The Diversity Bargain: And Other Dilemmas of Race, Admissions, and Meritocracy at Elite Universities

The Diversity Bargain: And Other Dilemmas of Race, Admissions, and Meritocracy at Elite Universities

by Natasha K. Warikoo

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We’ve heard plenty from politicians and experts on affirmative action and higher education, about how universities should intervene—if at all—to ensure a diverse but deserving student population. But what about those for whom these issues matter the most? In this book, Natasha K. Warikoo deeply explores how students themselves think about merit and race at a uniquely pivotal moment: after they have just won the most competitive game of their lives and gained admittance to one of the world’s top universities.
What Warikoo uncovers—talking with both white students and students of color at Harvard, Brown, and Oxford—is absolutely illuminating; and some of it is positively shocking. As she shows, many elite white students understand the value of diversity abstractly, but they ignore the real problems that racial inequality causes and that diversity programs are meant to solve. They stand in fear of being labeled a racist, but they are quick to call foul should a diversity program appear at all to hamper their own chances for advancement. The most troubling result of this ambivalence is what she calls the “diversity bargain,” in which white students reluctantly agree with affirmative action as long as it benefits them by providing a diverse learning environment—racial diversity, in this way, is a commodity, a selling point on a brochure. And as Warikoo shows, universities play a big part in creating these situations. The way they talk about race on campus and the kinds of diversity programs they offer have a huge impact on student attitudes, shaping them either toward ambivalence or, in better cases, toward more productive and considerate understandings of racial difference.
Ultimately, this book demonstrates just how slippery the notions of race, merit, and privilege can be. In doing so, it asks important questions not just about college admissions but what the elite students who have succeeded at it—who will be the world’s future leaders—will do with the social inequalities of the wider world.  

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226400280
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 11/15/2016
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 320
File size: 799 KB

About the Author

Natasha K. Warikoo is associate professor of education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. She is the author of Balancing Acts: Youth Culture in the Global City.

Read an Excerpt

The Diversity Bargain

And Other Dilemmas of Race, Admissions, and Meritocracy at Elite Universities

By Natasha K. Warikoo

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 2016 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-40028-0


Beliefs about Meritocracy and Race

By the time of the passage of the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964 ... the inherent tension between the emerging meritocratic system and the cause of Negro advancement was already apparent to anyone who was looking closely.

Karen arrived for her interview a few minutes late, lunch in hand. As she spoke she played with her long blonde hair. An athletic recruit, Karen listed a range of merits — socially desirable qualities serving as the basis for reward — that she believed should determine admission to Harvard, "Many people have merits that are different than intellectual — academic merits. I think it's a good thing that those merits are valued [by admissions]." When asked to explain the under representation of black students on campus, Karen pointed out that "if you were to just take everyone based off their SAT scores, then that percentage [of black students on campus] would be even lower than it is now. So, while the percentage is lower than the population as a whole, I view it as a pretty good thing that it is that high, because it's higher than it would be otherwise." In other words, Karen believed that looking beyond SAT scores allowed for more black students on campus, which she supported. On the other hand, she was ambivalent about considering race in admissions:

I don't think because someone checked the black box or the Latino box, that that should be what helps them get in. You know, maybe in their interview you find that since they're Latino they've done all these things that add something different to the cultural fabric of Harvard. I think it should be something more than just a box you check off. I know people who are, like, a quarter Mexican, who got the Latino Scholars Award, but their entire experience has been a white experience. And I think that we've hopefully gotten to the point where we can consider income more than racial things.

Karen has a particular understanding of what it means to have a "Latino" versus a "white" childhood, and a sense of how the "race" of one's childhood should determine whether one can benefit from affirmative action. Her view is quintessentially American: she values diversity largely for its effect on her and her peers at Harvard. Karen grew up in a New England suburb known for its high-performing public schools. She attended those schools, graduating from a high school that is less than 10 percent black or Latino (and another 6 percent Asian). Karen identified as politically liberal, like most students we interviewed in the United States. She told us she felt "very ignorant about all sorts of races and ethnicities" but was "eager to learn more about them" in college, given Harvard's racial diversity. Karen understood affirmative action as existing to benefit herself through exposure to new perspectives — but only if the beneficiaries did not come from "white" cultural backgrounds.

