“The Diversity Bargain illuminates just how much diversity has been commodified particularly among the elite, for whom good taste entails an eclectic palate.”–Rose Courteau, The Atlantic
In school I learned two crucial things that shaped my future. First, I learned I was an outsider to my local community. I was raised in an immigrant family in a declining Pennsylvania steel town, where I was the only student of color in my cohort at school. While the culture wars of the 1980s brewed on college campuses, in Johnstown we barely noticed much beyond the covers of Time magazine. Instead, our gaze rested on the steel mills that closed one after another, each one adding to the growing number of my classmate’s fathers who were unemployed and frustrated. When my older brother went off to New York City to study at Columbia University, I began to hear about racial justice and started to develop a vocabulary for the exclusion I too experienced. Rather than feeling bad about myself when I wasn’t invited to classmates’ birthday parties, and because I knew no one would even think of asking a brown-skinned girl to prom, I became angry: angry at my community for excluding me; angry at my parents for raising me in a town unsympathetic to my ethnic identity; angry at the world for the racial injustice I now found seemingly everywhere. In 1991 I took these feelings, along with my Run-DMC and Duran Duran cassettes, to Brown University.
The second thing I learned in school was that I was “smart.” I went to college thinking of myself as a model student who earned a spot at a top university through my hard work and dedication to school. In high school I often became irritated with peers who lamented not being able to earn top grades like I did. In my mind the equation was simple: I worked hard, so I got good grades and got out of Johnstown. It never occurred to me that my parents’ being doctors meant they could send me to private music lessons and residential summer camps where I learned advanced math and computer programming. And I had no idea that our frequent trips to India and other faraway destinations, which I wrote about in my college application essay, surely gave me a leg up in the admissions process. My peers were not even in the game. When I told one classmate I was going to Brown University, she joked that she was going to “Green” and then wondered out loud why her high-achieving classmate was going to a college she hadn’t heard of. After all, the farthest other high achievers in my class dared to dream of going was to Penn State or the University of Pittsburgh, both about eighty miles distant, and for most already a world away. Why was it so hard for me to see that my parents’ having medical degrees might have helped me get into an elite college? And why couldn’t I see that because many of my peers’ fathers had lost their jobs in the steel mills they didn’t apply to college at all? The answer is simple: I believed in American meritocracy.
I couldn’t wait to get to college. I longed to be among peers who shared my interest in addressing racial inequality and my culturally liberal views. What kinds of conversations about race would we have in this racially diverse environment in which most of us identified as liberal? And how would it feel to be surrounded by hardworking high achievers like myself ? I couldn’t wait to find out.
When we arrived on campus, our beloved President Vartan Gregorian told us as we sat on the college green that we were“the best class ever” to enter the Van Wickle gates at Brown, and that the peers sitting next to us would be our friends and colleagues for decades to come. I took that compliment very seriously, patting myself on the back for my hard work in high school, in contrast to my peers back home. But when classes rolled around I didn’t feel so smart: suddenly I wasn’t the top student. Just as in high school I didn’t understand how my parents helped me achieve, in college I didn’t know enough to understand that I was suddenly an average student because many of my peers went to schools where they learned much more than I did about how to think, write, and study, and because many of their parents had gone to Brown and colleges like it, teaching them since birth how to navigate such a place. I clung to my belief in meritocracy even while my sense of my place in it was changing.
My ethnic identity was changing, too. Before college I hadn’t developed much pride in my South Asian identity. More than anything else, I just felt embarrassed by my darker skin and my parents’ foreign accents. At Brown I learned I was not an outsider after all. Moreover, I came to understand two things about race. First, it matters, and it fundamentally shapes individuals’ life experiences in American society, in both positive and negative ways. I learned about the rich diversity of my peers’ experiences, whether they were the children of immigrant parents from other parts of the world, African American parents from the South, or white parents from suburban New Jersey. Second, I learned that race-related talk could explode at any moment, leading to accusations of racism and counteraccusations of oversensitivity. At a training session for the Women Peer Counselors program I joined at the beginning of my second year, a white student leader asked us all to choose one of our myriad identities for an activity. I remember thinking it was an odd request but, not having any language to critique the activity, I obliged, though I don’t remember what I chose. Other women of color, however, expressed anger at the white woman’s insensitivity to the intersectionality of our identities and the impossibility of choosing one or even decoupling our race from our gender. Students on both sides of the conflict stormed out of the room in a rage while I sat bewildered, taking in this new place of racial diversity and racial conflict.
