Politics & Policy

Sumo Nonsense

The new "Yellow Peril."

A hundred years ago, there was talk of a “yellow peril” because of Chinese and Japanese immigration to the United States in general and to California in particular. Today, there are echoes of that notion in a front-page headline on the education section of the January 7 New York Times.

“At 41 percent Asian, Berkeley could be the new face of merit-based admissions. The problem for everybody else: lots less room at elite colleges.”

Anybody of any race who takes a place at any college leaves one less place for somebody else. Does an Asian American take up any more space than anybody else? Are they all Sumo wrestlers?

This hand-wringing about too many Asians is an echo of the past in another painful way. Back in the early 20th century, various elite colleges decided that there were “too many Jews” applying and set quotas to restrict the number of Jewish students admitted.

One of the institutions that did not do this was the College of the City of New York, which admitted students according to their academic qualifications. Jewish students seemed to be an even higher percentage of the students at CCNY then than Asian students are today at Berkeley.

Because CCNY was both free and a high-quality academic institution, it became known as “the poor man’s Harvard.”

That was then. Today, CCNY has long since succumbed to the siren song of “inclusion” and flung its doors open to all and sundry, with no old-fashioned notions of academic qualifications. No one calls it a poor man’s Harvard any more. Few would even call it adequate.

In the long and rambling New York Times article about Berkeley — titled “Little Asia on the Hill” — there is lots of space devoted to racial representation among the student body and remarkably little mention of qualifications and achievement. You might never guess that a university has purposes other than presenting a demographic profile that is politically correct.

In addition to such omissions, there is also misinformation. For example: “In California, the rise of the Asian campus, of the strict meritocracy, has come at the expense of historically underrepresented blacks and Hispanics.”

There have been more black students in the University of California system than there were before affirmative action was outlawed. Black students have not been denied a college education. They have been redistributed within the University of California system, with fewer going to Berkeley and more going to Santa Barbara, Santa Cruz and other institutions within the same system.

Something similar has happened within the University of Texas system after affirmative action was outlawed. Fewer black students went to the flagship campus at Austin but more went to the University of Texas system as a whole.

Back in the days when affirmative action or racial quotas were in full force, most black students admitted to Berkeley never graduated. Nor was Berkeley unique in that respect.

Critics of affirmative action have been saying for decades that putting black students in institutions where they are overmatched academically reduces their chances of graduating. This creates a wholly unnecessary problem, when most of those same black students would have far better chances of keeping up and graduating at other institutions where the rest of the students have similar academic qualifications.

The sheer speed at which material is taught can make it nearly impossible to keep up when the pace is geared to students with far higher SAT scores in math and English — even though students with lower scores may be perfectly capable of learning the same material when taught at a more moderate pace.

What has happened to graduation rates of black students after being redistributed within the University of California system? Those who have asked that question have been denied the information. And of course the New York Times reporter does not even discuss such things.

Asians are no menace to blacks. They could serve as an example to blacks, as Bill Cosby once suggested. He told some black students: “They always get A’s. That’s why they call them Asians.”


Thomas SowellThomas Sowell is an American economist, social theorist, political philosopher, and author, whose books include Basic Economics. He is currently senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University.


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