America’s oldest and most prestigious institution of higher learning, Harvard University, has found itself on the wrong end of a lawsuit filed by a coalition of sixty-four Asian and Asian-American groups. The plaintiffs allege that the university’s admissions policies are discriminatory; which, in fact, they are. Asian applicants must meet higher academic standards than any other racial or ethnic group. That’s usually called discrimination.
I will part ways with most conservatives here and say that I hope the Asian plaintiffs lose their case, though not because I like Harvard’s discriminatory policy. I hate it. The only thing more loathsome than their policy, however, is private sector nondiscrimination laws which are intrusive and arbitrarily enforced. Granted, I believe that Harvard should lose its federal funding, though not because it practices racial discrimination. Harvard should be weaned from the government teet because it’s private. The taxpayer shouldn’t have to subsidize any private university.
Nonetheless, the lawsuit serves an important purpose—to show the world that affirmative action has real victims. Many of those victims are white, of course, but whites don’t enjoy much sympathy in our society. White people, and only white people, are held responsible for all the terrible misdeeds of their ancestors. Even whites not descended from slave owners or Indian-killing frontiersmen are guilty, if only because they share a similar complexion. That’s close enough.
It’s more difficult, however, to explain to a Pakistani or Korean teenager why he has to meet higher standards than everyone else including those white oppressors who rig(ged) the game to their own benefit. The average Asian admitted to Harvard has an SAT score 140 points higher than his white counterpart, 270 points higher than his Hispanic counterpart, and 450 points higher than his black counterpart.
The academic metrics of the aforementioned racial groups form an embarrassing and (for some) troubling hierarchy, with Asians on top, followed by whites, then Hispanics, and finally, blacks. Harvard and many other universities have responded to the tiered abilities of racial groups with a tiered set of standards. The lowest performing group is judged by the lowest standard and the highest performing group is judged by the highest standard.
Despite higher hurdles, twenty percent of the Harvard student body is Asian compared to only five percent of the general population, a nifty factoid that Harvard is already employing to acquit itself. But Asian success doesn’t prove that Asians aren’t discriminated against, it merely proves that Asian kids are achieving great things despite obstacles that don’t have to be there.
Proponents of affirmative action don’t like to admit that the policy harms anyone. Blacks and Hispanics benefit because it affords them opportunities they wouldn’t have otherwise received, while whites and Asians supposedly benefit because they are exposed to a diverse student body. Everyone’s a winner, so what’s to complain about?
Plenty, actually. My hope for this lawsuit is that it will force academia as a whole to come face to face with the real victims of affirmative action and to admit that they’ve been screwing people for the last forty years. We don’t all “win” when we hold down some to lift up others. Admissions standards are, as the black Berkeley professor Bill Banks once remarked, “an algebraic formula with human casualties.”
University admissions, like so many things in life, are a zero sum game, a pie that can only be sliced so many ways. A bigger slice for one group necessarily means a smaller slice for another, although fretting about one race getting a slice that’s “too big” implies that there’s some theoretical correct size, a notion born out of the all-too-human tendency toward tribalism.
We can and should resist the impulse to play us-against-them in university admissions, but that would require a colorblind, merit-based admissions process, which some people are just unwilling to accept. Those words—merit and colorblind—are like fingernails on the chalkboard to supporters of affirmative action, which explains why they’ve tried, with some success, to banish them from acceptable discourse. My advice is to keep using them. They are not racist code words, just concepts that sore losers don’t like. When we avoid using them we grant the premise that they are illusory and irrelevant.
The concept of merit and the ideal of colorblindness must also be counted among the victims of affirmative action. Though not quite dead and buried, they’ve been fighting for their lives since at least the 1970s. The Indian immigrant Dinesh D’Souza wrote about the demise of merit in favor of “diversity” in his 1991 book “Illiberal Education.” At the University of Michigan, D’Souza sat down with two black student activists, Kimberly Smith and Tracye Matthews, to discuss, among other issues, racial preferences. When D’Souza asked what they thought of an admissions system based solely on luck of the draw—a lottery—both students agreed that it was a good idea, much fairer than a system based on test scores and GPA’s. “These students made no distinction between deserved and undeserved academic reward,” wrote D’Souza a quarter century ago. “All difference was a social construction based on suspect categories of race, gender and class.”
I would be shocked by their attitude if I hadn’t heard similar sentiments many times when I was in college. “Basically what scores measure is privilege,” Smith said to D’Souza. What she means is that the whole system is built from the ground up for white people, by white people. “People of color” can’t compete on the white man’s uneven playing field and they shouldn’t have to.
That would make more sense if “people of color” weren’t lighting up the scoreboard; it just happens that they’re the wrong color—mostly yellow with some brown people from the Indian subcontinent. If academic achievement indicates only “privilege,” as Smith posited, then Asians must be the most aristocratic of the aristocrats.
But we all know that isn’t true. Asians aren’t admitted to top universities in proportions exceeding their numbers because they belong to a class of old stock gentry. Asians excel academically because they have high IQ’s and they spend hours with their noses firmly planted in books, often while sitting on cardboard boxes in the back rooms of their parents’ restaurants or convenience stores. Their “unfair advantage” is that they know the answers at test time.
It’s these people whom Harvard will have to face in court—bright, young, “people of color” with SAT scores in the 99th percentile and nearly perfect GPA’s who were nonetheless found lacking. Harvard will have to explain why the goal of diversity is so compelling that it grants a license to discriminate against real people with names and faces. I suspect that Harvard’s top notch attorneys will squirm and mutter boilerplate trope about “redressing grievances” and “leveling the playing field,” but those excuses are wearing thin and everyone knows it.