During those years at Brown I learned a lot about race in the United States. Being South Asian meant I was not part of the long-standing aggrieved African American community, but I was also not part of the dominant white community. However, my belief in my own outstanding achievements in high school as well as those of my peers at Brown never wavered. We shared a strong belief that we all deserved this elite education based on our high school achievements. Our knowledge of the policy of affirmative action seemed to bolster that belief—it supported the idea that whatever the negative effects of race in the United States, affirmative action made up for them, so we could feel confident that the admissions process was bringing the best students of all racial backgrounds to campus. Of course, a minority of very vocal students questioned affirmative action, emboldened by Dinesh D’Souza’s bestselling Illiberal Education, which came out just before we started college.
When I moved to London at age thirty, my identity shifted once again. There British Asians (as Britons with South Asian ancestry call themselves) barely noticed my Indian ancestry—to them I was 100 percent American, with my swallowed t’s and overemphasized r’s. In Britain accents mean a lot, and soon I could fairly reliably detect people’s class backgrounds and guess what part of the city Londoners grew up in from the way their t’s came out. At the University of London campus where I taught, as well as during my visits to the Oxford campus, the t was always well articulated. I later learned that colleagues with working-class backgrounds had often worked hard after leaving home to develop the upper-class London accent, to fit into the elite university environment. In Britain a person’s accent sometimes seemed to signal achievement just as much as the score attained on national exams, even if nearly everyone put faith in the exams to determine students’ capability for university-level work.
During my time in London I frequently found myself surprised by the perspectives of friends and colleagues in conversations about ethnic diversity. Friends and friends of friends surprised me with views that, to my Ivy League–educated eyes, appeared racially insensitive. No one seemed to tiptoe around issues of race when they were with me, despite knowing that this was my field of study and that I was a racial minority. Once, when attending a literary festival sponsored by the left-leaning newspaper the Guardian, a moderator asked audience members to raise a hand if they felt British newspapers should have printed the offensive depictions of the Muslim prophet Muhammad that had caused violent protest in Denmark a few weeks earlier. To me the answer was a no-brainer: of course the newspapers were right not to publish the offensive images, because that’s what multicultural sensibility was all about! And I assumed that if anyone secretly disagreed, this audience would fear the accusation of cultural insensitivity, even racism, too much to raise a hand. Instead, hands shot up all around me. People weren’t waiting to see what others were doing: they were angry.
In the United States, when surrounded by colleagues who were working in higher education or who held elite college degrees, I could feel confident that most would express views sympathetic to the needs and concerns of racial minorities, even if we disagreed about particular policies and practices. If those acquaintances did hold negative views about minority groups and supports for them, well, my skin is darker than theirs, so they wouldn’t share those views in my presence. But at cocktail receptions in Britain I spent a lot of time staring into my plastic cup while the elite university graduates all around me argued, with no compunction, about whether arranged marriage should be banned, or whether multiculturalism in Britain had “gone too far.” The first time this happened I reflexively shrank away from the conversation, as if someone had cursed in church. The second time I wanted to wave my arms at the circle of people around me to remind them that I was standing right there. “Don’t you know I can hear you?” I kept thinking. The next time, and many times thereafter, I realized they did know that a person of color was standing in their midst, and they didn’t care.
What allows for these frank, if uncomfortable, conversations in Britain? And what makes many in the United States express more sympathy for and acceptance of cultural and racial differences? Given my own experiences with encountering diversity-related programs and conversations at Brown, I guessed that college plays an important role in the United States. I was curious about how the admissions process as well as college settings themselves might shape student’s perspectives. After all, residential college students are usually at a point in their lives when their ideas are in flux—they have left their home communities and families and are encountering new people and all kinds of new ideas. Also, social scientists have shown us that a generation’s political leanings are largely set at this age.2 So the college experience has important implications for how the leaders of tomorrow might think about diversity and fairness. I knew that college fundamentally shifted the ways I myself thought about race so many years ago. I wondered what colleges today are doing to students’ perspectives on race and meritocracy—and, by implication, what they could be doing differently.
Race has been a central topic of campus debates in the United States for decades. According to some accounts, the culture wars that rocked college campuses twenty-five years ago are back. Others say they never left. In recent years the manifestations are many. In the pages of a conservative student newspaper, a Princeton student rejects his peer’s exhortations that he (and other white men) “check your privilege.” A group of black Harvard students launches an online campaign titled “I, Too, Am Harvard,” airing grievances over offensive comments made by their peers. Conservatives lament the so-called liberal indoctrination by faculty and encourage students to host “affirmative action bake sales” in which they charge black and Latino customers less than white customers. Offended peers counter with protests highlighting white privilege.
