The Supreme Court is poised to begin adjudicating lawsuits that claim the admissions policies of Harvard University and the University of North Carolina are discriminatory against students of Asian descent and, in the case of U.N.C., against white students. The rightward tilt of the current court makes it possible, even likely, that it will not only address the specific issues in question in these cases but also ban outright the use of race in university admissions.
To those dismayed by the court’s recent rulings on issues such as abortion and gun control, it might seem natural to see a looming ban on affirmative action in admissions as water from the same well. I do not. The way racial preferences have been defended in recent years has involved a good deal of shaky argumentation.
Take, for instance, the idea that a diverse student body is a key component of a good education: As I’ve argued previously in this newsletter, diversity is a thin justification for treating applicants differently. But beyond that, it’s worth noting that a different, earlier and disturbing version of the diversity argument emerged not in reference to students of color but to Jewish students. In the early 20th century, “character”-based goals emerged among some Ivy League schools. One such goal was “geographic” diversity. This was held up as a boon to student bodies but motivated largely by an assumption that admitting students from schools far from northeastern cities would serve to hold down the number of Jewish applicants accepted.
This was one of an array of shifty strategies that some Ivies started using. The fine podcast “Gatecrashers,” produced by Tablet Studios, covers more of them in detail. Admissions processes that were once relatively undemanding were loaded up with questions about parental origins as well as the requirement that one include a photo, all intended to screen for Jewishness. The college interview, now ordinary for the Ivies, began as part of the same screening strategy. In 1928, Columbia University — located, of course, in Manhattan — established a special Brooklyn branch called Seth Low Junior College, intended to maintain a separate locus for Jewish students.
Today, increasing diversity may mean giving preferential treatment to some Black and Latino students who otherwise might not qualify for admission. And this practice, whether intended or not, has had the effect at Harvard — which, in a 2013 internal investigation, was found to display bias against Asian American applicants — of artificially keeping down the number of students of Asian descent. (Lest anyone think I’ve forgotten about legacy admissions, I’ll just note that I’ve said before in this newsletter that we should do away with the forms of affirmative action that tend to benefit rich white students, too.)
Of course, no one explicitly says Harvard has too many Asians, but the parallel between old-school justifications for keeping a student body from being too Jewish and a process that keeps it from being too Asian are discomfiting. According to the plaintiffs’ data, Asian American applicants were 25 percent more likely than whites to be rated, dismissively, as “standard strong,” meaning that they’re academically excellent but merely in a garden variety way for Harvard applicants. They were also shown to be rated by admissions officers as less personable than applicants of other races with similar applications. This is alarmingly close to the kinds of prejudices held about Jewish students in the old days. Harvard itself documented in an internal study in 2013 that the undergraduate student body would be 43 percent Asian using academic scores and rankings alone, as opposed to the 19 percent that they constituted at the time.
There’s no reason to suppose that the reason for these sneaky biases in the admissions system is bigotry against Asians. Rather, the idea is to demonstrate a lack of bigotry against Black and Latino students, to justify it with the claim that diversity enhances the educational experience of all students and to achieve it by artificially keeping Asian numbers down while hoping they go quietly along with the program.
But despite this supposedly beneficent motivation, students of Asian descent have every right to feel discriminated against and to challenge an admissions policy that makes it such that achievement by an Asian kid is valued less than the same or perhaps lesser achievement by a Black, Latino or, for that matter, white kid.
And again, even without this unfair burdening of Asian American applicants, the idea that diversity crucially enhances education is fragile. Certainly, diversity has benefits: Classroom discussions of societal issues can be enriched by a variety of life experiences. But those benefits cover only a sliver of what college work consists of. Diversity won’t impart Spanish’s irregular verbs. It won’t help much with the basics of Econ 101.
Deep down, I suspect we all know that it would be quite possible for students to get a sterling education at a university where every student was a white person from Colorado. Few graduates would muse that their education was incomplete because there were no kids from the Northeast or the South around. Any benefit would be auxiliary at best, not worth founding an admissions policy upon.
Yet many will say that if we stop evaluating students in part on race, we abandon social justice. Do we, though? I think that in the 2020s we should maintain a social justice mission in admissions, but base it on socioeconomics. Yes, that would mean middle- and upper-class Black and Latino students would no longer get special consideration. But on that, we must question the tacit, Jesse Jackson-esque “Yale or jail” assumption in much of the discussion of racial preferences, which sometimes implies that students not admitted to one of a few tippy-top schools are somehow seriously hobbled from achieving career success.
A 2012 study co-authored by the Duke University economist Peter Arcidiacono (who is participating in the suit against Harvard as an expert witness for the plaintiffs) suggests that Black students placed in schools to which their grades and test scores might not ordinarily gain them admission who initially choose to pursue majors in engineering, natural sciences, or economics are less likely to graduate in those majors. The implication, then, is that they would have successfully completed those subjects at a still respected but less competitive school. Other studies have suggested similar phenomena in law school and medical school.
To be sure, without racial preferences, the number of Black and Latino students at selective universities does go down. However, it does not eclipse. And there’s no tragedy in Black and Latino students attending other excellent if somewhat less selective schools. Theodore Shaw, a U.N.C. School of Law professor and the director of U.N.C.’s Center for Civil Rights, warns that eliminating racial preferences would have “severe” effects on Black and Latino students’ opportunities. But this seems to imply that students at schools other than the most selective ones are significantly hindered from attaining meaningful education, training, career opportunities and connections. The dedicated and talented people who teach at and staff such universities would be surprised to hear this.
Racial preference in university admissions was an admirable experiment in the era that immediately followed the civil rights advances of the 1960s and ’70s, when a much larger proportion of Black America lived in poverty and legal segregation was a recent memory. But there will always be those who question, with good reason, whether their effort should count for less than the same effort from someone else in deference to matters of history they did not experience. One need not be a bigot to feel that way.
Racial preferences should now be thought of like chemotherapy, a cure that can cause side effects that should be applied judiciously. We’ve applied the cure long past that point, and have drifted toward an almost liturgical conception of diversity that makes less sense by the year.
In a 2003 Supreme Court ruling, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, writing for the majority, said, “we expect that 25 years from now, the use of racial preferences” in the university admissions context “will no longer be necessary.” That was considered resonantly wise at the time. But now we have only about six years to go. Folks, it’s time.
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John McWhorter (@JohnHMcWhorter) is an associate professor of linguistics at Columbia University. He hosts the podcast “Lexicon Valley” and is the author, most recently, of “Woke Racism: How a New Religion Has Betrayed Black America.”