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Democratizing Elitism

MANY AMERICANS think of college—and especially the selective university—as a social leveler, offering upward mobility to anyone with talent and drive. This idea helps to justify the stark inequalities of twenty-first-century capitalism: anyone, we are told, can ascend an eversteepening social and economic hierarchy and reap the growing rewards at the top. The elite status of the selective university seems available to all.

But, of course, it isn’t. The result is that class stratification, cutthroat capitalist competition, and racial resentment collide in university admissions. Consider just the last year’s worth of news.

First came the lawsuit claiming that Harvard discriminates against Asian American applicants. Strictly speaking, the suit made a specific claim of racial bias, but it was backed by a longtime foe of affirmative action and designed as a collateral attack on it. The case has fueled a more general critique of Harvard’s admissions process by revealing the extent to which wealth and social status influence decisions.

Then came the “Varsity Blues” conspiracy to game the admission process at schools such as Yale, Stanford, and the University of Southern California, involving fake credentials and hundreds of thousands of dollars in bribes. To many this scandal is simply the logical extension of long-accepted practice: it is well known that rich applicants boost their chances with test preparation, application coaching, resumepadding summer activities, and family donations. An explicit quid pro quo, the argument goes, is just a more straightforward version of the same transaction.

Some view these cases as symptoms of the same disease: a shadowy admissions process that ignores objective merit. But this view misunderstands the essentially classist character of the modern elite university, in which race figures only incidentally. Far from providing grist for another argument against affirmative action, the bribery scandal in fact shows why it is justified. It also suggests that broader attempts to democratize elite university admissions are unlikely to succeed.

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Paperback, 130 pages Racist Logic tackles how racist thinking can be found in surprising—and often overlooked—places. In the forum's lead essay, historian Donna Murch traces the origins of the opioid epidemic to Big Pharma's aggressive marketing to white suburbanites. The result, Murch shows, has been to construct a legal world of white drug addiction alongside an illicit drug war that has disproportionately targeted people of color. Other essays examine how the global surrogacy industry incentivizes the reproduction of whiteness while relying on the exploited labor of women of color, how black masculinity is commodified in racial capitalism, and how Wall Street exploited Caribbean populations to bankroll U.S. imperialism. Racist logic, this issue shows, continues to pervade our society, including its nominally colorblind business practices. Contributors not only explore the institutional structures that profit from black suffering, but also point the way to racial justice. Forum Lead essay by Donna Murch. Responses by Max Mishler, Britt Rusert, Julie Netherland, Helena Hansen, David Herzberg, Michael Collins, Julilly Kohler-Hausmann, Jonathan Kahn, L.A. Kauffman, and Donna Murch. Essays Peter Hudson, Jordanna Matlon, Alys Weinbaum, and Richard Ford.