What makes these questions more pressing, for better and for worse, is affirmative action, the most controversial domain of discussion about race in higher education in the United States. In the 1960s selective US colleges began to systematically recruit and admit more African American students so as to maintain their legitimacy in the public eye in the wake of racial strife. Today, in our supposedly post-racial era, critics of affirmative action say we shouldn't be looking at race as a factor in admissions. They argue that to do so violates the tenets of meritocracy as well as antidiscrimination laws. Critics say further that affirmative action sets minority students up for failure at universities for which they are not sufficiently prepared academically.
Racial justice advocates respond with overwhelming data on racial inequality in the United States. Further, they argue that racial diversity benefits all students through an enriched learning environment. Given its prominence in American public debates, there has been a lot of research on affirmative action. We know that minorities attending selective universities who seem to have benefited from affirmative action (based on their SAT scores and grade point averages) do better as adults and contribute more to society than those who attended lower-ranked institutions without that benefit. And yet black and Latino students are underrepresented on selective college campuses, even after taking into consideration class differences between black and white youth.
The issue of black underrepresentation on elite campuses in Britain, by contrast, was just beginning to surface during my time there. In 2010 a Liberal Party member of Parliament publicly criticized Oxford’s admission of just one British Afro-Caribbean student in the previous year (out of thirty-nine applicants, compared with admitting one in four white applicants); soon even Conservative prime minister David Cameron joined the growing chorus of outrage over this statistic. Meanwhile, rather than lamenting the underrepresentation, Oxford University officials defended their admissions practices by claiming no discriminatory intent and hence no responsibility. These debates in Britain and the United States led me to believe that students’ opinions about fairness in admissions would reveal their perspectives on race as well. Given that the admissions process results in the underrepresentation of minority groups in both places (in spite of affirmative action in the United States), I wanted to understand how students make sense of those systems and how this meaning making shapes experiences marked by race differences or by racial conflict on campus and beyond.
I had a hunch that admissions was a major domain in which conflicts over race get articulated. For high school students, admission to the most selective colleges is the pinnacle of achievement, a reward for hard work and dedication in high school, the ultimate reward for individual merit. Now that the most selective universities in the United States accept well under 10 percent of those who even dare to apply—and that number declines almost every year—those who do get in understandably feel a huge sense of accomplishment and believe they are surrounded on campus by the best of the best. And yet almost half of Ivy League students’ families can afford to pay fees that are well above the median household income in the United States. That means that every year those families are paying more than most American households earn. Just 14 percent of students attending the top 193 colleges in the United States come from families whose earnings place them in the bottom half of the income distribution. In other words, 87 percent of students at top colleges come from families who are richer than average; 70 percent come from the top 25 percent of household earnings. Among black and Latino students who go to college, seven in ten attend open-access schools, often community colleges, while eight in ten whites in college attend the most selective colleges. And yet the system is seen as meritocratic. This belief in meritocracy blinds students to the vast inequalities in society—by both class and race— and in particular to the way higher education is complicit in reproducing that inequality, in part through admissions systems.
Despite the vast inequality in access to different kinds of colleges and in experiences at those colleges, most Americans, whether poor or rich, whether white or black or Asian, believe in the American dream that anyone can make it to a top college and go on to a comfortable life. Our equal opportunity ideology—a deep belief in the importance and availability of an equal chance for everyone—is strong. Despite so much evidence to the contrary, most Americans still believe that hard work and perseverance can lead to a first-class education, a top job, and a comfortable lifestyle. The American dream rests on the notion of meritocracy—a system in which rewards are based on supposedly fair measures of merit. Indeed, Americans are more likely than people in most other countries to believe that we live in a meritocratic society, and that this is a good thing.
