Monica Potts sat down and read the study Ross Douthat cited in his New York Times op-ed that led him to the conclusion that "the gatekeepers of elite education seem to incline against candidates who seem too stereotypically rural or right-wing or “Red America." Potts spoke to one of the authors and ultimately found a somewhat different conclusion:
The researchers looked at a broad category of "career oriented" activities, of which those groups could be examples, and found that there was a "statistically significant but small negative correlation," as Espenshade described it in a brief phone interview, with having held leadership positions in those groups or having won an award in them and being admitted to an elite college (just being a member didn't make a difference). The study says, "These activities include ROTC and co-op work programs. They might also encompass 4-H Clubs, Future Farmers of America, and other activities that suggest that students are somewhat undecided about their academic futures." Spending "too much" time in activities like athletics, or in holding a part-time job also seemed to have a negative effect, and what those activities have in common is that they take time away from purely academic pursuits. Of all the markers that seemed to matter to admissions officers, this was merely a side note.
So "statistically significant but small negative correlation" is the thin reed on which Douthat hung evidence of systemic discrimination against "white Christians" that justifies or explains the recent racial paranoia ginned up by conservatives. I hadn't read the study either when I wrote that lower-class whites and blacks were fighting over "table scraps," but the study suggests I was right:
The study looked at admissions rates for seven elite colleges. The study definitely found, as Nieli wrote, that admissions officers give preference to lower-class black and Hispanic applicants, but it's worth looking at that fact in context. Overall, the applicant pool was extremely well off: Only about 10 percent of the applications to elite institutions, public or private, came from lower- and working-class families, and only about 19 percent of those applicants were admitted to elite private schools (acceptance rates to the public institutions didn't correlate highly with class).
The study also found that, overall, students from the top two social classes had a 50 percent better chance of being admitted. So conservatives think lower-class blacks and whites should be fighting a bloody death match over whatever spots colleges wants to reserve for poor people, without questioning that the majority of white, wealthy applicants will get most of the spots. This despite the fact that, as Tim Fernholz wrote in his review of Peter Schmidt's book, "it’s more common for an academically underachieving white applicant, thanks to alumni parents or athletic scholarships, to be a given slot over a more qualified lower-income student, than for a minority student to do so because of affirmative action." There's no question that as a political strategy, this has been incredibly effective for conservatives, but to the extent that lower-class blacks and whites are fighting over the smallest possible piece of the pie makes any sense, it's only because we're used to it.
A final thing: The focus on the meager gains afforded minorities by affirmative action while the access of the wealthy and underachieving remains unquestioned is nothing more than an implicit acceptance of the idea that elite academic institutions "belong" to whites and minorities are only guests. The "roots of white anxiety" aren't in fairly minimal black advancement; they're in the constantly reinforced notion that when minorities gain, they lose.