privilege, giving way slowly

Joseph Palmi: The Irish have their homeland. Us Italians have our families and our

church; the Jews their traditions–hell even the [anti-Black slur] have their music; so what do you people have?

Edward Wilson: We have the United States of America. The rest of you are just visiting.

That’s an exchange from The Good Shepherd, Robert de Niro’s movie about the origins of the CIA. Edward Wilson is a spy whose career begins in Yale’s most famous secret society, Skull & Bones. Joseph Palmi is a Miami gangster whom Wilson will ask to murder Fidel Castro. If we take for granted the premise of the story–that a WASP elite once ran Skull & Bones, Yale, and the CIA–it’s interesting to ask why things have changed. Yale is a private institution with a self-perpetuating board. Outsiders cannot vote unless they are invited in. The alumni have contributed Yale’s $15 billion endowment and want their own kids to attend. Nevertheless, the place is no longer dominated by rich WASP families, lineal descendents of Edward Wilson’s classmates. To be sure, the faculty remains about 90 percent white, and just one in four students is a minority, But the current president is named Levin, and his predecessor who presided when I arrived 21 years ago was one Angelo (“Bart”) Giamatti. Why did families like Edward Wilson’s cede any ground at all?

To some extent, Yale always had idealistic purposes: “light and truth,” in the words of the motto. You can’t pursue truth while restricting your faculty and student body to white Anglo-Saxon Protestants. But let’s assume that Yale existed in part to help a WASP elite run America. Even if they some idealistic intentions, running the country was an exercise in power. They succeeded to a great degree, as symbolized by the three generations of the Bush family. Yet clans like the Bushes had to negotiate and share their power. Why?

It seems to me that they always needed Yale to confer status on their children. Any elite needs competent leaders, but the children of aristocrats will vary in skill and discipline. In a democratic society (no matter how imperfect) the elite’s leaders need not only talent but also overt evidence of merit so that they can attract votes and legitimacy. A Yale degree signified that its holder had been selected from a large pool on the basis of personal excellence. Yale conferred no benefit unless people believed that it identifed the best. But after a while, the children of aristocratic families would have no plausible claim to excellence if they competed only among themselves. A young man would gain little status by entering Yale if the smartest people were going to City College of New York. So the trick was to let in enough Jews and Catholics–and then women, Blacks, Hispanics, and Asians–to make the place genuinely competitive while retaining as many spots as possible for old money. That was a hard process to control, because pretty soon there were Jews and Catholics, and then women, Blacks, Hispanics, and Asians, on the faculty, the Alumni Association, the Yale Corporation, and the president’s office. The result was the balance we see today.