Harvard, Not Trump, Could Kill Affirmative Action

Asian students

Editor’s note: Even though the Trump administration has reversed Obama era affirmative action policies as they apply to schools, and even though Trump will likely appoint another conservative Supreme Court Justice before the end of the year, academia will continue to write its own rules and institute its own policies on racial preferences. More important is a lawsuit filed against Harvard — Students for Fair Admissions v. Harvard College – which accused the college of discrimination against Asian students. Minding the Campus has covered the issue from the outset, and most recently, John S. Rosenberg wrote a detailed account of the issue, which you can read here. As Rosenberg says, “diversity” will never be the same.

Harvard may not lose the lawsuit filed on behalf of Asian students, even though it should. Courts have so screwed up the treatment of racial discrimination since Bakke let the camel’s nose of “diversity” under the tent that it is impossible to predict what the U.S. District Court in Boston will decide. Whatever it decides will probably be appealed all the way to the Supreme Court.

Even though the legal fate of “diversity”-justified discrimination may be in limbo for a while, its reputation has already been dealt a serious blow by the revelation in recent court filings of the breadth and depth of the disadvantages Harvard’s “diversity” imposes on Asian applicants to Harvard.

Related: Harvard Says Asians Lack Courage, Kindness, Likability

As a measure of how much things have changed, a few years ago the no doubt well-informed (by Harvard) editors of the Harvard Crimson could write with presumably straight faces that discrimination complaints against Harvard are “ludicrous” and represent “an almost surreal turn of events.” They claimed there was “no evidence of undue discrimination” because any discrimination “can at the most be considered a necessary consequence of race-based affirmative action,” and because, “It is furthermore unclear that affirmative action is unduly harming those of Asian descent at Harvard, and in fact, the evidence indicates otherwise.”

Only a Harvard administrator or defense lawyer could make such claims today. Regarding those claims, Harvard makes two arguments in its defense: 1) We do not discriminate against Asians, and 2) insofar as we do discriminate against Asians, it’s legal.

Leaving the legal claim aside, given the magnitude of the disadvantage Asian applicants face because of Harvard’s negative evaluation of their “character traits,” the only way that negative evaluation is not discriminatory is if it is accurate. That is if it is really true that Asian applicants to Harvard are deficient, compared to all other groups, in such qualities as “likability … helpfulness, courage, [and] kindness,” they are not “attractive [people] to be with,” and they are not “widely respected.”

As a recent angry, moving New York Times OpEd pointed out, those are hard claims to support. If Harvard really believes them, then it really is treating Asians the same way it treated Jews in the 1920s and beyond, and for the same sort of reasons.

It is interesting, and I would think deeply embarrassing to Harvard, that those disproportionately negative evaluations were assigned by Harvard’s admission staff, who for the most part did not interview applicants, and they contrasted sharply with personal evaluations written by teachers, counselors, and alumni interviewers who did. Harvard, it would seem, needs to engage in some serious fence-mending with its army of alumni interviewers, reassuring them that it really does take their evaluations seriously (if it does).

Related: Asian Americans Move Against Harvard

One of those alumni interviewers, Jay Mathews, an education reporter at The Washington Post, recently wrote a troubled reflection about his experience interviewing candidates. “What I couldn’t understand during my 20 years as an alumni interviewer for Harvard University,” he wrote, “was why my college and other schools seemed to shrug off [Asian] accomplishments when they applied for admission.” Data released in the SFFA lawsuits, he concludes with gingerly understatement, “suggests anti-Asian bias may have been involved.” Mathews, by the way, always tiptoes very lightly around affirmative action and the racial juggling necessary to achieve it.

Thus, even as the legal battle over “diversity” is likely to continue it is not too early to consider how the controversy over it will develop; and in that regard, there are already some interesting salvos.

Terry Eastland, noting, “The Latest Affirmative Action Suit May Succeed Where Others Failed,” argues that one way forward is “overruling the weakest link in the reasoning that supports racial preferences, namely Grutter’s endorsement of critical-mass diversity as a “‘compelling interest.’” That is no doubt true, but it may be of limited relevance in the current case since, as SFFA pointed out in its recent Motion for Summary Judgment, “Harvard concedes that it is not using race to achieve the ‘critical mass’ interest. Harvard leadership has never heard the term critical mass used in the context of admissions. The leaders of the Admissions Office and of Harvard College do not even know what critical mass means and they have never used it as part of admissions decisions.”

