ACTA in the News | College Admissions

Ending Affirmative Hypocrisy

FORBES   |  July 11, 2023 by Michael B. Poliakoff

Anti-Asian racism has stained this country, and anti-Asian discrimination at elite universities has been real and ugly. Anyone who doubts this should look at the graphs that show how Harvard has used “personality ratings” to disadvantage Asian applicants. The fact that this injustice seems lost in the storm of protest about the Supreme Court decision in the Students for Fair Admissions suit against Harvard University and the University of North Carolina is a telling silence.

Asians in America have endured many sorrows alongside their great achievements. There were lynchings: Nineteen Chinese immigrants died, 15 by the rope, on October 24, 1871, in Los Angeles; another pogrom followed in San Francisco, July 23–25, 1877. There was the Yellow Peril fearmongering, and there was the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act. There was the Japanese internment during World War II and, incredibly, the offensive stereotype of Mr. Yunioshi drew laughs less than 20 years later. And there was the stereotype of Asian women in The World of Suzie Wong. The obnoxious stereotype of the evil Fu Manchu has sold millions of books for more than a century, into our own day.

In a 68-page dissent, however, Justice Sonia Sotomayor devotes but one page to the experiences of Asian Americans. While the opening sentence on page 59 of her brief acknowledges their trauma—“There is no question that the Asian American community continues to struggle against potent but dehumanizing stereotypes in our society”—the balance of the paragraph argues that they are sometimes the beneficiaries of race-conscious admissions at Harvard. Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson’s dissent mentions Asian Americans only three times: once in reference to household income, once in admissions statistics, and once in a footnote.

Ironically, Justice Sotomayor matriculated at Princeton University in 1972, where, like other elite schools, the shadow of anti-Asian discrimination was steadily growing. In 1985, the New York Times drew national attention to the issue in an article titled, “Asian-Americans Question Ivy League’s Entry Policies.” The article begins with the observation of the late, distinguished political economist Uwe Reinhardt: “We were going over the applicant list and we came to a clearly qualified Asian-American student . . . And one committee member said, ‘We have enough of them.’ And someone else turned to me and said, ‘You have to admit, there are a lot.’” Professor Reinhardt continued, “My hunch is if you look at the top 20 percent of the Asian-Americans being rejected at Ivy League schools . . . they are better qualified academically than the bottom part of the class that is accepted.”

There are two outrageous aspects to the discrimination described in this story. The first is that it happened at a time when Americans should have known better, especially, one would expect, highly educated faculty at a top university. The second is that on Princeton’s website, “To be Known and Heard,” an exhaustive reckoning with what the school identifies as its long history of insensitivity, especially anti-black racism, there is no mention of an apparent legacy of anti-Asian racism, except for a brief mention of anti-Japanese sentiment during the Second World War. When the Office for Civil Rights (OCR) cleared Princeton in 2015 after a nine-year investigation of anti-Asian discrimination, Princeton President Christopher Eisgruber celebrated with a “nothing to see here, folks” statement: “I am very pleased that the OCR has concluded this investigation not only with a finding that Princeton did not discriminate on the basis of race or national origin, but that the university’s holistic review of applicants in pursuit of its compelling interest in diversity meets the standards set by the Supreme Court.”

Princeton is not an isolated example. Northwestern University’s Office of Institutional Diversity did not invite Asian staff to its celebration of employees of color, explaining that there were too many and the event would be too expensive. In its 2021 welcome letter celebrating the university’s diversity, no mention was made of Asian students.

The City Journal quotes a former Stanford University admissions officer, who cited an admissions department study that concluded “comparably qualified white applicants were ‘significantly’ more likely to be admitted than their Asian counterparts.”

One can reasonably question whether an Ivy League or “public Ivy” degree is worth the Sturm und Drang that surrounds it. The most recent data show that highly selective institutions that admit 25% or less of their applicants—the only ones where race-based admissions are likely to be an issue—account for less than 5.7% of the students enrolled at four-year public and nonprofit American universities.

In Academically Adrift, Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa revealed, moreover, that the variation of cognitive growth over four years of college was greater within institutions than between institutions. In other words, students get out of college what they put into college. Ending race-based admissions will not deny anyone access to a college education.

A 2023 Fortune article should be a wake-up call: “A professor has tracked the colleges of Fortune 500 CEOs for 20 years. He was stunned to learn Ivy Leagues don’t matter that much.” There may come a time when these high-ticket degrees command the same allure as tulip bulbs did after the market collapsed in February 1634.

Meanwhile, the admission of a son or daughter to a selective, prestigious college or university has for decades been for many the American dream, especially the dream of immigrants. Whether those degrees are really so valuable is irrelevant to the drive that fires the ambition, discipline, and hard work of those families.

Armin Rosen, staff writer for the magazine Tablet, described the ethos that brought so many Jewish students to the Ivies, once the quotas that held down their admissions were dropped: “For Jews, an Ivy League degree was both a status symbol and a crucial element in a functioning and merit-based system of social mobility. An Ivy education was proof of a durable theory that Jews—like other immigrant communities—could become normalized in American society through sheer ability, which could be recognized, nurtured, and rewarded through institutions that everyone still trusted and even admired.” The same ethos inspires many families from Asia.

Whatever the value of prestigious colleges and universities may or may not be, all applicants deserve to be treated fairly, based on their academic merit. Diligence, hard work, perseverance, and grit are the engines of America’s success and progress. SCOTUS did the nation a service by rolling back affirmative action hypocrisy.

This piece appeared on Forbes on July 11, 2023.


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