Our universities today are full of Spanish and Latin American elite academics, whose accented last names have allowed them to piggy-back onto the Mexican-American experience. Africans and Caribbeans can claim victimized affinities to American-born blacks, a leap that supposedly translates into an instant shared heritage of centuries of suffering in America and thus the need for redress. If Barack Obama — the son of two academics and himself a middle-class prep-schooler — qualified for affirmative action at Occidental, Columbia, or Harvard, it was apparently only on the logic that he was to the eye indistinguishable from American blacks, and therefore he must have suffered ongoing racial prejudice in the 1970s and 1980s that deserved official redress. Yet it is hard to accept that the racial bias of 1990 was analogous to that of 1965, or that it always trumps other considerations of culture and habit. But to keep this obsession with racial pedigrees going, either we will have to become entirely cynical and allow that the affluent suburbanite with the Cherokee grandmother really is “Native American,” or we will have to establish clear-cut blood laws and hire federal genealogists. And to apply economic litmus tests for affirmative action is taboo: for to admit that many minorities do well in America and do not need preferences is to suggest that race itself does not predetermine one’s fate.2. Who was victimized?
The industry could never quite decide what constituted grounds for favoritism. In 1970, African-Americans might legitimately make the claim that the heritage of slavery and Jim Crow, and ongoing prejudice north of the Mason-Dixon line, made their struggle for equality almost impossible without government help. But do second-generation dark-skinned Pakistanis, first-generation immigrants from Barbados, or Palestinians on student visas qualify for government preferences? In racial terms, one group can be darker than another, and receive no help: but if an Egyptian is not a beneficiary of affirmative action, does that mean racial prejudice no longer exists? Is it the supposed present or past bias that counts — or both? Does an illegal alien of 17 — a Mexican national named Raúl Martínez, who crossed the border in 2009 — qualify on the basis that he looks like a Mexican-American and has an Hispanic surname — and thus can plead that traditional discrimination against Mexican-Americans was immediately turned against him, and to such a degree that he needs government preference? Again, any discussion of culture also became forbidden, as race trumped all: Did racial prejudice alone, rather than patterns of marriage, child-raising, and parental involvement, result in differing rates of success between Korean-Americans and African-Americans? Why on a per capita basis are Punjabi immigrants or Armenian-Americans wealthier than whites of Dust Bowl heritages in Tulare County, given that the latter supposedly enjoy insidious advantages based on their race?
3. Who needs help? There was always the sneaking suspicion that affirmative action was based not just on historical claims but on present performance levels — or at least sort of. In theory, Chinese-Americans or Japanese-Americans could claim a toxic collective prejudice that matches anything turned against blacks, Native Americans, or Mexican-Americans, given immigration exclusion laws, zoning prejudices, and internment. But at some magical moment, suddenly “Asian” was no longer grounds for redress, but rather a reason for discrimination. We see this clearly in the University of California system, and especially at the flagship Berkeley campus, where the GPA and SAT scores of Asian students have to be higher than those of their black or Hispanic counterparts for them to gain admission.
As “affirmative action” transmogrified into “diversity,” and Asians became “overrepresented” on some campuses, universities stealthily began discriminating against them — almost as if to say, “Yes, your Japanese grandmother was put into a camp during World War II, but obviously that trauma, or lingering anti-Asian discrimination, did not haunt you at all, given your 4.0 GPA and your 1,500 SAT score, so therefore we see no need to offer you an advantage.” Or is it worse still?: “Obviously such past bias not only did not hurt you but also did not hurt thousands like you, who outperform others and therefore must be collectively curtailed in order to allow space for others.” But note here that success must be collective: The children of elite suburban African-Americans and Mexican-Americans still do benefit from affirmative action, on the logic that the barrio and the ghetto are still with us in a manner that sweatshops and internment camps are not.