How do admitted students make sense of a system that is wildly unequal in its distribution of rewards—a system that, according to some people, gives black students an unfair advantage and that others say puts black students at a nearly impossible disadvantage? How do members of this supposedly postracial generation think about race in the context of elite higher education, especially college admissions? Last, how do their experiences in college shape those understandings, and what are the implications for race relations on campus? To answer these questions I decided to investigate how students thought about race and merit, paying particular attention to the role of elite higher education in that process of meaning making. I embarked on a project to interview dozens of students, of all ethnic and racial backgrounds, at elite universities. College students are known for their liberal views and for their propensity for social protest, often in the name of liberal causes. Elites are known to hold liberal views on cultural issues like immigrant inclusion and gay marriage. I wanted to investigate our best-case scenario in terms of support for racial inclusion and racial justice among those who will hold power in the future, so I focused on students who had gained admission to top residential universities. White students on Ivy League campuses, I imagined, wouldn’t blame affirmative action for denying them admission, since they had been admitted to universities ranked at the very top. I also wanted to understand how elite universities with different kinds of supports for diversity influence students’ perspectives on race and merit, so I compared students at Harvard and Brown, US universities that are similar in many ways but differ in their approaches to race and diversity on campus. I made sure to include a significant number of students of color, because I wondered how their perspectives would differ from those of their white peers. How would black and Latino students, many of whom experience racial oppression in American society firsthand but may also be the beneficiaries of affirmative action, speak about these issues? And Asian Americans are outperforming whites in American high schools: What would they think?
Finally, I decided to compare students at Harvard and Brown with students at an elite British university—Oxford—to better understand what is unique to the selective US college experience. The United States and Britain are both multicultural capitalist democracies, and the oldest US universities were modeled after Oxford and Cambridge. But they differ in one crucial domain: race. In Britain there has been no race-based social movement. At Oxford I made sure to include a good number of British-born children of immigrants, to capture the experiences of students who are not part of the dominant group. This project lies at the intersection between conceptions of merit and conceptions of race, all within the world of elite higher education. Merit, as we’ll see, is a domain in which concerns about race and diversity get articulated. That is, our conceptions of merit rest on our conceptions of race, inequality, and fairness. Of course, elite universities are not a microcosm of the whole country, but they matter. Everyone pays attention to the likes of Harvard and Oxford, so what happens on those campuses has great symbolic value throughout the country. Events on Ivy League campuses seem to make it to the evening news at least once a month.
I see elite universities as institutional sites for cultivating elite identities and for shaping elite understandings of merit, inequality, and race. In this book I catch young adults at a time of identity development and changing perspectives, after they leave their families but before they enter the labor market. What happens to young adult’s understandings of deservingness when they have “won” the most competitive game they’ve entered so far, the college admissions process? How do they make sense of those who fail to gain admission? Their perspectives will illuminate the way many of our future leaders and decision-makers develop their notions of worthiness, hard work, and “smarts”—that is, their understandings of merit, with implications for how they see themselves, others, and justice. My assumption is that a high proportion of students attending elite universities will go on to become leaders and decision makers in society, so it is important to understand their perspectives and the mechanisms by which they develop their views. Indeed, recent scholarship has shown that elite American firms, especially in consulting, finance, and law, recruit only at the very top universities. In addition, what college a student attends affects the likelihood of actually completing college, with repercussions down the line for income. In Britain a majority or near majority of senior judges, cabinet members, diplomats, and newspaper columnists are graduates of Oxford or Cambridge, compared with less than 1 percent of the British population as a whole. Oxford and Cambridge have also historically been the gateway to the top civil service positions in Britain.
In addition, we need to pay particular attention to this generation’s perspectives on merit, inequality, and race if we want to understand how perspectives have shifted in this supposedly postracial era. College is a time when lifelong views are formed on a variety of political issues. The American students in my study were schoolchildren when President Barack Obama was elected; as many understand it, this means we are living in a postracial era. In addition, young adults in the United States today are known for their racial diversity—43 percent are not white. In Britain, young adults hold the lowest levels of racial prejudice. Because elite college students tend to be liberal and to become more liberal on campus, because their parents tend to be well educated, and because they are young, they are the least likely to be racist according to various measures of racism, old and new. If there is a group that will resolve our racial conflicts, it is this one. Investigating conceptions of race and merit among students at elite universities reveals what possibilities the future holds for reducing inequality and for cross-racial understanding in Britain and the United States.
Copyright notice: An excerpt from The Diversity Bargain: And Other Dilemmas of Race, Admissions, and Meritocracy at Elite Universities by Natasha K. Warikoo, published by the University of Chicago Press. ©2017 by University of Chicago Press. All rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that this entire notice, including copyright information, is carried and provided that the University of Chicago Press is notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the consent of the University of Chicago Press. (Footnotes and other references included in the book may have been removed from this online version of the text.)