Race, Meritocracy, and Higher Education
How do students at elite universities make sense of the admissions process, given the loud public critiques they hear? The Diversity Bargain: And Other Paradoxes of Race, Admissions, and Meritocracy at Elite Universities (University of Chicago Press, 2016) explains how students at top American and British universities—Harvard, Brown, and Oxford—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. The Diversity Bargain was published in October 2016 from the University of Chicago Press, and comes out in paperback in Spring 2019.
Click here to read a brief by Warikoo on how the ways we talk about diversity undercut efforts to address inequality. Here is an op-ed by Warikoo from the Boston Globe that highlights the problems with justifying affirmative action through the language of “diversity”.
Reviews of The Diversity Bargain
Rose Courteu, The Atlantic: “The Diversity Bargain illuminates just how much diversity has been commodified particularly among the elite, for whom good taste entails an eclectic palate. . . . Warikoo’s argument for a much more ‘robust, ongoing affirmative-action policy by calibrating admissions decisions according to a student’s opportunities’ is doubly convincing: She attacks the premise of collective merit because it makes the inclusion of the less advantaged contingent on the benefits that will accrue to the rest. But it also requires the less powerful to pander to visions of powerlessness, so that sharing one’s own story becomes a compulsion rather than a privilege. It should be neither, but a gift, given freely.”
Hans Rollman, Pop Matters: “Warikoo’s fascinating book, The Diversity Bargain and Other Dilemmas of Race, Admissions, and Meritocracy at Elite Universities, offers a fascinating, erudite and scholarly study of these phenomena….[I]t reminds us that we still have a long way to go in developing a post-secondary system and society that is truly fair, equitable, and meritocratic.”
Times Higher Education Book of the Week, review by Kalwant Bhopal: “Elite universities are widely seen as institutions that demonstrate that meritocracy and equal opportunity exist. Warikoo’s research suggests that students who are fortunate enough to gain a place at Oxbridge or an Ivy League university see themselves as members of an elite group who have been chosen by a fair and just process.”
Publisher’s Weekly: “This book highlights a persistent question facing diversity efforts in higher education: how do universities make the case for diversity in the highly selective, competitive, and rigorous environments that define them as elite institutions? Warikoo, a Harvard professor, bases her conclusions on interviews with students at her home institution, at Brown University, and at Oxford….Warikoo makes a case for these conversations as proving grounds for four perspectives that students use to understand race: color-blindness, diversity, power analysis, and the “culture of poverty.” These frames are an effective foundation to support Warikoo’s larger conclusion, that “many white students expressed what I term the diversity bargain: ambivalent support for affirmative action as long as they benefited through a diverse campus, and as along as black and Latino peers didn’t seem to deprive them of success in other competitive endeavors.” Many institutions have embedded the diversity bargain in their own marketing for multicultural programming. The author provocatively laments that by adopting such rhetoric, universities—and the students that they influence—may limit their ability to make real social change.”
Annette Lareau, University of Pennsylvania, author of Unequal Childhoods: “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 meaning 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.”
Steven G. Brint, Vice Provost of Undergraduate Education, University of California, Riverside: “Warikoo brings new illumination to debates about affirmative action in higher education by focusing on the beliefs and actions of students at elite institutions. She shows the appeal of these frames to different student groups. She shows how through sponsored programs institutions influence the prominence of these competing frames. 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. The book also contains an arresting contrast between students in elite institutions in the United States and England. In Oxford and Cambridge, a most standard understanding of ‘meritocracy’ remains, leading to more certainty about what constitutes accomplishment, as well as resistance to the social incorporation goals that now play such an important role in higher education worldwide. 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.”
Rubén Gaztambide-Fernández, University of Toronto: “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.”
Read other reviews in Administrative Science Quarterly, American Journal of Sociology, The Atlantic, International Studies in Sociology of Education, Pop Matters, Public Books, The Society Pages, Sociology, Times Higher Education, TC Record, CHOICE, and a Symposium with 6 reviews and rejoinder by Warikoo in Ethnic and Racial Studies. Also see The Diversity Bargain discussed by Kelefa Sanneh in The New Yorker.