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Yesterday, Ross Douthat has a thoughtful column that brings forward data that confirms what everybody knows. In the race for admissions to fancy private colleges and universities it doesn’t help to be a white and relatively poor Jane or Joe

“For minority applicants,” Douthat writes, drawing on a new book by Thoma Espenshade and Alexandria Walton Radford , “the lower a family’s socioeconomic position, the more likely the student was to be admitted. For whites, though, it was the reverse. An upper-middle-class white applicant was three times more likely to be admitted than a lower-class white with similar qualifications.”

Why is this the case? Basically, elite colleges use tuition from rich white families to subsidize scholarships for less advantaged students, and when it comes to defining “less advantaged,” race looms large. “Diversity” trumps.

By my reading of the social history of elite culture in America, the big shift in the post-sixties era has been the concerted effort to defuse racial tensions by including racial minorities into the prevailing elite and profession system. The dirty secret—which is obvious to anyone who thinks about it, or, for that matter, to anyone who has read the Bakke decision by the Supreme Court that enshrined “diversity” as an educational goal way back in the 1970s—is that this effort has come at the expense of non-elite whites.

The decades of rapid economic growth since 1980 masked this relative exclusion of less advantaged whites, because a rapidly growing economic pie provided plenty of opportunities for talented, ambitious non-elite whites. These opportunities preventing social conflicts from arising, allowing the elite project of creating a diverse nomenklatura to move forward relatively unimpaired by political criticism.

Indeed, just such a masking has been one reason I’ve long thought the pro-growth tax policies of recent decades an important pillar sustaining the social fabric of America. The elite-driven poject of “diversity,” however one assesses its details, was a political necessary, and the economic growth seems to have made it relatively painless, at least politically.

I fear that Obama and the Democratic Party fail to see the social reality Douthat’s editorial hints at. A more regulated economy will make the professional classes more powerful in comparison to the entrepreneurial dimensions of society. The admissions policies of private colleges and universities play a dominating role in the educational machine that produces our professional classes. The danger, it seems to me, is that in a slow-growth, Washington-dominated, and heavily regulated economy, the relative exclusion of non-elite whites from the upper reaches of the educational-industrial complex will tend to create a more conscious—and more politically explosive—feeling of exclusion among non-elite whites, an alienation from the carefully constructed diversity of the American meritocracy, as Douthat puts it.

The sociologist side of me trembles a bit at the thought of such a future. As Douthat suggests, our meritocratic gatekeepers ought to pause and give some thought to their diversity formulae. But it may be even more important to avoid absorbing the economic sphere into the bureaucratic world dominated by the elite-educated meritocracy.

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