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Gary Younge
A shot in the dark

Back in 1995, after Jennifer Gratz received a rejection from Ann Arbor University she asked her dad if she could sue. The university used a points system when selecting applicants, and those from under-represented minorities automatically received extra points. Gratz, a working-class girl from a Detroit suburb, assumed a black person got her place.

She later applied to Notre Dame, in Indiana. Notre Dame gives preference to children of alumni, with legacies making up between 21% and 24% of the freshmen class, or around twice the number of African Americans and Hispanics combined. Ms Gratz was also rejected from Notre Dame. She saw no reason to sue.

Two years later, Patrick Hamacher's undergraduate application to study medicine at Ann Arbor was also rejected. Like Gratz, Hamacher, one of whose parents went to the University of Michigan, believed someone from a minority background had stolen his place with those pesky extra points. The trouble was, under the same system, the university also awarded extra points for legacies: an advantage which Hamacher enjoyed but saw no reason to relinquish. Along with Gratz, he took his challenge all the way to the supreme court and lost.

As Daniel Golden points out in his book, The Price of Admission, the real barrier to working-class whites making it to college in the US is not blacks or Latinos, but other, wealthy, whites.

Nonetheless, in a world of scarce resources there will always be those, like Michael Collins who will argue that the reason that one set of poor people don't have something is because another set of poor people has it instead. In this case he blames "the cult of multiculturalism" for the underachievement of white working-class boys.

Quite where Mr Collins has been these past few years, when multiculturalism has been viscerally attacked by most of the media and the political class, is not clear. Once you've taken the effort to get your straw man on his feet it would be rude not to knock him down.

It is a tired old formula that pits race against class as though the two are mutually exclusive and leaves poor whites and blacks (the overwhelming majority of whom are poor also) fighting over crumbs, while most of the cake is devoured by the rich. It correctly identifies a problem - poor whites are underperforming in school - but then chooses not a solution but a scapegoat. It suggests that if poor whites don't have something it must be because blacks must have it. Worse still, they didn't earn it but were given it, by white liberals.

Mr Collins does not call for more investment in the social and cultural capital of rundown areas, more council housing, better-paying jobs, more autonomy for local councils or more sports facilities - which might require the rich to pay more tax and the government to reengage with the poor who put them into power.

While masquerading as an argument in defence of the impoverished it leaves all the class structures in place that keeps people poor. It persuades the likes of Gratz not to turn their ire on the wealthy and rich but to turn their lawyers on the blacks and Latinos. It is misguided, wrongheaded and misinformed.

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