Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Ross Douthat on White Anxiety

I think Ross Douthat might be surpassing David Brooks in the "big picture" analytical insights of his columns. Well, at least I'd put it this way: I now look forward more to reading Douthat's latest pieces than Brooks's. This is a major development given how much I have (historically) loved reading the two weekly Brooks columns.

I can't figure out if it's because Douthat seems to take on a broader range of issues (including religion and popular culture) or that Brooks is stuck in the rut of criticizing Obama's belief in technocracy, but something is making Douthat more compelling recently.

Yesterday's column was vintage Douthat: a really provocative examination of why lower and lower-middle class whites feel "put upon" by the ruling class. 

Whereas many columnists struggle with saying anything new about race/racial tension in America (I am thinking particularly of the stable of Post columnists, who with the exception of Kathleen Parker have not been very good recently - not even Robinson or Cohen), Douthat uses a recent study by Princeton sociologists to explain the phenomenon of lower class whites feeling that they (rather than minority groups) are the subjects of discrimination:

[According to the Princeton study,] 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.

This breeds paranoia, among elite and non-elites alike. Among the white working class, increasingly the most reliable Republican constituency, alienation from the American meritocracy fuels the kind of racially tinged conspiracy theories that Beck and others have exploited — that Barack Obama is a foreign-born Marxist hand-picked by a shadowy liberal cabal, that a Wall Street-Washington axis wants to flood the country with third world immigrants, and so forth.

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