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Does Elite Higher Education Function Like White Privilege?

The multicultural meritocracy gives its own a leg up, just not quite in the same way that it used to be done.

February 13, 2019

One gets the sense that if Ross Douthat ever gave the commencement address at an elite university, he would look out at the multicultural crowd of high achievers set to take the next step on the path of the meritocratic elite and shout, “Stop feeling so damn smug.”

Douthat bought himself a world of trouble when he praised the WASP sensibility of George H.W. Bush, but he helpfully clarified in a follow-up column that his intent was not to bring back the old white male elite but rather to criticize the multicultural meritocratic ruling class that we have now.

Those WASPs at least knew they were elite and therefore acted with a sense of duty. The elder Bush didn’t scorn the old Ann Richards saw that he was born on third base and thought he’d hit a triple because he knew it was true. He may not have thought that much about the individuals who were consigned to first base, or the dugout, or the cleaning crew, but at least he shouldered a sense of responsibility for the whole team.

If you are part of the multicultural meritocracy, on the other hand, Douthat characterizes you as being born on third base, hustling home and getting praised for hitting a grand slam.

I think the critics are right when they say that Douthat vastly understates the way the WASP elite ruled by racism, but I still think that he makes several important points about the multicultural meritocracy.

If the WASP elite was principally defined by white skin, male anatomy, old family ties and maybe a good tennis game, the thing that makes the multicultural meritocracy is attendance at elite universities. The most striking critique that Douthat makes here is that those of us who are in the multicultural meritocracy talk a good game about opening doors for a wider group of Americans, but what we are really excellent at is getting our kids into the right rooms.

Matthew StewarT describes the process of expensive tutors and test-whisperers in his Atlantic piece about the 9.9%. Here’s how he sums up the dynamic he sees: “The meritocratic class has mastered the old trick of consolidating wealth and passing privilege along at the expense of other people’s children.”

That’s when a sense of unease set in for me. You see, I’m the kind of person who buys and wears "Got Privilege?" t shirts. And when I wear them, I mean for you (read: you white person) to be seeing the message and feeling guilty. But should I be paying attention to all the fingers pointing back at me instead? 

I know lots of minorities who went to elite universities and now do everything in our power to get our kids on the on-ramp to the same places. We will lean on our friends to arrange a cool internship at a museum or university or nonprofit, knowing that those very same people are the ones who do alumni admissions interviews for their alma maters, where they have the opportunity to score applicants higher because of their cool internships.

See the virtuous circle that we multicultural meritocrats have created for ourselves? Understand how those on the outside looking in might, once they see the game that’s being played, get a little mad about not being in on the deal? Now consider the people who have been listening to all the egalitarian talk from folks like me who live in neighborhoods they can’t afford, driving by and seeing the signs on our manicured lawns about supporting refugees, while no refugee can be found for miles because the rent is too damn high.

Recognize too that being white, at least in the blue parts of the country, doesn’t buy what it once did. The path to a good life is now a place at an elite college, and while the multicultural meritocracy can’t lock up university spots for their kids the way white skin could be genetically transferred, or a business could be passed down, we sure can try. As Pamela Druckerman writes, “Those who can afford to helicopter (parent) are making things more unequal for the next generation.”

Educational privilege nagging at you? Read Nikole Hannah-Jones.

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Eboo Patel

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