By FREDERICK R. LYNCH AUG. 4, 2017, New York Times
Image from article, with caption: The audience for an address by President Trump in Huntington, W. Va., on Thursday
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
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
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.
[JB emphasis]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
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
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 Court affirmed 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 identity policies 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 — often support Mr. Trump.
Frederick R. Lynch is a government professor at Claremont McKenna College and the
author of “The Diversity Machine: The Drive to Change the ‘White Male Workplace.’ ”