Contrast Karen to Joseph. Joseph grew up in the north of England and attended an elite boarding school before going to Oxford. Like most Oxford students, Joseph identified politically as liberal. When asked whether Oxford is a meritocracy in its admissions, he said, "Yes. I think its interview process is meritocratic." Joseph explained the underrepresentation of black students on campus as related to unequal access to high-quality education: "You get to Oxford as a result of your education. No matter how naturally brilliant you are, you have to be well educated. And the wealth distribution in society means that white people have more access to the best education." Still, Joseph did not support considering race or ethnicity in admissions, replying with an emphatic no when asked. He saw a different role for Oxford. "Oxford doesn't represent the country. There is only so much that Oxford can do about it, because if the situation in the country at large is such that students aren't sufficiently educated to be at Oxford, then Oxford shouldn't dumb itself down purely to take on the burden of the country." In his mind, considering race or ethnicity would contravene Oxford's very purpose. "I don't think that legitimately they can do that. Oxford has to maintain the highest standards it can. There is so much competition academically from American universities, that if they make allowances of that kind then Oxford would lose prestige as an institution itself."

Ironically, the very universities Joseph believes Oxford is competing with — the very reasons Oxford cannot afford to consider race in admissions — have considered race in admissions for decades. Joseph's remarks show how we take for granted our conceptions of merit. But if we looked outside our national boundaries we would see strikingly different systems. What constitutes merit varies over time and place and is often contested. Even the question of whether merit should involve who we are (whether one does or does not possess intelligence or potential, for example) or what we have accomplished (such as overcoming adversity or scoring high on a test) is contested. Why do these British and American students have such starkly different perspectives on race, merit, and inequality? I set out to answer this question through the research described in this book.

The term merit has been used for centuries to signify those characteristics that others deem worthy of reward or praise. The notion that individuals should be rewarded for their merit was an ideal of America's founding fathers. In addition to equal rights and government by consent, they hoped for a society in which individual merit, rather than birthright, would determine one's station in life. Merit in this case served as a democratic ideal. Of course, just what constitutes those characteristics to be rewarded has changed over time and has sometimes been contested. For example, during the first half of the twentieth century, elite colleges instituted entrance exams to measure merit — first to determine whether applicants were capable of doing college-level work and later to identify "hidden talent" from around the country. This was an attempt to extend opportunities to anyone who was capable — that is, anyone deemed meritorious as measured by the exam — in the spirit of democracy through equal opportunity. During the same period, Britain instituted grammar schools: state-funded secondary schools that accepted students based on merit as assessed by an exam. These too were an attempt to extend to nonelite youth the opportunities that elite education would provide, in the spirit of democratic inclusion.

Much later, during the second half of the twentieth century, some social scientists were hopeful that a system of social rewards based on merit and achievement rather than inherited status would allow scientists and intellectual leaders to solve the world's most pressing social problems. Further, those leaders and technical experts would be chosen through meritocratic competitions, open to all. Social mobility, rooted in meritocracy, was thought to characterize modern industrial society, even more so than during the early years in America. College admissions were part of this meritocratic system, because mass college education was supposed to propel the country forward. Given that contestations about the definition of merit over the past hundred years have often played out through college admissions, throughout this book I use perspectives on admissions as a means for unpacking conceptions of merit.

While optimists have placed their faith in merit to promote democratic inclusion, critics — and there have been many — claim that merit serves as an ideological tool that allows elites to maintain their position in society and to pass down privileges to their children. Scholars in the tradition of social reproduction have long argued that educational institutions simply reproduce class status. They demonstrate how schools and universities reward upper-class characteristics, such as how one speaks and responds to authority, and label those cultural characteristics as meritorious. Jerome Karabel, in his expansive study of admissions to Harvard, Princeton, and Yale, argues that "the definition of 'merit' is fluid and tends to reflect the values and interests of those in power to impose their particular cultural ideals." For example, he describes how the universities shifted the definition of merit to include "character" during the 1920s, when they wanted to reduce the number of Jewish students admitted. The loosely defined "character" and an espoused desire for "well-rounded" students empowered the universities to ask for letters of recommendation, pictures, and on-campus interviews as part of the application, all designed to promote Protestant applicants over Jews, who were acing the admissions exams. Also, the universities opened admissions to women only when they began to worry that without women on campus elite men would not enroll. More recently, some have argued in both the United States and Britain that elitism under the guise of meritocracy has increased in the recent past. They point out, for example, that as admission has gotten more competitive at the most selective colleges, upper-class families have poured ever more resources into test preparation, extracurricular activities, and more, increasing overall inequality in opportunities.