What, then, is Harvard doing, and why? Jonah Goldberg offers a variation on the Asians-as-nerds trope. “It’s not that these kids don’t have good personalities, “he writes, “it’s that they don’t have fully ‘woke’ personalities. They don’t speak the language of cosmopolitan, secular noblesse oblige that so often takes the form of political correctness — at least not with sufficient fluency.” Moreover, he adds, Asians are in fact more interested in science than other groups, meaning that their view of the purpose of higher education is also not politically correct. “Perhaps there are a bunch of Asian-immigrant parents out there who would be perfectly happy to have their kids go to Harvard and major in gender theory or some such. But I suspect not.”

This suggests, Goldberg continues, that “the faculties in the humanities and the softer social sciences have disproportionate sway on the cultural and political assumptions of the school’s administration. They are, after all, the talkers.” Insofar as this is the case, perhaps in the future Harvard will give preferences to humanities applicants as a way of reducing the number of Asians.

Related: Harvard Sued Over Asian Admissions

Harvard may not even believe its own scurrilous assessment of the personal traits of Asian applicants. An apparently obvious reason why Harvard relies on them anyway is that it wants to reduce by any means necessary the number of Asians it admits so that it can admit more blacks and Hispanics. This is the explanation offered by John McWhorter in his typically powerful argument that the time has come to abandon racial preference in favor of “affirming disadvantage.”

McWhorter, who is black, argues that the necessity to prefer blacks and Hispanics has led to the “slander of hard-working Asian children, pure and simple” and that racial preference is no longer required (as he believes it once was). The old justification, “which made sense 50 years ago, was that black people couldn’t be subject to truly serious competition because all but a squeak of us are poor—or at least, too poor to be able to be expected to ace a test,” is no longer true really…. [T]his sense of black as shorthand for poor is catastrophically antique as sociological reasoning.” He still favors affirmative action, but, following Richard Kahlenberg, only for the economically disadvantaged.

Although McWhorter is eloquent as usual, here I’m afraid he’s a bit of a Pollyanna by not confronting the evidence that even middle-class and above blacks also suffer an achievement gap. Abigail Thernstrom, for example, has pointed to Shaker Heights, Ohio, a tony town filled with well to do black residents. Despite investing heavily in programs from kindergarten on to improve achievement, “About half the students in the Shaker Heights school system are black, but blacks are 7 percent of those in the top fifth of their class, and 90 percent of those in the bottom fifth.”

In 2018, the College Board released a report on Advanced Placement test results revealing that “Of all the students taking the AP exam only 4.3 percent of those scoring a 3 or higher are Black/African American; the general score needed to get college credit for an AP course. By contrast, 55.6 percent of White students and 22.9 of Hispanic or Latino students scored a 3 or higher.” Black poverty, in short, appears to have declined more rapidly than black achievement has risen.

Harvard admits racial rewards and penalties are driven by the determination to balance blacks and Hispanics racially. But equally important and usually overlooked is the disadvantage Asians suffer compared to whites. That is probably not a result of prejudice against Asians so much as Harvard not wanting to reduce drastically the number of whites it admits.

Harvard and other selective institutions would thus seem to be faced with an unpalatable but intractable racial choice:

  1. Stop discriminating against Asians but keep current preferences for blacks and Hispanics.
  2. Abandon racial and ethnic rewards and penalties altogether and admit students solely based on merit, however defined.
  3. Abandon racial and ethnic rewards and penalties altogether and admit students solely on economic disadvantage and merit, however the latter may be defined.

The problem with No. 1 is that it would dramatically reduce the number of whites, risking turning the influential parents of those Harvard rejects into newly minted critics of affirmative action and porous borders. Although it is widely thought that preferences for blacks and Hispanics primarily takes places away from deserving whites (and hence that its critics are white supremacists), in fact one of the reasons those preferences have lasted as long as they have is that a much bigger price has been paid by Asians, largely silent until now. Moreover, a difficult side effect of reducing the number of whites is that a substantial portion of them would be Jewish, renewing charges of antisemitism.

No. 2 would reduce (but not eliminate) the numbers of blacks and Hispanics at Harvard and other selective institutions, which strikes those institutions and the politically correct class as simply unacceptable.

No. 3 would reduce the number of blacks dramatically based on both income and merit.

I strongly prefer No. 2. It has the advantage of honoring rather than undermining the formerly core American value that individuals should be treated “without regard” to their race, and its consequence would be far less draconian than progressives fear.

John McWhorter, in his article cited above, mentions one of the many nice rewards of abandoning racial preferences. “At solid but second-tier UC San Diego, “he writes, “the year before racial preferences were banned, there had been exactly one black freshman honors student in a class of about 3,200. By 1999, with many black students who would once have been admitted to Berkeley and UCLA now attending schools like this one, one in five black freshmen were making honors, about the same proportion as white freshmen. How,” he added, “this qualified as racism or resegregation was decidedly unclear, which was much of why stories like these were almost never heard beyond certain circles.”

