President Trump’s support for a proposal from Senators Tom Cotton and David Perdue that slashes legal immigration and reports about the Justice Department’s renewed interests in scrutinizing college affirmative action programs should come as no surprise. Mr. Trump is catering to his largely middle-aged, white, middle- and working-class base. That’s what politicians do.
But is he addressing legitimate interest-group concerns or is he pandering to racial fears? There is a rather one-sided debate over what motivates Mr. Trump and his supporters. A wave of new books and articles still invoke stereotypes trotted out on election night: Mr. Trump’s “angry white voters” were motivated by racism, resentment, “whitelash,” declining economic or social status, irrational fears of economic or demographic change, or all of the above. They are deluded, confused “Strangers in Their Own Land,” as suggested by the title of a book by the sociologist Arlie Hochschild.
This thinly veiled scorn has inhibited deeper study of whether Mr. Trump’s white voters are responding to legitimate economic threats generated by what I have termed “the diversity machine.” This powerful policy juggernaut has quietly and questionably blended together two trends that threaten working- and middle-class whites.
First, high levels of legal and illegal immigration, as the Harvard economist George Borjas’s recent book emphasizes, have produced wage losses among some poor and working-class low-skilled native-born workers. Wealthy whites and corporations were often the winners. It’s the old story of costs and benefits of building America on the backs of cheap immigrant labor.
For more than a hundred years, these split labor markets have often pitted native-born workers (mostly white, sometimes unionized) against successive waves of cheap-labor newcomers (usually of different ethnicity or culture or both). Economic competition fuels ethnic antagonism — and nativism, racism and the like.
There has been very little scholarly or public attention paid to a second policy trend that intensified the antagonism born of this ethnically split labor market. In the 1990s, affirmative action’s original mission to right past wrongs against African-Americans was transformed into an expanded list of preferences in the workplace and in higher education for immigrant subgroups (for example, Hispanics, Asians or Pacific Islanders).
Instead of redressing past discrimination, the more ambitious diversity mission was to achieve proportional, “look like America” institutions that allegedly would perform better by reflecting the country’s demographic change. Preferences for blacks were controversial, but even critics had to admit that they had some degree of historical and moral authority. Not so the expansion of preferences to members of ill-defined, grab-bag racial and ethnic categories. (For example, “Hispanic” could include first-through-fourth-generation Americans of Cuban, Mexican, Guatemalan, Bolivian, Chilean, Salvadoran, Colombian and other Latin American ancestry.)
The system of expanding diversity preferences and much immigration policy have often been formulated and imposed by bureaucrats and judges. But in several states, voters approved ballot measures like Michigan’s Proposition 2 banning ethnic preferences, or legislatures passed laws placing controls on illegal immigration (the latter, such as Arizona’s Senate Bill 1070, sometimes undone, in part or in whole, by the courts).
A 2016 Gallup poll on affirmative action was typical in finding majorities of all groups (76 percent of whites) who believed that merit alone should determine college admissions, with race or ethnicity playing a relatively minor role. Nevertheless, just last year, a closely divided Supreme Courtaffirmed an earlier decision that narrow use of race may be one of the many factors in undergraduate admissions at the University of Texas.
There is good reason to suspect that universities may not follow the letter of the law. Data from the Association of American Medical Colleges indicate that race is a substantial factor in medical school admissions, not one of many. For example, from 2013 to 2016, medical schools in the United States accepted 94 percent of blacks, 83 percent of Hispanics, 63 percent of whites and 58 percent of Asians with top MCAT scores of 30 to 32 and grade-point averages of 3.6 to 3.8; for MCAT scores of 27 to 29 (G.P.A. of 3.4 to 3.6), the corresponding figures are 81 percent, 60 percent, 29 percent and 21 percent. For low-range MCAT scores of 24-26 (G.P.A. of 3.2 to 3.4), 57 percent of blacks were admitted, 31 percent of Hispanics, 8 percent of whites and 6 percent of Asians.
The presidential candidates in 2016 were largely silent on affirmative action, but Mr. Trump said in 2015 that he was “fine with it” though “it’s coming to a time when maybe we don’t need it.” Affirmative action and new diversity dictates were most likely an “unspoken but heard” issue.
Institutional racism remains a problem, as does immigration and the balancing of assimilation and pluralism. But identity politics and identitypolicies may have become too divisive and complicated in both theory and practice.
Since the election, many Democrats have been talking less about diversity and more about unifying cultural and economic commonalities. The new Democratic “Better Deal” populist blueprint put forward by Senator Charles Schumer of New York echoes his admiration for the New Deal by emphasizing strategies that would help all American workers.
Mr. Schumer knows his party must quickly and candidly address the question of why the white working and middle classes — groups who were the foundation of Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal coalition
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