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Ross Douthat has a good and important column up today about what he calls “the roots of white anxiety.” He begins by talking about a Pat Buchanan appearance at Harvard some time ago, to talk about white grievance — which you can see today in its pop iterations on Glenn Beck, talk radio, in the Tea Party and other places. Excerpt:
To liberals, these grievances seem at once noxious and ridiculous. (Is there any group with less to complain about, they often wonder, than white Christian Americans?) But to understand the country’s present polarization, it’s worth recognizing what Pat Buchanan got right.
Last year, two Princeton sociologists, Thomas Espenshade and Alexandria Walton Radford, published a book-length study of admissions and affirmative action at eight highly selective colleges and universities. Unsurprisingly, they found that the admissions process seemed to favor black and Hispanic applicants, while whites and Asians needed higher grades and SAT scores to get in. But what was striking, as Russell K. Nieli pointed out last week on the conservative Web site Minding the Campus, was which whites were most disadvantaged by the process: the downscale, the rural and the working-class.
But cultural biases seem to be at work as well. Nieli highlights one of the study’s more remarkable findings: 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.
You’ll want to read the rest of Ross’s column to see his discussion of the paranoia. I’m really glad he raised this issue, because it zeroes in on something that bothers me a great deal about white establishment elites (hey, that’s my cultural class!): the fear and loathing SWPL whites have of working-class and underclass whites. I have noticed over my years of working in various newsrooms that white managers have a particular fondness for “diversity” programs that by nature disadvantage whites applying for jobs. The stated reason is to provide for “diversity” in the workforce, but that is at best a half truth. Diversity, as the establishment sees it, constitutes race, ethnicity, gender and sexuality. It does not constitute economic class or religion. One workplace of mine was proud of its diversity, but it had, as far as I could tell, not a single Pentecostal working as a reporter or editor — this, even though there were a lot of Pentecostals in that region. Oh, there were Pentecostals in the newsroom — they were black women who were secretaries, and who had no influence over what went into the paper.
I think there’s something else too, among white elites: fear and embarrassment over the tastes and habits of working-class whites. This is a complicated subject, and I should say right up front that I hate the kind of race solidarity that expects everyone of a certain race to refrain from criticizing the bad morals and obnoxious behavior of others of that race, and to excuse it. This is what Bill Cosby has to deal with from his black critics all the time. I think that’s wrong, and certainly counterproductive: you don’t improve a situation by refusing to face up to it, and to talk about it, because it’s politically delicate to do so. However, I think it’s worth considering that people of any race who have made it into the Establishment could well have a complicated psychological relationship with those of their own kind (race, religion, etc.) outside the Establishment, one that expresses itself as prejudice against the outsiders — in the case under consideration in Ross’s column, against rural and working-class whites. Establishment white people — the kind of white people whose sensibility is so brilliantly mocked by the anthropological Stuff White People Like site — would die a thousand deaths before openly looking down on cheap, crude behavior and tastes of ethnic minorities. But they would never give a white person engaged in the same kind of thing an even break.
Basically, I personally don’t care what the personal hang-ups of people are, as long as they’re being as fair as they can in offering academic slots and jobs to qualified people, and treating them justly. The data Douthat points to suggests that those in decision-making positions — and again, I would bet they’re mostly whites — are discriminating against the country and working white people. How is that right? I would love to see academic sociological work done on the attitudes of whites in the professional, managerial classes towards rural and working-class whites. I could be wrong, I would not be surprised to find that many of them fear and loathe these people not because they’re scary and loathsome — though some are, absolutely, as are people of any race and class — but because these elites have a middle-class person’s terror of sliding back into that. If you keep these rural, blue-collar fundagelicals out of your professional circles, you don’t have to be reminded of their existence, and you can live with your prejudices unchallenged by actual contact with them.
To be sure, tribal self-pity and self-righteousness is usually quite ugly, whether it comes from whites, blacks, Hispanics, gays, Christians, whoever. The constant temptation is to absolve ourselves as a group because we have been historically discriminated against, or are currently being discriminated against. This has to be recognized, and resisted, because once we start to believe that we are not to be held to high standards of morality and conduct because our membership in a certain tribe grants us a pass, there’s no limit to the bad we can do to others, or our potential for failure to do right by ourselves. That said, if rural and working-class white people think the (mostly white) elites of this country don’t really care about them and their struggles, I credit their powers of observation. Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean that they’re not out to get you.
The treatment of religion in academia and the media leaves something to be desired, so the approach I have outlined above can make a useful contribution. The problem comes at least in part from the fact that these are two institutions which, in their elite echelons, are staffed by what is the most secularized group in American society. Unlike many of their colleagues in Europe, these people are not particularly hostile to religion. But they don’t know too much about it, and its more passionate expressions make them uncomfortable. As a result they are tempted to explain religious phenomena as being “really” about something else–ethnicity, class, politics. Sometimes, of course, this is indeed the case. Thus there are processes of “religionization”, in which a conflict about political power (as in Northern Ireland) or about territory (as between Israelis and Palestinians) morphs into a religiously defined conflict (though even then many people may sincerely believe in and be motivated by the religious definitions of the situation). In any case, it is important to realize that religion is a phenomenon sui generis, which must be understood in its own terms and not right away be interpreted as being “really” something else.Secularist bias can produce blinders. Evangelical Protestantism is the most explosively growing religion worldwide. Media coverage is generally very poor, subsuming it under a vague category of “fundamentalism”, with peaceful missionaries being put in the same box with suicide bombers. Much academic treatment is equally prejudiced. The media coverage of the sexual abuse crisis in the Roman Catholic church very often has an undertone of gleeful Schadenfreude, with little skepticism about events going back thirty years, alleged by individuals with hard vested interests in their version of the events. Academics and journalists have every right to be secularists, but they should bracket their personal beliefs when they try to understand reality–as should “Godders” like me.