Racial Preferences as Conspicuous Consumption

If economic rationality guided American universities, the recent Supreme Court decision declaring racial preferences unconstitutional should have been welcomed. The decision provides an off-ramp to costly failures at a time when higher education struggles financially.

Given these fiscal strains, why fund diversity, particularly if this invites expensive litigation? Even those embracing the “diversity is our strength” mantra will admit that crafting a freshman class with the “right” number of blacks and Hispanics is expensive, and those admitted seldom pay full tuition. Moreover, graduating them requires support services and highly paid tutors and counselors. Nor can we expect these minority graduates to be major donors or otherwise help their alma mater. Further, add the ever-present risk of a race-related campus strife that can only bring terrible publicity. If the admissions process were run by skin flint accountants, the quest for “diversity” would entail efforts to enroll the offspring of Chinese and Saudi billionaires.

Nevertheless, despite all these financial downsides, many schools soldier on in the quest for more diversity by exploiting the Court’s suggested loopholes. For example, in a required question on their application, Johns Hopkins asks, “Tell us about an aspect of your identity (e.g. race, gender, sexuality, religion, community, etc.) or a life experience that has shaped you as an individual and how that influenced what you’d like to pursue in college at Hopkins.” Sarah Lawrence College’s application explicitly references this dodge:

Drawing upon examples from your life, a quality of your character, and/or a unique ability you possess, describe how you believe your goals for a college education might be impacted, influenced or affected by the Court’s decision. Georgetown Law School has added more personal interviews to assess an applicant’s qualification.

Why do schools pursue an illegal policy that makes little economic sense? Might this just be ideological zeal akin to religious fanatics who sought martyrdom rather than renounce their faith? Or is the campus’s diversity, inclusion, and equity bureaucracy just desperate to protect their jobs? Or maybe campus administrators believe that this year’s crop of minority students will finally, at long last, be academically equal to their classmates?

All of those are plausible, but let me suggest that this patently irrational economic behavior is a form of conspicuous consumption, and the more money lavished on this enterprise—and the more meager the results—the greater the psychological benefits. This is an upside-down cost-benefit calculation, where spending a fortune to acquire something of minimal academic value is the benefit. It’s all about self-congratulation psychology, not helping those admitted due to their skin color. In today’s campus cultural milieu, anybody can claim to support campus diversity, but only the most virtuous will squander the school’s precious resources and risk costly lawsuits to achieve it.

The poster child for such conspicuous consumption is, of course, the former president of Harvard, Claudine Gay. As a black woman from an immigrant Haitian family with degrees from both Stanford and Harvard, it is hard to imagine a grander prize. Eat your heart out Yale! The fact that she survived so long despite her despite all her liabilities is a testament to Harvard’s “commitment,” less an example of administrative ineptitude.

The urge to demonstrate superiority by publicly over-consuming resources is a part of human nature. In 18th-century London, for example, a city of widespread dire poverty, the upper classes conspicuously displayed their wealth by surrounding themselves with armies of well-dressed, well-coifed footmen whose activity entailed standing around and doing almost nothing. The rich walked the streets with one footman ahead, one behind, whose only purpose was a public display of wealth. At dinner parties, these footmen stood at attention behind each guest’s chair, did nothing, and when the guests departed, they lined up at the doorway to show off their powdered wigs, gold buttons, knee britches, and other expensive finery.

Footmen were entirely about theater, and prestige colleges have long mastered theatrics to convey the message that the school is a distinguished institution worthy of sky-high tuition and generous alumni donation—no generic office park buildings for them. Schools like Harvard thus carefully project the image of scholarly accomplishment—old ivy-covered buildings, manicured lawns and buildings with famous names chiseled in since the real thing is intangible. No doubt, visitors to Oxford are deeply impressed by the architecture though most are likely clueless regarding what daily occurs in these august stone buildings. The University of California, Berkeley cleverly provides multiple parking spaces reserved for Nobel Prize winners to showcase its brilliant faculty. Far more effective than trying to explain what these prize-winning faculty accomplished.

Fashions change, and what is prestigious on campus a century ago has likewise shifted. In today’s intellectual landscape, the presence of black students on campus signifies that the school is committed to social transformation, and it matters little what they study, accomplish or even if they graduate. As Oscar Wilde put it, “It is only shallow people who do not judge by appearances. The true mystery of the world is the visible, not the invisible.”

Putting minority recruits on display is a much cheaper and quicker path to displaying a school’s credentials though this theater is hardly inexpensive. To appreciate this power of outward appearances, imagine if Harvard were physically dominated by nerdy Asians, the vast majority of whom were quietly studying in libraries or invisibly spending their days in laboratories. Visitors could only wonder if Harvard was, in fact, a world class university filled will brilliant researchers. Under such conditions, Harvard might hire a Hollywood set designer to hire “brilliant looking” non-Asians for public display. Perhaps a few actors resembling Albert Einstein.