In Britain, the grammar school system rested on the notion that some individuals are innately intelligent and that those top students should study in schools that prepare them to attend university, regardless of class background. However, in Britain too attempts at expanding opportunity through meritocracy did not turn out to be bias-free. In the early years of grammar schools, just 1 percent of children with working-class fathers attended grammar schools, compared with 37 percent of children with professional parents; as late as the 1940s, children from professional families were more than six times as likely to attend grammar schools as their working-class peers. The very term meritocracy, in fact, was not coined as an articulation of beliefs in systems of reward for achievement. Rather, British sociologist Michael Young invented it in 1958 as a criticism. He wrote a satirical account of a dystopia, labeled a meritocracy, in which notions of merit were used to reproduce and legitimate class status: "The top of today are breeding the top of tomorrow to a greater extent than at any time in the past. The elite is on the way to becoming hereditary; the principles of heredity and merit are coming together." Young's account warned of the dangers of a system in which elites craft definitions of merit to enable them to perpetuate class privilege across generations, with consent from the lower classes based on the perceived legitimacy of the meritocracy. Active in the Labour Party, Young preferred the party to focus on improving life conditions for working-class Britons rather than paying lip service to the potential of class mobility via meritocracy, which he viewed as a false promise. Young's perspective, shared by others in the Labour Party, may explain why little discussion of expanding access to higher education developed in Britain, even during the 1960s expansion of higher education, despite a more generous welfare state and stronger working-class identities than in the United States. Rather than emphasizing mobility through meritocracy, Labour Party members recognized that some proportion of the population will always be working-class; thus, working-class life should have a minimum decent standard of living.

Race, Merit, and College Admissions

The history of intelligence testing in both the United States and Britain is intertwined with the eugenics movement, spearheaded by Francis Galton, which sought to categorize races by levels of intelligence in order to "breed" a better society. Although eugenics was abandoned long ago, the impetus to use testing to sort individuals for social roles and positions, including various types of schooling, the military, and jobs, endures, and the notion that differences in intelligence by race may exist continues to flourish, if as a minority view. As a result, race has been a central part of conversations about merit. From the early 1960s, some selective colleges in the United States, including Brown and Harvard, began recruiting African American students, both from a desire to promote racial justice and as a strategy to avoid accusations of racism and the consequent campus unrest that could unfold. This was also an attempt to maintain the legitimacy of the admissions contest in the face of loud public criticism. Because elite American universities had previously added "character" to their definitions of merit, a holistic approach to admissions to allow for affirmative action was rather easily implemented. Since then race, merit, and college admissions have been inexorably linked.

In 1978 the US Supreme Court ruled that considering race in admissions is permissible only when it serves the goal of providing a diverse environment to enhance the learning of all students on campus. Since then, multiple decisions have upheld this justification for affirmative action, and no others. In The Enigma of Diversity, Ellen Berrey traces the shift in university justifications for affirmative action from a moral imperative that expands opportunities during the 1960s and 1970s to this "diversity rationale." Diversity — especially racial diversity — has become a currency for respectable leadership in the United States and a value espoused by institutions of many types. In fact, today racial diversity is one of the many criteria determining college rankings in the United States.

Despite the emphasis on the diversity rationale in court, many public intellectuals, including many legal scholars, have advocated alternative justifications for affirmative action in higher education admissions. For example, some argue that compensation for past discrimination that continues to have adverse effects on minorities, especially African Americans, is an important rationale for affirmative action. Others advocate class-based affirmative action, sometimes as determined by zip code. Lani Guinier goes further, criticizing notions of meritocracy altogether. She argues that universities should consider students' potential contributions to civic life rather than measuring merit through test scores. These voices join more conservative critics who argue against affirmative action, leading to an overall loud chorus of public debate about admission to selective colleges.

