Fewer Asians Need Apply by Dennis Saffran, City Journal Winter 2016

While I tend to favour some degree of affirmative action to foster diversity and inclusion, this piece makes valid comparisons between previous discrimination of American Jews and current measures to restrict Asian Americans:

“Asians are typecast in college admissions offices as quasi-robots programmed by their parents to ace math and science tests,” Golden observes. A Yale student commenting on the Princeton OCR complaint put it more bluntly: “[T]here can be good reasons for the disproportionately low acceptance rates for many Asians. . . . Top-tier schools . . . look not only for good grades but for an interesting student who will bring something of value to the community.” A Boston Globe columnist noted that the comment “sounds a lot like what admissions officers say, but there’s a whiff of something else, too.”

The something else smells a lot like the attitude toward Jews 90 years ago. Now, as then, an upstart, achievement-oriented minority group has proved too successful under objective academic standards. And so, as Jews were in the 1920s, Asians today are deemed deficient in the highly subjective and discretionary “personal estimate of character” favored long ago by Harvard president Lowell. But while anti-Semitic elites of the 1920s were forthrightly reactionary, their grandchildren’s anti-Asian bigotry is concealed under a veneer of modern progressivism. This is not merely because it rechristens Lowell’s arbitrary criteria with the New Agey term “holistic” but more fundamentally because it is based on a stereotypical view of Asians as out of sync with liberal culture. The image of Asian students as one-dimensional test-taking robots, short on creative thinking, all too often resonates with modern liberal educators, with their disdain for testing and “rote” learning, which they see as inimical to a “frolic in the fields” concept of creativity. As former neoconservative-turned-leftist culture warrior Diane Ravitch articulated this philosophy: “I don’t care if my two grandsons . . . have higher or lower scores than children their age in . . . Japan [or] Korea. . . . [I] care that [they] are . . . curious about the world; are loved; learn to love learning; [and] are kind to their friends and to animals; . . . Let’s all read Walden, read poetry, listen to good music, visit a museum, look at the stars.”

The bias against a group seen as having a learning approach that rebukes this romantic idyll is reflected in the concern of liberal college administrators that their institutions not become majority Asian. As Golden told the New York Times, “The schools semiconsciously say to themselves, ‘We can’t have all Asians.’ ” It may be more than semiconscious. A former admissions officer at Wesleyan, Brown, and Columbia warns ominously in the same Times article that “if affirmative action is overthrown . . . our elite campuses will look like U.C.L.A. and Berkeley.” Golden recounts the experience of Princeton professor Uwe Reinhardt in raising the discrimination issue with university officials: “They would say . . . ‘You wouldn’t want half the campus to be Chinese.’ ” Reinhardt had a good answer: “Well, why not?” As the director of Asian-American studies at Northwestern put it, “In the 1920s, people asked: will Harvard still be Harvard with so many Jews? Today we ask: will Harvard still be Harvard with so many Asians? Yale’s student population is 58 percent white and 18 percent Asian. Would it be such a calamity if those numbers were reversed?” It’s ironic that the same progressives who exult at the prospect of the United States becoming a majority-minority country fret at the far less disruptive prospect of Harvard or Yale becoming majority Asian.

Liberal discomfort with Asians can shade into outright hostility. Browbeating affirmative-action opponent Abigail Thernstrom in the wake of the passage of Prop. 209, Crossfire cohost Bob Beckel asked angrily, “Would you like to see . . . UCLA Law School 80 percent Asian? . . . . Will that make you happy?” The hostility is exacerbated by the unavoidable reality that affirmative action puts Asians in competition with African-Americans and Hispanics. Another study by Espenshade found that racial preferences for blacks and Latinos at elite colleges come almost entirely at the expense of Asian-Americans rather than whites. He and a colleague determined that if affirmative action were eliminated, “[n]early four out of every five places . . . not taken by African-American and Hispanic students would be filled by Asians.”

Racial-preference supporters argue that Asian students are harmed just as much by admissions preferences for legacies and athletes, which disproportionately benefit whites. Indeed, OCR dismissed the 1988 Harvard complaint based on a finding that any discrimination against Asians was explained by such preferences. The current Harvard lawsuit also attacks legacy preferences but for a different reason, arguing that their elimination would be a “race-neutral alternative” that would allow Harvard to admit more blacks and Latinos without resorting to race-based selection. I think that the plaintiffs are right, as a matter of fairness, to oppose legacy preferences (even though my daughter and I are both Harvard graduates, so our family may have benefited from them). However, Espenshade’s data show that their abolition would do little to benefit blacks, Latinos—or Asians.

Thus, this case necessarily brings into stark relief the ironic impact of race-based admissions preferences in today’s multiracial society. Whatever the justification for racial favoritism in the essentially biracial era of 1978, when Bakke was decided, the burden now falls largely on another historically marginalized racial minority—a group that is heavily foreign-born and that, while generally prosperous, still has large pockets of immigrant poverty. (See “The Plot Against Merit,” Summer 2014.) Affirmative action, the flagship policy of multiculturalists, has foundered on multiculturalism itself—and it’s time to pull the plug on it. The Harvard lawsuit provides the courts with a good opportunity to do so.

Source: Fewer Asians Need Apply by Dennis Saffran, City Journal Winter 2016

About Andrew
Andrew blogs and tweets public policy issues, particularly the relationship between the political and bureaucratic levels, citizenship and multiculturalism. His latest book, Policy Arrogance or Innocent Bias, recounts his experience as a senior public servant in this area.

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