Perhaps there is a fourth path to the future:

  1. Harvard and other selective institutions could scrap the current regime of racial preference and start acting like they really believe what they say about “diversity.”

Harvard, for example, could announce that it is modifying its affirmative action model to ensure the admission of at least a few members of a much larger selection of groups, including various and sundry religious denominations and sects — Missouri Synod Lutherans and Muslims as well as Methodists, both Northern and Southern Baptists, etc. Thus, it would search for married or engaged gay students as well as evangelical Christians who would refuse to participate in their marriage ceremonies. “Diversity,” in short, would not be limited to ethnicity or pigmentation.

Such an approach would have the additional benefit of requiring the disaggregation of various identities that it appears are now lumped: “Asians” would disappear and be replaced by Chinese, Japanese, Filipino, etc.; “Hispanic” would be replaced by Mexican, Cuban, Puerto Rican, Guatemalan, etc. It will come as a shock to many that one of the racial identity groups most in need of disaggregation is whites.

In a Wall Street Journal OpEd twenty years ago, Ron Unz pointed out that referring to “whites” disguises how overrepresented Jews are, noting that “Jews and Asians constitute approximately half of Harvard’s student body, leaving the other half for the remaining 95% of America.” In fact, he added, “it seems likely that non-Jewish white Americans represent no more than a quarter of Harvard undergraduates, even though this group constitutes nearly 75% of the population at large, resulting in a degree of underrepresentation far more severe than that of blacks, Hispanics or any other minority groups.”

Fourteen years later, in a widely read, seminal article in 2012 (Unz was the first, I believe, to document the startling uniformity of racial proportions at Harvard over time), Unz noted that in the intervening years “Jewish academic achievement has seemingly collapsed, but relative Jewish enrollment in the Ivy’s has generally risen while the exact opposite combination has occurred for both Asians and non-Jewish whites.” If Unz’s figures are correct, not only does Harvard treat Asians today the way it treated Jews in the past; it also now treats non-Jewish whites the same way.

An obvious advantage to Harvard of dramatically expanding the “diversity” net is that it could then say, for example, “See, we’re not discriminating against Asians; we’re discriminating against, and for, everybody!”

Of course, Harvard will never move toward real diversity. It believes it has a right to shape its student body however it sees fit, those pesky non-discrimination principles to the contrary notwithstanding. If “diversity” in 1920 meant taking steps to reduce the number of Jews but in 2020 means maintaining a disproportionate number of Jews while putting a low ceiling on the number of Asians (who cares whether they’re Chinese, Japanese, or Hmong? Not Harvard), in Harvard’s mind that just shows an admirable “holistic” flexibility.


Harvard’s mind is not likely to be changed. But what can and should be changed is its behavior.


4 thoughts on “Harvard, Not Trump, Could Kill Affirmative Action

  1. It would be better by far if Harvard ends affirmative action, rather than being forced to do so by the Supreme Court in some future case. (They can only as a practical matter end discrimination against Asians be ending discrimination in favor of blacks and Hispanics.)

    If Harvard ended AA, the rest of the academic world would quickly follow suit. End of AA.

    Therefore, devoutly to be wished that Harvard has an epiphany before the Supreme Court does. Impossible? I’m not so sure. What they are doing with Asians is so blatantly discriminatory, they may be shamed into doing the right thing.

  2. The data on Jewish Ivy League enrollment Unz used to make his argument turned out to be very inaccurate. The idea that each Harvard class is 25% Jewish and nobody noticed until Unz came along was always silly. Didn’t pass the smell test.

  3. I doubt that Harvard’s top officials believe that silly prattle about how so many Asian applicants just have lousy personalities. (Do they admit as many as they do despite those lousy personalities, or do they cherry pick the best of a bad lot?) What they’re doing is upholding a policy that is crucial to the continuing success of the whole “progressive” project, namely for politically potent minority groups (especially blacks and Hispanics) to believe that keeping Democrats in power is the key to their advancement. Racial preferences are meant to sway those big groups toward the Democrats, who promise them the supposed benefit of admissions based on filling quotas rather than on individual achievement. Without the trinkets of “affirmative action,” voters in those groups would start asking what good the Democrats and their statist policies do for them. I suspect that the Harvard administration, good progressives all, know that their die-hard defense of facial preferences is like a chess move that helps protect the king from attack.

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