Ordinary Americans, too, are very interested in how selective colleges decide admissions. Affirmative action appears on many opinion polls, and in eight states it has faced referenda leading to bans. A recent spate of books written for mainstream audiences has also criticized other aspects of admission to selective colleges, suggesting they privilege already privileged applicants. Nicholas Lemann, in his history of the SAT, demonstrates how the exam reproduced privilege rather than expanding opportunity. Others have called for the end of legacy admission, which privileges whites over all minority groups, and for attenuating or ending athletic recruiting, which mostly privileges whites, given the wide range of sports, such as lacrosse and crew, that most disadvantaged youth never encounter in high school.

There is even more interest in how our most elite universities do admissions, and in the affirmative action that happens on those campuses. Elite universities are the very places we uphold as bastions of excellence and meritocracy in the United States. Notions of merit and worthiness at Harvard are watched not only by lower-tier colleges setting their own admissions criteria, but also by ordinary Americans viewing Harvard as the symbol of excellence, opportunity, and meritocracy. Beyond symbolic meaning, considerable evidence suggests that attending an elite college rather than a nonelite one means that a student is more likely to graduate, to earn more, and to hold a position of power. Of course, the 2.8 million full-time students attending private four-year colleges are just 17 percent of college students in the United States; a small subset of those students attend selective colleges. Still, what happens at selective universities, especially the most selective ones, has symbolic value in the broader society.

Elite universities need to maintain their legitimacy in the minds of ordinary Americans. If they are to do so, they must take a stand on race in admissions. Do considerations of race go against a meritocratic system by introducing a factor (race) unrelated to merit? Or do they restore the legitimacy of the meritocracy by making up for flawed measures of merit that deflate the "true" capacities of black and Latino applicants and inflate those of white applicants? Should universities consider individual capacity or actual performance, when performance is influenced by resources, as when parents pay for SAT tutoring and extracurricular activities? How does this square with the legal justification of affirmative action as important for contributing to a diverse learning environment?


Excerpted from The Diversity Bargain by Natasha K. Warikoo. Copyright © 2016 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents


1 Beliefs about Meritocracy and Race
American Students

2 Making Sense of Race

3 The University Influence

4 Merit and the Diversity Bargain

5 The Moral Imperatives of Diversity
British Students

6 Race Frames and Merit at Oxford

7 Race, Racism, and “Playing the Race Card” at Oxford


Appendix A: Respondent Characteristics and Race Frames
Appendix B: A Note on Methods
Appendix C: Interview Questions

What People are Saying About This

Rubén Gaztambide-Fernández

“Drawing on in-depth interviews with a diverse sample of undergraduate students, Warikoo offers an insightful reading of what elite students have to say about admissions, merit, and race, as well as provocative observations about the role and effectiveness of different kinds of diversity programs and the differences between the United States and United Kingdom. Exploring the various ‘racial frames’ that students use to make sense of the relationship between merit and race, she offers a powerful contribution to ongoing debates about affirmative action and higher education.”

Steven G. Brint

“Warikoo brings new illumination to debates about affirmative action in higher education by focusing on the beliefs and actions of students at elite institutions. Perhaps most important, she identifies the ‘bargain’ that white students have developed to support affirmative action. They have come to affirm a sense that diversity benefits the whole and creates a culture of ‘collective merit’ that is more important than ‘individual merit.’ At the same time, they support this conception only so long as minority students do not receive group benefits on campus over and above what they earn through achieving higher grades and positions in co-curricular life. In an age of continued contention about racial preferences, standardized testing as an element in admissions, real and imagined microaggressions, constraints on acceptable speech, and aspirations for a more inclusive society, Warikoo’s book delivers insights that are both novel and clarifying.”

Annette Lareau

The Diversity Bargain is a thoughtful and original work. By probing the views of British and American elite college students, Warikoo enriches our understanding of the meaning of merit, opportunity, and race today. Her book casts a bright light on the significance of opportunity in highly unequal settings. Well-written and engaging, it will be of interest to a wide range of readers, including students, university administrators, and policy makers.”

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