's defense of Douthat amounts to any more than a repetition of Douthat's original claim, with no new evidence, or argument, to back it up. Garnett says that "It strikes me as quite implausible...to insist that there is not, in fact, bias at work in our "elite" universities against "conservative" evangelical Christians specifically," but offers no support for his impression that this bias is directed against Christianity per se and not against other attributes that tend, for a variety of reasons, to correlate with it. Indeed, as both Penalver and Nickol point out, the actual social scientific evidence seems to tell against Garnett's impression. So long as we are arguing on the basis of "It strikes me," I feel quite secure in making the claim that "It strikes me" that there are plenty of conservative Christians who are not discriminated against in admission processes to our elite schools--the wealthy ones!

Posted by: WJ | Jul 20, 2010 9:54:38 AM

WJ -- what social-science evidence do you have in mind when you say that the "actual social scientific evidence seems to tell against Garnett's impression"? Certainly, not the material quoted by David Nickol. And, to be clear, I no where claimed to be adding any "new evidence"; I don't have any and was -- I was quite clear about this -- reporting my impressions. If they are not yours, fine.

Eduardo, I didn't say anything (I don't *think*) about affirmative action and who it benefits, and certainly don't think I was relaying anyone's talking points. (I agree with you that AA usually does little to help low-income candidates, and more to help middle-class and affluent applicants.) In any event, I think the study discussed by Douthat *does* show (among other things) that admissions officers at elite universities are employing criteria that, at the very least, is likely to have a disproportionate impact on "conservative" evangelical Christians (and also, as you say, on the rural poor and rural middle-class).

Posted by: Rick Garnett | Jul 20, 2010 2:13:40 PM

Mr. Nickol, or anyone else -

I can't find a free copy of the study itself online, so if you have a link, I'd appreciate it. Otherwise, I'd appreciate illumination as to the paragraph Mr. Nickol cites.

Does that paragraph say that ROTC, FFA, and 4-H members, by engaging in "career" oriented activities, were THEREFORE indicating less interest in academics? Or is it saying that those members did not also do "academic extracurriculars" as much as others? Either way, I find the assumptions built into those statements to exemplify the problem Douthat decries.

It is a cliche stereotype to say that those "vocational" activities are a contrast with academics. Modern farmers and military officers can be highly educated, and the idea that those are mutually exclusive shows an ignorance of how those fields work. "Gee, you're planning to be a farmer, so that shows you wouldn't want to read or anything."

In the alternative, it's a distinct (but similar) mistake if the study is saying not that the presence of ROTC is itself an "anti-academic" marker, but that ROTC members don't engage in "academic activities" enough as others. That's because the ROTC/4-H/FFA activities are themselves often academic.

If this is what passses for academic, then the folks in FFA etc. are better off not going Ivy, so that their brains are not warped by such poor thinking. If farmers used the same analytic ability common in our PhD set, we'd all starve.

Posted by: confused | Jul 20, 2010 5:27:07 PM

For what its worth, Douthat responds to some of the criticism of the column on his blog today. In part, he says, "It just means that I regard greater religious and ideological diversity as a likely (and happy) consequence of greater socioeconomic and geographic diversity."


Eduardo, I guess my question for you is "Why are you so quick to dismiss Douthat's thesis without evidence?" It is impossible to deny that the activities cited are quintessentially conservative activities (anyone who disagrees - I dare you to bring up politics in an FFA or 4H meeting) that are largely populated by white, evangelical Christians. Making that association is no stretch; in fact, I think for anyone with rural experience, it is quite obvious. If so, how is Douthat's thesis -- that some kind of possibly unconscious bias exists against a certain type of people who are very different in important ways from the people who work at elite universities -- any more guesswork than yours -- that all of the disparity described can be explained by economic, redistributive factors? Both strike me as plausible, incomplete explanations for the data.

Further, I think that Douthat's thesis is aided, in many minds, by an insidious idea many of us see lurking in the minds of many liberals: that rural conservatives would all be liberals if they just weren't so dumb and poor. Perhaps the most famous evocation of that idea is Obama's famous "guns and religion" comment, but it is by no means limited to that. Rather it is something that I, in the course of undergrad and law school, came across just below the surface time and again. It is also lurking behind "what's the matter with kansas?" -- those dumb hicks won't vote their interest! In other words, a large number of liberal thinkers (our president included) seem to think it impossible that an intelligent person could reasonably hold conservative beliefs; rather than trying to genuinely understand why conservatives think what they do, it is common practice to dismiss what they think as the opinions of the unwashed masses.

Since that idea, whether articulated or not, seems to, time and again, rise to the surface, is it really that much of a stretch to believe that elite university administrators (who are undeniably left leaning across the board) would allow those kinds of ideas to influence their admissions decisions? That is something I think most right leaning Christians have suspected for some time (Douthat and myself, both elite university grads, included). As such, for people like ourselves, this recent study confirms a suspicion rather than gives data in a vacuum. That suspicion, right or wrong, is probably behind Douthat's assumptions.

Posted by: Chris | Jul 20, 2010 5:44:36 PM

Having read the study, Douthat's essay and Professor Penalver rant against it, I'm curious as to whether Professor Penalver is equally critical of disparate impact theory? This is standard analysis following Griggs v. Duke Power. Granted, this is higher education and not employment, but given the venting by Professor Penalver, this subject seems to have touched a nerve. Perhaps discrimination against rural white trash is okay?

Posted by: W.Sulik | Jul 20, 2010 6:09:44 PM

Dear confused,

A searchable copy of the text of the study, with partial access, is available on Google Books

It is a little schizophrenic to be incensed about what horrible institutions the Ivy League schools are and then complain that a particular group has a harder time getting in! And as far as I can tell from a quick Google search, Cornell is the only Ivy League school with a department of agriculture (which is ranked by US News as one of the top ten agricultural schools). I don't know anything about admissions there, but I'm going to guess that having been in the Future Farmers of America or the 4-H doesn't count against you. I went to Ohio State University, and the enthusiasm of the agriculture students was legendary. I don't really think it's a shame that they didn't get to go to Harvard, Yale, or Dartmouth.

Posted by: David Nickol | Jul 20, 2010 7:38:30 PM

W. Sulik:

Are you suggesting that rural white Christians should become a protected class? Or maybe there should be three new protected classes: rural people, whites, and Christians. I would have thought that most people who agree with Ross Douthat would oppose affirmative action altogether, but apparently what is wanted is affirmative action for every identifiable group.

Posted by: David Nickol | Jul 20, 2010 8:02:03 PM

Mr. Nickol -

Thanks for the link, and I'll check it out later. I see your point about the seeming schizophrenia of complaining about an institution and also about wanting to get in.

But isn't that the case in EVERY discrimination case, whether admissions, employment, and so on? If BigCorp is so racist, why do you want to sue to get hired, or get your job back, etc.? The answer in those cases is usually multi-pronged: (1) we want to get in to change them, (2) we also want to go to where the jobs and money are, even if it's hard while we're there, and (3) it's so prevalent in corporate America that we can't just avoid the one bad apple and go elsewhere, so we need to take them all on.

Same here, it seems to me. We may be happier at Ohio State, but we want the option to go Ivy and slog through.

As to the absence of ag majors, someone could do FFA and learn farming and then seek a broader business degree, hoping to run a big agri-biz or whatever. The point is that FFA is not anti-academic, any more than being really into ballet is not contrary to being good at math or other deskbound learning. The ballet doesn't get the negative points that FFA does, and that's a shame for the institutions even more than for the individuals, because it shows how narrow-minded our elite institutions really are.

Posted by: confused | Jul 21, 2010 10:04:03 AM