Prioritizing outward appearances over intellectual substance is hardly new. In the 1920s, Harvard faced a flood of smart applicants of Eastern European Jewish ancestry, and Harvard realized that their presence on campus, no matter how brilliant, would damage its reputation among its affluent White Anglo-Saxon Protestant (WASP) alumni. Religion per se was not the issue, Harvard was happy to admit Jews from wealthy, highly assimilated German-Jewish families who fitted in with the preppy campus atmosphere. It was about the coarse culture of these Eastern European Jews—threadbare clothing, lack of social sophistication, and their loud and aggressively argumentative nature that differentiated them from the old-money, private school educated WASPS that defined Harvard. Admission deans worried that rich alums would not donate to a school populated with those foreign people. Not until the meritocratic Harvard President James Conant (1893-1976) decades later did Harvard open its doors to the smart Jews of the “wrong pedigree.”

Resistance to the Court’s banning of racial preferences in higher education cannot be eliminated solely by rational rejoinders nor, as we now see a Supreme Court decree. For fanatical defenders of racial preferences, appearances are reality, and all the arguments about Asians being unfairly excluded by racial preferences are irrelevant. Image is everything and they happily live in an academic Potemkin Village. Resistance to legal decrees is driven by the psychological self-satisfaction of being a “good person,” not hardheaded cost accounting.

Outsiders condemning this virtue signaling may only encourage resisting the Court’s edict. Such disapproval may well turn the duplicitous virtue-seeking school president into a martyr for racial justice and, ironically, only increase the self-satisfaction for defying the court.

Perhaps public officials determined to eliminate these racial preferences should look at the private sector that is now rolling back its diversity, equity, and inclusion programs as wasteful at a time when resources need to be invested elsewhere. In other words, we need disincentives for this conspicuous consumption. The federal government and the states have often put extra taxes on luxury items such as expensive yachts and private airplanes, so perhaps it is time to think about such a tax on schools that admit students solely according to their skin color. If school administrators want to signal their virtue, they should at least pay for it.

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One thought on “Racial Preferences as Conspicuous Consumption”

  1. I always thought that the purpose of the footmen was to be a barrier between the aristocrat and the hoi polloi — to clear a path through the unwashed masses and to serve as bodyguards against highwaymen. Yes, there were aspects of conspicuous
    consumption as well, but I’m thinking of like the Swiss Guards protecting the Pope — some in ornate ceremonial uniforms and some in plain clothes, carrying submachine guns.

    Hence is it conspicuous consumption or is it a protection racket? Or is it both, along with being a power base for those administrators involved in administering these diversity programs? For example, I am reminded of a certain administrator whom the upper admin feared because he could (and would) have a couple hundred Black students take over a building anytime he wanted to. His power was immense — he hired a tenure-track professor without going through *any* of the search procedures (which upset the faculty) and it just happened to be his girlfriend that he’d hired, which upset the State Ethics Commission (along with his using university money to pay the employees of his private, for-profit consulting agency).

    The ethics commission, whose office was two hours away in Boston, wasn’t worried about building takeovers and he returned to the faculty for “health” reasons. A different administrator, equally feared, had to “bought out” — I never did find out exactly how much it cost to get rid of him, but was told that it was “a lot.” And these were people who were recklessly abusing their power — and not those who were just quietly enjoying the largess…

    As to the larger issue, I’m reminded of a Charlie Daniels song from the 1974 where a hippie in Mississippi falsely accuses the redneck leader of being an undercover FBI agent. In his defense, the redneck says:
    “I’m a faithfull follower of Brother John Burch
    And I belong to the Antioch Baptist Church
    And I ain’t even got a garage you can call home and ask my wife”

    (See: https://www.songfacts.com/lyrics/the-charlie-daniels-band/uneasy-rider)

    Have we gotten to the point where we must continually prove that we aren’t racists? Where simply not being racist isn’t enough, where everyone has to prove how non-racist he is? Much like the McCarthy era where everyone had to prove he wasn’t a Communist…

    And the other thing to consider is the soft bigotry of low expectations — and what would happen to the entire diversity establishment if a whole bunch of qualified Black applicants were to show up some fall. In other words, if we actually *fixed* K-12, a decade later there would be no need for any of this charade because there’d be no shortage of qualified black applicants to admit. And who’d graduate on their merits and the rest.

    It would be like what happened to the March of Dimes when Polio was cured — only worse because where the March of Dimes could shift to other childhood diseases, what is an anti-racism activist going to shift over to? (Remember that there are more White families living in poverty than there ARE Black families…) And is that why we haven’t been able to improve Black K-12?

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